Virginia Tech Faces Duke in Big ACC Matchup

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Virginia Tech will face Duke Saturday night in Durham. (Photo by Ivan Morozov)

No. 24 Virginia Tech will look to put their loss to Old Dominion behind them when they travel to Durham to take on the No. 23 Duke Blue Devils this Saturday night at 7pm on ESPN2.

Virginia Tech (2-1, 1-0) comes into this game off the shocking loss to Old Dominion.  Meanwhile, Duke is 4-0 despite losing starting quarterback Daniel Jones to injury in their 21-7 victory at Northwestern, and this is arguably David Cutcliffe’s best team. 

Here are Duke’s results thus far…

34-14 W vs. Army: Army won 10 games last year and beat Duke.  This is probably the best win of the season for the Blue Devils.  Army gave Oklahoma a very tough battle last week before falling 28-21 in overtime.

21-7 W at Northwestern:  Northwestern won 10 games last year, so this seemed like a good win, and still could be.  However, in the only game they’ve played since the Duke loss, the Wildcats lost at home to Akron.

40-27 W at Baylor: Baylor is 3-1 on the year, but they haven’t played anyone.  This may or may not prove to be a decent win.  The Bears went 1-11 last season.

55-13 W vs. NC Central: The Blue Devils took care of business at home last week.

Duke is a confident football team right now, and they’ll be looking to get off to a good start in ACC play.  Meanwhile, the Hokies can right the ship and begin 2-0 in the ACC, with both conference wins coming on the road. 

By The Numbers

Let’s go over some of the key advanced stats as we head into this game.  I’m not going to explain all of the different stats.  That’s an article in itself (which I’ll write this coming week).  Instead, I’ll link you to the document where I got the numbers, and the glossary that explains all of the categories.   We’ll start with the Tech defense…

Rushing Marginal Efficiency: No. 13
Rushing Marginal Explosiveness: No. 127
Opportunity rate: No. 5
Stuff rate: No. 5
Passing Marginal Efficiency: No. 92
Passing Marginal Explosiveness: No. 123
Passing Completion Rate: No. 82
Sack Rate: No. 35

Tech’s run defense has been good, with the exception of one Cam Akers run and the fourth quarter against ODU.  However, their pass defense has struggled in every way possible. Not only have they given up the big play, but they haven’t been good in the short-to-intermediate game, either.  Here’s how Duke’s offense stacks up…

Rushing Marginal Efficiency: No. 69
Rushing Marginal Explosiveness: No. 47
Opportunity rate: No. 76
Stuff rate: No. 62
Passing Marginal Efficiency: No. 67
Passing Marginal Explosiveness: No. 22
Passing Completion Rate: No. 88
Sack Rate: No. 40

Duke’s offense hasn’t been particularly good numbers-wise, but they aren’t bad either.  Like almost anybody else, they need to be balanced to have the most success, and that’s what they’ll try to accomplish against the Hokies on Saturday night.

Now, let’s look at the Duke defense vs. the VT offense.  First, Duke’s defensive numbers…

Rushing Marginal Efficiency: No. 82
Rushing Marginal Explosiveness: No. 41
Opportunity rate: No. 91
Stuff rate: No. 76
Passing Marginal Efficiency: No. 38
Passing Marginal Explosiveness: No. 35
Passing Completion Rate: No. 15
Sack Rate: No. 75

I expected better numbers against the run.  Considering the youth in their secondary (more on that later), I’m surprised their pass defense numbers are so good.  However, they did play Army, who doesn’t throw the football, to begin the season.  Here’s how Tech’s offense stacks up…

Rushing Marginal Efficiency: No. 10
Rushing Marginal Explosiveness: No. 51
Opportunity rate: No. 17
Stuff rate: No. 24
Passing Marginal Efficiency: No. 28
Passing Marginal Explosiveness: No. 14
Passing Completion Rate: No. 78
Sack Rate: No. 97

On the whole, the Tech offense has been good this year.  They have been much improved in explosive plays, and just about every efficiency rating has gone up.  However, we must take that with a grain of salt, as they overmatched the defenses of William & Mary and ODU in talent.

The big concern for the Hokies is sack rate on passing downs.

Sack rate on standard downs: No. 64
Sack rate on passing downs: No. 119

Tech’s sack rate on standard downs is average, but it’s one of the worst in the country on passing downs.  The Hokies need to stay ahead of the chains and limit those long yardage situations.  We’ll have more in an advanced stats article next week.

TJ Rahming had a critical fumble against the Hokies last year, but he’s had a good career for the Blue Devils. (Photo by Ivan Morozov)

Experienced Receivers vs. Inexperienced Defensive Backs

Assuming that the Hokies will get Divine Deablo back this week, here’s what their projected starting secondary will look like.

CB: Caleb Farley, 6-2, 202, r-Fr.
CB: Bryce Watts, 6-0, 177, So.
FS: Divine Deablo, 6-3, 220, r-So.
ROV: Reggie Floyd, 6-0, 222, Jr.
Whip: Khalil Ladler, 5-11, 192, r-So.

That’s a lot of youth, which we already knew.  Now let’s compare it to Duke’s top six receivers (including tight ends).

WR: TJ Rahming (5-10, 170, Sr.)
WR: Johnathan Lloyd (6-0, 190, r-Sr.)
WR: Chris Taylor (6-1, 185, r-Sr.)
TE Daniel Helm (6-4, 255, r-Sr.)
TE Davis Koppenhaver (6-4, 240, r-Sr.)
WR Aaron Young (6-2, 205, r-Jr.)

That’s a lot of experience against a lot of inexperience.  In those terms, this is perhaps Virginia Tech’s toughest matchup of the season, and it’s a far cry from the season opener when five of Florida State’s top seven receivers were redshirt freshmen or true freshmen.

In fact, Duke only has two true freshmen in their entire two-deep: backup right tackle Casey Holman, and backup defensive tackle Tahj Rice, though Rice is actually listed third string.  The Blue Devils have an older, experienced team, which means they don’t have to throw a lot of true freshmen on the team before they are ready.  That’s not the case with Virginia Tech this year.

The player to watch is senior TJ Rahming, who has had an excellent career in Durham.  Here are his career numbers…

2015: 40 catches, 571 yards, 13.3 ypc, 2 TDs
2016: 70 catches, 742 yards, 10.6 ypc, 1 TD
2017: 75 catches, 795 yards, 12.2 ypc, 2 TDs
2018: 17 catches, 158 yards, 9.3 ypc, 3 TDs

Those are excellent numbers, and before this season, you may have felt bad for Rahming.  He caught a ton of passes, but he was rewarded with just five career touchdowns, and never more than two in a season.  This year he has three touchdowns on just 17 catches.

Duke’s Passing Completion: Below 50%

Duke quarterback Quentin Harris is completing fewer than 50% of his passes this season.  Here are his game-by-game numbers…

Northwestern: 2-of-2, 12 yards, 2 sacks, 5 carries for 14 yards
Baylor: 12-of-30, 174 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs, 0 sacks, 14 carries for 83 yards
NC Central: 15-of-27, 202 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs, 0 sacks, 5 carries for 34  yards

Harris has done a great job of hitting big plays, and he’s been outstanding at protecting the football.  However, he’s not the most natural passer when it comes to the short-to-intermediate passing game.  He completed fewer than 50% of his passes in the win against Baylor, and he was a pedestrian 15-of-27 against FCS North Carolina Central.

Thus far, Virginia Tech’s pass defense has not been good.  Overall, opposing quarterbacks are completing 60.9% of their passes against the Hokies this year.  That number is much worse than past seasons.  In fact, it’s not even close.

2018: 60.9%
2017: 48.6% 
2016: 50.1% 
2015: 49.6% 
2014: 47.7% 
2013: 48.5% 
2012: 50.1% 
2011: 49.9% 
2010: 52.2% 

In five of the last eight seasons, opposing quarterbacks have failed to complete 50% of their passes against the Hokies.  That includes four of the last five seasons.  Even when opponents reach the 50% mark, they barely go over it. 

The high completion percentage this year isn’t surprising when you consider the youth at cornerback and linebacker, but it is surprising when you consider the level of competition the Hokies have faced thus far.  This Saturday, the Hokies will be facing a quarterback who hasn’t been impressive in the passing game unless he’s throwing down the field.  Something has to give.  Will Harris’ completion percentage go up, or will it be more of the same for him?

In general however, Harris has played well for the Blue Devils.  He has six touchdowns and no interceptions, plus he’s a good runner.  Still, the only defenses he’s faced are Baylor and NC Central.  Bud Foster will be his greatest challenge thus far, and I’m sure he’ll have a good plan.  But will Tech’s players in the secondary hold up their end of the deal?

Inexperience in The Secondary for Duke

Though the Blue Devils are experienced almost everywhere, that’s not necessarily the case in the secondary.  Here’s a look at their projected starters…

CB: Josh Blackwell, 5-11, 175, r-Fr.
CB: Michael Carter II, 5-10, 180, So.
S: Marquis Waters, 6-0, 205, So.
S: Leonard Johnson, 6-1, 200, r-Fr.
S: Dylan Singleton, 5-11, 190, Jr.

The most experienced player there is third-year junior Dylan Singleton, and he had just two career starts before this season.  Every other player in that group is a second-year player, including a couple of redshirt freshmen.  If any secondary in the country can rival Virginia Tech’s for youth, it’s Duke.

Ryan Willis is Virginia Tech’s new starting quarterback. (Photo by Ivan Morozov)

Offensive Philosophy With a New Quarterback

Justin Fuente is known for his ability to shape his offense around his quarterback’s strengths and weaknesses.  Willis has a big arm, and can be viewed as more of an attacking option at quarterback than Josh Jackson.  Will the Hokies be aggressive with Willis against a young Duke secondary?  If the young Hokie defense has another subpar game, they’ll certainly need all the points they can get.

With the arm strength advantage that Willis has over Jackson, it’s possible that we could see a more aggressive downfield passing game.  However, Willis also has a reputation for having more turnovers in practice than Jackson.  He’s a high-risk, high-reward type of quarterback, at least in comparison to the man he is replacing.

We don’t know exactly what the Tech offense will look like with Willis behind center against the Blue Devils.  With a week to game plan, it’s possible that it could look different than the one we saw on Saturday with Jackson as the starter.  What type of plays will the Hokies run?  How much will they lean on Willis in the running game?  How aggressive will they be?  We don’t know the answers yet.

Special Teams Comparison

In what projects to be a tight game, special teams will be critical, particularly the punting game.  Virginia Tech could hold an advantage here.

Net punting, Virginia Tech: No. 28
Net punting, Duke: No. 104

The Blue Devils had a punt blocked for a touchdown against Baylor, which certainly factors into the equation.  But it’s still too early in the season to get a true feel for Duke’s special teams.  We know that Virginia Tech’s special teams are always good under James Shibest, though the Hokies aren’t as dominant on punt returns this year, due to the loss of Greg Stroman.

As long as Virginia Tech doesn’t do something like muff a punt, they should win the punting battle with Duke simply because of the talent of Oscar Bradburn, but Duke does have the more dangerous returner.  TJ Rahming is averaging 14.3 yards per return on the year.  It will be up to Bradburn and the Tech coverage team to limit him.  Opponents haven’t returned a single punt against the Hokies so far this season.

The kicking battle is a bit of an unknown as well.  Collin Wareham (5-9, 180, r-Sr.) is an older player who has waited his turn at Duke.  He didn’t see any game action until this year, his redshirt senior season.  He is 4-for-4 on field goals this year, with a long of 35.  However, he’s also missed two extra points, one of which was blocked.  Virginia Tech kicker Brian Johnson is 3-for-3 on the season with a long of 45.  So far, there isn’t enough data on either guy to form a strong opinion.


You can’t really predict penalties and turnovers, but like special teams, hidden yardage and turnovers could have a huge impact on this game.  Here’s how both teams rank…

VT penalty yards: No. 59
Duke penalty yards: No. 9

The Hokies’ game against Old Dominion was uncharacteristic from a penalty standpoint.  We’ll see if they right the ship against the Blue Devils.

VT turnover margin: No. 7
Duke turnover margin: No. 18

Tech’s high ranking is a bit misleading.  They were +5 in turnovers against Florida State, but they haven’t been as dominant since.  Both Duke and the Hokies have just two turnovers this season.  Will one of those teams gain an advantage on Saturday night, or will they cancel each other out?

Final Thoughts

David Cutcliffe has done a great job at Duke.  He’s also probably one of the happiest coaches in the country, if not the happiest.  Every day he gets to go to work and coach smart guys, and good guys who never seem to get in trouble off the field.  He has absolutely no pressure on him to win, but he does anyway.  The Duke fans who actually care about football are very appreciative of him, and there is little to no criticism when he loses.  Smart players who don’t get in trouble, no pressure to win, and no criticism when you lose?  It sounds like a great job, doesn’t it? 

I don’t think anybody has a good idea of what to expect from this game.  The Hokies were very poor defensively last week against Old Dominion, and it’s pretty clear that this defense isn’t as good as it was last season, as expected.  However, it’s not actually as bad as it looked last week, right?

One thing we can be sure of is that we’ll get a better effort from the defense this week.  That doesn’t guarantee that they’ll play a great football game, but it would be hard to imagine them surrendering 49 points and over 600 yards for the second straight week.  I’m confident that we’ll see an improved performance.  Whether or not that improved performance will be enough to win the game, I don’t know.

We also don’t know how productive the Tech offense will be with a new quarterback under center.  Ryan Willis has been the backup to Josh Jackson for a reason…because he isn’t as consistent in practice.  However, from what little we’ve seen, he appears to have a stronger arm, and he doesn’t look to be a liability in the running game, either.  I think a Tech offense with Willis at the helm has the potential to be more explosive, but they probably have the potential for more turnovers.  We won’t know what to expect on a week to week basis.

I picked this game 34-30 on the podcast yesterday, but that’s probably too high, considering the competition percentage of Quentin Harris and the unknown surrounding Virginia Tech’s own quarterback situation.  I can’t in good conscience pick Tech on the road against a very experienced and well-coached team the week after they were humbled by Old Dominion.  I can certainly see them winning the game, but I’m not going to pick it.

I have absolutely no confidence in this pick, because I don’t know what to expect from Ryan Willis or the Virginia Tech defense.  I could see any outcome.

Chris’s Prediction: Duke 28, Virginia Tech 24

Will Stewart’s Take: I can’t believe I’m about to pick Duke to beat Virginia Tech, but here we are.

This game is particularly hard to predict, because it’s early in the season, Duke has played a variety of opponents in ability and scheme, and Virginia Tech’s stock is thrashing up and down from week to week. Not to mention, the Hokies are starting a new QB.

In a game like this, you have to go with that you know, and we know this: Duke is more experienced, they’re well-coached, and that coach is in his eleventh season at the school. This is David Cutcliffe’s team, and has been for a while. The fact that he’s barely playing any freshmen tells you that he’s got the program humming along like he wants it.

Justin Fuente, on the other hand, is still at the beginning of building his team, despite being in his third year. Barring extreme roster mismanagement, the Hokies won’t be as young again under Fuente as they are this season.

Even if the Hokies take a big step up from last week’s game, Tech still has weaknesses that aren’t going away soon, and Cutcliffe is good at picking out those weaknesses on film and attacking them. His team is also good at not screwing up his game plan.

This is a stout challenge for Virginia Tech. I think if they played this game ten times, Duke would win the majority of them, and that’s how I guide my picks, with so many other details being unknowns at this point.

Will’s Prediction: Duke 37, Virginia Tech 27

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26 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. This game won’t even be close. Tech will get well soon tonight.
    Big game from both Hazelton and Kumah tonight, will run the ball and Bud will manufacture timely pass rush.

  2. Bah humbug to both of yous!!

    This is THE coming out game for Willis! He’s the Blake LaRussa of VT against Doogies young secondary! Over 40 pts and winning by 2 scores. Go Tech Go!

  3. I feel better about this game now that both of you have picked Duke to win, from a historical perspective. it will still be a huge challenge, hope VT faithful show up to make some noise in Durham

  4. There is no way Bud will allow another poor defensive performance. Even with the inexperience on D, I think this is a super talented group and I think it’ll show big time tomorrow night. ODU was a true aberration.

  5. The coaches are going to be patient with the young players as they gradually get experience and learn their positions. I think they will come along like Stroman did, and by the end of this season they will be playing at a much higher level. I expect them VT will lose this one, and a few more, but the future seems very bright to me. Play hard, no matter what!

  6. VT will be no better than the OC’s play calling. I see that being the biggest factor, if you don’t use the strength of your QB, then you limit your offense. Has Fuente learned anything, who knows….

  7. I just don’t see Duke spreading it out and chucking it. They will want to run the ball, we do well vs the run (maybe the QB will get some yds, but I think we will run stop).

    I see some guys in the secondary being motivated and playing with a chip on their shoulders after hearing it all week. I think we will see hungry DEs wanting to prove they are ready to step in. I would love to see more of Garbutt and Debose, and less of Belmar and sometimes Gaines. Gaines has speed, but he is too small.

    I do think this is the week we get a heavier dose of Dax over Rivers (where I am not this guy that believes Dax is the next coming, I just think he is more ready than Rivers).

    I do think that some of the faster WRs may benefit from Willis at QB. Also, the more we attempt to stretch the field, the more we will open up the running game. I expect TE and Keene to get more looks (the throw to Keene last gm was awesome by RW).

    I think you see CJF and Corny calling some early screens to get Willis in a rhythm. I think you also could see an early deep ball to just let Duke know that they have to respect the deep ball w RW. Please God let’s not game manage, that is the biggest concern I have (with DBs being the other). I see the return of Diablo as a game changer. The 6′ 3″ monster that has ball skills and can roam the field will take away this throw it up mentality.

    Hokies 38 Dukies 27

    1. This is not the Duke from years ago! Since Cutcliffe has been there he has given Tech fits and This is a very young and inexperienced Tech Defense defense that will be severely tested. I think we are in for another long day Saturday IMHO.

  8. Run the ball and stop the run. Limit big plays and play beamerball. Sound familiar? Hokies win ugly 23-20.

  9. This is going to be a duplicate of the ODU game, VT talent versus Duke experience. I believe the Hokies will rebound to play well but it may not be enough to offset the experience the Blue Devils have over our young team. The most important telling point will be our d-line getting pressure on the Duke quarterback and making him throw before he is ready. If we can do that, then we can and should win. I am picking VT 28 vs Duke 17.

  10. VT 35 Duke 10

    I think we’ll show inspired and focus. Fortunately (or unfortunately) we’re at our best as underdogs.

  11. Between Jackson’s injury, the loss of Hill (probably a good thing long term but a bad one in the here and now), and the humiliating sting of the ODU meltdown it’s hard to imagine this team isn’t seriously doubting itself this week, which makes Saturday night critical. Win and they start to get their feet back under themselves a little bit, pending Notre Dame visit or not. Lose- especially if Willis has a poor showing and/or the defense gets lit up again – and there’s really no telling how far downhill this thing might roll before it stops. I agree with everything said about Duke in this preview (can you imagine if Cutcliffe had the talent guys like Saban and Meyer have?) but I feel like the Hokies will dig deep and find a way to scratch out a win in Durham. I’ll go 26-23 Tech.

  12. Especially with what ODU was able to do, that comparison of Dook receivers to VT DBs is the telling stat, IMHO. I see no reason why Dook won’t be able to do the exact same thing ODU — and ECU in years past — did against us, unfortunately. We’ll need to get a strong pass rush if we want to have a chance. Dial up some blitzes to confuse ’em, too.

  13. wow great pics guys. syke.

    we will win this game by running the ball down Duke’s throats which will open up the passing attack downfield.

  14. The bigger the moment, the tighter the collar seems to get around our offensive play-callers. Chris mentions the possibility of more aggressive downfield passing game. I’ll believe it when I see it. For the record, I’m a big Fu fan, and I believe he will continue to build a program that wins more and more. But based on past big games, the natural inclination seems to be that “value the football” takes precedence over everything else, and the result in the past has been close-to-the-vest play calling. I just don’t think that will work against Duke, or for any of the good teams remaining on the schedule. Let’s play to win instead of playing not to lose!

    Go Hokies!

  15. Good chance we could drop the next two; then panic will set in. Just a week ago I was looking at a lot of wins….now every game is a question mark. Beating Duke is really important for this team and fanbase’ psyche.

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