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Virginia Tech (9-3) will be looking for a fourth consecutive bowl win against Oklahoma State (9-3) in the Camping World Bowl on Thursday evening.
The Hokies defeated Cincinnati 33-17 in the Military Bowl in 2015 and knocked off Tulsa 55-52 in the 2016 Independence Bowl in Frank Beamer’s last game. Tech overcame a 24-0 halftime deficit to defeat Arkansas 35-24 in last year’s 2017 Belk Bowl. If they can manage to defeat Oklahoma State in Orlando, they’ll have won four straight bowl games for the first time in school history.
Thursday’s game will be a contrast in styles. The Cowboys are a prolific passing team that puts up a ton of points, while also allowing quite a lot of points. Meanwhile, the Hokies are playing a lot of freshmen on an offense that is already banged up, and they’ll be without senior wide receiver Cam Phillips, yet they can rely on a very good defense and dominant special teams.
The key advanced stats display how different these two teams are from each other.
Oklahoma State S&P+ Offense: No. 4
Oklahoma State S&P+ Defense: No. 70
Oklahoma State FEI Special Teams: No. 124
Virginia Tech S&P+ Offense: No. 99
Virginia Tech S&P+ Defense: No. 6
Virginia Tech FEI Special Teams: No. 8
This is a compelling bowl matchup from a statistical standpoint. However, from an injury standpoint, the Hokies are a much different team than they were in the middle of the season. Injuries to critical players such as Cam Phillips, Josh Jackson, Yosuah Nijman, Mook Reynolds, Terrell Edmunds, Trevon Hill, Vinny Mihota and Sean Savoy have completely changed the look and the feel of this team. In late September, we all thought this team’s best football was ahead of it. Instead, they’ve limped to the finish line.
Tech has had a chance to get healthy since the regular season ended, but there’s still nothing they can do about season-ending injuries to guys like Nijman, Phillips and Mihota. It remains to be seen how much healthier Josh Jackson is now than he was at the end of the season, or whether that will even matter with Phillips out.
This preview will focus on the Oklahoma State offense, their strengths (balance and passing game), and their weakness (an immobile quarterback). We’ll also cover Virginia Tech’s huge advantage over the Cowboys on special teams and include a quick statistical look at the Oklahoma State defense.
Virginia Tech’s Greatest Offensive Challenge of the Season
There’s no question that the Hokies will face their greatest offensive challenge of the season on Thursday. In fact, though many will not want to hear this, the Tech defense hasn’t faced much competition this season. Here are the S&P+ rankings for each offense the Hokies have faced…
West Virginia: No. 17
East Carolina: No. 54
Old Dominion: No. 122
Clemson: No. 35
Boston College: No. 95
North Carolina: No. 83
Duke: No. 93
Miami: No. 39
Georgia Tech: No. 61
Pitt: No. 75
UVA: No. 101
The Hokies only faced three offenses in the top 40 all season, and they failed to hold all three of those teams under 28 points. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State ranks No. 4 in the S&P+ offensive rankings and while it’s true that the Big 12 doesn’t play great defense, the Cowboys dropped 59 points and 676 yards on the road against a Pitt team that Tech could only score 20 points against.
On the other hand, Virginia Tech’s defense represents the great challenge the Oklahoma State offense has faced this year. Here’s where the Cowboys’ opponents rank in S&P+ defense…
Tulsa: No. 128
South Alabama: No. 57
Pitt: No. 72
TCU: No. 14
Texas Tech: No. 82
Baylor: No. 110
Texas: No. 26
WVU: No. 104
Oklahoma: No. 95
Iowa State: No. 31
Kansas State: No. 78
Kansas: No. 105
Virginia Tech: No. 6
Obviously not much defense gets played in the Big 12, and Virginia Tech will present a challenge that the Cowboys haven’t faced since earlier games against TCU and Texas.
Oklahoma State’s offensive dominance mostly revolves around their terrific passing game, though their running game is good enough to provide balance, as we’ll get into later. As far as the passing game goes, the Cowboys have two of the most dominant players in college football in quarterback Mason Rudolph (6-foot-5, 230 pounds, Sr.) and wide receiver James Washington (6-feet, 205 pounds, Sr.). Washington won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best wide receiver, while Rudolph won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award as the nation’s best senior quarterback.
Both players have put up big time numbers this season…
Rudolph: 297-of-457 (65 percent) for 4,553 yards, 35 touchdowns, nine interceptions, 170.0 efficiency rating
Washington: 69 catches, 1,423 yards, 20.6 ypc, 12 touchdowns
Not only are those two guys dominant college players, but they are also both considered excellent NFL prospects. They are both expected to be picked in the first three rounds, and it’s also possible that they could both be off the board by the early second round. The Hokies will have their hands full with those two experienced seniors.
Of course, those aren’t the only two weapons that Oklahoma State possesses. In fact, the Cowboys have another 1,000 yard receiver that doesn’t even get talked about, thanks to the presence of James Washington. Marcell Ateman (6-foot-4, 220 pounds, r-Sr.) caught 54 passes for 1,049 yards and eight touchdowns this season. He’s the biggest of the Oklahoma State receivers, and right now he is expected to be a mid-round selection in the NFL Draft.
Virginia Tech’s defense will face its greatest challenge of the season when they have to deal with Rudolph, Washington and Ateman. However, it’s also true that that trio of Cowboys will have their biggest challenge of the season when they face Virginia Tech’s impressive duo of cornerbacks in Greg Stroman and Brandon Facyson. Statistically, Stroman was the best cornerback in the country this season. Opposing quarterbacks completed just nine passes in the 41 times they targeted Stroman this year, which comes out to 22 percent. Here’s the graphic from Pro Football Focus that backs that up…
Meanwhile, Facyson only had 16 tackles in 12 games this season, indicating that teams had very little luck targeting him, though he wasn’t quite as dominant as Stroman.
I think Virginia Tech’s corners will play well on the outside, but the middle of the field concerns me. That’s where the Hokies have been weak all year, and by the end of the season Bud Foster was down to his fourth free safety. I expect Mook Reynolds to play free safety in the Camping World Bowl, though I don’t know that he’ll be a 100 percent. He’s better suited for the nickel spot anyway. If Reynolds plays free safety, that means Deon Newsome will get the start at nickel, and I’m not sure how he’ll hold up against a high-powered passing attack.
I can see Tech’s passing defense playing well on the whole in this game, but can also see them busting a couple of coverages on deep routes over the middle, leading to a couple of long Oklahoma State touchdowns.
A Solid Running Game Leads to a Balanced Offense
Oklahoma State has a 1,000 yard rusher to complement their impressive passing game. In fact, the Cowboys average 183.3 yards per game on the ground, and rank 38th nationally in rushing S&P+. Here’s a look at the two key performers…
Justice Hill (5-foot-10, 185 pounds, So.): 245 carries, 1,347 yards, 5.5 ypc, 14 touchdowns
JD King (5-foot-11, 205 pounds, Fr.): 97 carries, 466 yards, 4.8 ypc, four touchdowns
As much press as the Oklahoma State passing game attracts from a national media, it’s perhaps even more important that Virginia Tech slow down the Oklahoma State running game. If the Cowboys show that they can be balanced against the Hokies, it will make for a long evening in Orlando. Tech needs to keep Rudolph and that passing game in long-yardage situations.
Non-Mobile Quarterback Gives Hokies a Shot
I’ve written about this often over the last couple of months, so I won’t go into great detail here. I’ll just copy and paste a paragraph from a previous article…
“In Virginia Tech’s seven losses under Justin Fuente, opposing quarterbacks have averaged 20 carries for 94 yards. In Tech’s 19 wins under Fuente, they have averaged 11 carries for just under 21 yards. I can’t stress enough how important a mobile quarterback has been for opposing offenses over the past two seasons. The last time the Hokies lost to an immobile quarterback was in October of 2015 in a 30-20 loss to Miami, and even that loss was arguably because of four turnovers from the VT offense more so than the Tech defense.”
Mason Rudolph ran for 29 yards on 56 carries this season. He did score 10 touchdowns this year, showing that the Oklahoma State staff was willing to use his size on the goal line. However, 21 of those 56 carries were sacks, which means Rudolph was used on a designed run fewer than three times per game. He’s just not an effective enough runner for his legs to be a big part of the Cowboy game plan.
That bodes well for Bud Foster and the Virginia Tech defense.
The Oklahoma State Defense: Big Plays Aplenty
Oklahoma State ranks No. 70 in S&P+ defense, and believe it or not that is one of the better units in the Big 12. Here are some of the key numbers…
S&P+: No. 70
Success Rate: No. 34
Explosive Plays: No. 100
Finishing Drives: No. 78
Rushing S&P+: No. 23
Rushing Success Rate: No. 24
Rushing Explosive Plays: No. 57
Passing S&P+: No. 37
Passing Success Rate: No. 58
Passing Explosive Plays: No. 99
The Cowboy defense has a habit of allowing big plays, particularly through the air. Take a look at the overall number of big plays they’ve allowed this year…
10-plus yards: 177, No. 82 nationally
20-plus yards: 57, No. 69 nationally
30-plus yards: 27, No. 76 nationally
40-plus yards: 17, No. 84 nationally
50-plus yards: 10, No. 92 nationally
Unfortunately for the Hokies, they rank near the bottom of college football in the ability to generate big plays offensively. Tech is No. 103 nationally in offensive IsoPPP, which is a metric that measures big play ability. So while the Cowboys have been susceptible to big plays this season, it’s questionable whether the Hokies will be able to exploit that weakness, especially with Cam Phillips out.
Special Teams: A Big Advantage for Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech holds a tremendous advantage on special teams. Oklahoma State does not employ a dedicated special teams coach, with head coach Mike Gundy technically overseeing special teams. However, Gundy’s true focus is on offense, and the result is that the Cowboys have been loathsome on special teams all season.
Check out their special teams FEI rankings…
Field Goal Efficiency: No. 69
Kick Return Efficiency: No. 111
Kickoff Efficiency: No. 66
Punt Return Efficiency: No. 122
Punt Efficiency: No. 112
Overall Special Teams Efficiency: No. 124
Compare that to Virginia Tech’s numbers…
Field Goal Efficiency: No. 88
Kick Return Efficiency: No. 26
Kickoff Efficiency: No. 42
Punt Return Efficiency: No. 8
Punt Efficiency: No. 42
Overall Special Teams efficiency: No. 8
The Hokies rank second in the country in the difference between the average starting field position of their own offense, and the average starting field position of the opposing offense. They were able to use that to their advantage against West Virginia earlier this season, and they must do so again if they want to beat an even better Oklahoma State team.
I’ll be keeping an eye on Greg Stroman in particular. He had an excellent year returning punts for the Hokies, and Oklahoma State ranked No. 112 nationally in punt efficiency.
Final Thoughts and Predictions
I think I see a pretty clear path to a Virginia Tech victory in this game. To win the game, the Hokies need to do all or most of the following things…
- Run the football effectively to keep the Oklahoma State offense on the sideline
- Win the special teams/hidden yardage battle
- Make Oklahoma State one-dimensional offensively
- Hold Oklahoma State to under 30 points
- Win the turnover battle
In other words, to win this game, the Hokies need to have a similar performance to their victory over West Virginia. It’s good that the blueprint is already there to study. However, there are a couple of problems…
- Oklahoma State is better than West Virginia.
- Thanks in part to injuries, the Hokies aren’t as good as they were back on Sept. 3.
Knowing how to beat Oklahoma State is one thing. Being able to do it is entirely different. With Cam Phillips out and so many other injuries spread throughout the team, I just can’t see the Hokies keeping up with the Cowboys. Oklahoma State is healthier and more experienced. The Tech defense could play a good game and still allow 30 points, and I just don’t see the Tech offense being able to score that many.
Virginia Tech has failed to score 30 points in seven of its last eight games. They’ve failed to score more than 22 points in each of their last four games. In fact, check out VT’s touchdown drives dating back to the Miami game…
TD No. 1, Miami: 5 plays, 17 yards, set up by an interception
TD No. 2, GT: 1 play, 29 yards, set up by a 70-yard kickoff return
TD No. 3, GT: 12 plays, 74 yards
TD No. 4, GT: 24 yard interception return for a touchdown
TD No. 5, Pitt: 10 plays, 75 yards
TD No. 6, Pitt: 5 plays, 40 yards, set up by an interception
TD No. 7, UVA: 4 plays, 40 yards, set up by a fumble
The Hokies have only had two touchdown drives of more than 40 yards in their last four games. Five of their seven touchdowns in those four games were either scored off an interception return, or set up by a turnover or a long kickoff return. This is not an offense that has shown any ability to drive the length of the field, and they’ll be facing a team that is averaging over 46 points per game. Texas held the Cowboys to 13 points, but they’ve scored 31 or more against everybody else, and they’ve scored 40 or more points in 10 of their 12 games.
Big 12 defenses aren’t very good, but there’s no denying that Oklahoma State’s offense is legit. I think Tech’s defense will play a good game, and I think things will be pretty competitive, but I just don’t see how the Hokies can keep up over the course of four quarters.
Chris’ Prediction: Oklahoma State 34, Virginia Tech 24
Will Stewart’s Take: Bowl games are a funny thing. As I’ve said before, they’re like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates — you never know what you’re gonna git.
Yes, the Hokies are literally limping to the finish line in this one, and key players are out. Yes, the Oklahoma State offense has put up some scary numbers, and they have some high-level experienced talent in the passing game and some good young talent in the running game.
For Virginia Tech to be successful, I think they’re going to have to disrupt the Oklahoma State offense with stellar play from the defensive tackles, and blow everything up from the middle out. Stuff the running game with penetration from the defensive tackles (with Tremaine Edmunds finishing things off), and make it hard for Mason Rudolph to step into his throws in the passing game. It’s going to take an effort reminiscent of Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley disrupting Oregon’s high-powered offense in the 2010 BCS Championship Game.
Tim Settle and Ricky Walker are capable of doing that … but for how long? Settle and Walker were noticeably gassed at the end of the season opener against WVU, when the Mountaineers ran 89 offensive plays in one night.
From that point, Settle and Walker played major snaps, but Hokie opponents only averaged 60.6 plays per game after WVU, and no Hokie opponent ran more than 66 plays.
Oklahoma State averaged 78.6 plays per game this season, and they ran 80-plus plays in six of their 12 games. Granted, some of that was in fast-paced Big 12 games. (They ran 90 plays against similarly-paced WVU, for example.)
But to keep this one within range and to win, the Hokies are going to have to control the pace, control field position, and keep the OK State offense off the field and in the range of 70 plays or fewer. I think if the Hokies do that, it means they’re doing a lot of other things well, and they’ve got a shot.
But if Oklahoma State gets rolling on offense, they might wear Virginia Tech out.
Back to my original point — you never really know how bowl games are going to go. You never really know which team cares more, which team has prepared the best, and which team might be mailing it in. The long layoff and player/coach focus creates a huge X-factor that is different from the regular season. Not to mention that the early Dec. 20 signing period is a new thing that some staffs might not have handled well. (For the record, Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy called it “the best thing that’s ever happened to college football,” so he’s a big fan.)
When I predict games, I predict likely outcomes, with all the X-factors removed, based on talent, injuries, and matchups.
Will’s Prediction: Oklahoma State 34, Virginia Tech 17
Ricky LaBlue’s Take: With the new year on the horizon, millions of people across the country are brainstorming resolutions for more success and wellness in the new year.
For me, my resolution is to trust my gut more when picking Virginia Tech’s games. You can look at all of the numbers you want, but sometimes you just have to pick games on feel.
My gut is telling me that despite Oklahoma State’s weak defense and poor special teams, Virginia Tech has very little chance to win this game.
Think about it — senior receiver Cam Phillips, who played the entire season with a sports hernia, is not going to play in this game. Tech’s next two receivers, Sean Savoy and Eric Kumah, haven’t matched Phillips’ production all season, even when you combine their stats. Tech’s offense simply doesn’t have the firepower to keep up with Oklahoma State in this game, even if defensive coordinator Bud Foster can whip up some magic.
The Cowboys have one of the most talented and explosive offenses in the country, and Tech’s defense is beat up as it is. By no means do I believe Virginia Tech will get run off the field, because I think Tech can hang around. But when push comes to shove, Oklahoma State will pull away late as Tech’s stagnant offense fails to bail out their defense. Virginia Tech will fall short of the 10-win mark, but it will be a successful season nonetheless.
However, if Tech wins this game, it will be their most impressive victory of Justin Fuente’s short tenure in Blacksburg.
Ricky’s Prediction: Oklahoma State 31, Virginia Tech 17