Oklahoma State’s offense will be the best that Virginia Tech has faced all season.
Yes, the Cowboys’ high-octane offense is that good. Oklahoma State ranks third in the FBS in scoring offense at 46.3 points per game. Their passing attack leads the FBS at 392.3 yards per game, thanks to one of the best passing-receiving combos in the country. Quarterback Mason Rudolph has been fantastic in 2017, throwing for 35 touchdowns and just nine interceptions.
Of course, defensive coordinator Bud Foster and Virginia Tech already have some familiarity with Rudolph. The Hokies offered and recruited the South Carolina-native for the Class of 2014, but fell short in his recruitment.
“He’s big, got a live arm, really accurate,” Foster said of Rudolph. “He’s strong, he’ll stand in the pocket and against a rush. But I think the NFL guys will like him a lot because he’s in that 6-4, 6-5 range and he’s a drop-back guy. He doesn’t run a lot. Not that he can’t, but he doesn’t do that, but he delivers the ball extremely well.”
Rudolph has been aided by one of the most explosive receiving corps in the country. Biletnikoff Award winner James Washington finished the 2017 regular season with 69 receptions for an astronomical 1,423 yards and 12 touchdowns. His battery mate, Marcell Ateman, caught 54 passes for 1,049 yards and eight touchdowns. Virginia Tech has seen great receivers this season, including West Virginia’s David Sills V, but Washington will be the most productive Foster has encountered.
“Yeah, he’s a dynamic football player. He’s one of many though on that side of the ball that they have,” Foster said of Washington. “(Ateman), he’s equally as talented. He’s a little bit taller. They’re a two-headed monster from that standpoint as a receiving corps, and they’ve got a couple of other guys that are pretty good as well. But yeah, a dynamic football player, great speed, competitor. I’ve been impressed by (Washington), I’ve been impressed by their skill kids particularly all the way across the board.”
As good as Oklahoma State has been throwing the football, Virginia Tech has been nearly as good at defending it. The Hokies rank 21st in passing yards allowed per game, and lead the nation in opposing completion percentage at 46.9 percent. However, the Virginia Tech defense has struggled to stop big plays. They’ve allowed 40 pass plays of 20 yards or more, and are 114th in the FBS in defensive IsoPPP, which measures a defense’s ability to stop big plays.
Oklahoma State’s pace of play will be another factor in the Camping World Bowl on Dec. 28. The ‘Pokes’ offensive pace is easily one of the highest in the nation, given that they’ve run more than 80 plays six different times this season. Their pace is similar to that of West Virginia, who wore down the Hokies’ defense in the second half.
“It’s like anything else. In the first half, it wasn’t an issue,” said head coach Justin Fuente. “We were getting off the field, we were stopping them. In the second half, it was a little more of an issue and they were executing at a little bit of a higher level. So, you could put a stop to that by how you play. The cumulative effect is large. I thought in the first half of the West Virginia game, the defense was playing really well and getting off the field, but our offense was not staying on the field. And then it was literally reversed in the second half. I just think it’s going to take a complete effort to handle all of it. The offense is going to have to do a good job of staying on the field, because the cumulative effect is where it gets you. It gets you in the fourth quarter, if you haven’t held the ball a little bit more.”
Fortunately for Virginia Tech, they have three reliable corners to help neutralize Oklahoma State’s passing game. Both Greg Stroman and Brandon Facyson have been consistent impact players all season long, and Adonis Alexander has contributed off the bench.
Stroman and Facyson have been stellar. Stroman has been great at defending receivers, allowing a completion percentage of 22 percent on throws into his coverage. Per Pro Football Focus, that’s the lowest catch rate among FBS cornerbacks all season. He’s also intercepted four passes. Facyson hasn’t been thrown at much this season, but hasn’t allowed many completions his way either.
Having two mature lockdown corners like Stroman and Facyson allows Foster to breathe a little easier when gameplanning to stop Oklahoma State’s passing offense.
“It gives me a little bit of a comfort zone,” Foster said. “The game today is so much about matchups. You look at it in the NFL and it’s the same way. If they can exploit a matchup offensively, they will attack that, and that’s one thing that we luckily have been able to do over the years, is put those kind of athletes on the field that allowed us to do some different things, and be comfortable so to speak. Now, they’re put on an island a lot, but that goes back to their skill set, their competitiveness.
“Having five guys, at least four, that are out there covering their four, then you’ve got to put your linebackers on their back, that’s critical. Yeah, we can have those kind of matchups. That’s what we need. If not, they’re going to throw the ball around the yard against you.”