Virginia Tech Kicks Off Season With NC State

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Virginia Tech
Tre Turner and the Hokies will finally play on Saturday night. (Dave Knachel, Virginia Tech Athletics)

Virginia Tech’s original season opener against Liberty obviously didn’t happen as the 2020 schedule was changed over the summer.  Then the new opener against NC State set for September 12 was postponed.  After that, the Hokies’ third scheduled opener of the season against UVA on September 19 was pushed back.  Now, finally, we’re on the fourth scheduled opener of the 2020 season, and we think it’s finally going to happen.

At least we hope it will happen.  Fingers crossed.  At the time of this writing, the Hokies have gotten players back from quarantine throughout the week, and they’ve gotten through COVID-19 testing on Monday and Wednesday (with Wednesday’s results currently TBD).  There is still one more testing session on Friday, which is done by an independent party.  This game could be cancelled as late as Saturday morning, but right now things are trending in the direction of there actually being a football game this weekend.

Will it be a real football game, or will it be a glorified scrimmage?  Well, the Hokies haven’t been able to get in much practice recently.  After shutting down their program for a few days while postponing the UVA game, Tech has now been holding short practices with a small number of players.

“We’ve been practicing for an hour-and-twenty minutes with a skeleton crew,” Justin Fuente said Monday night on Tech Talk Live.

Physical contact has been limited, as coaches are hesitant to get players hurt with so many others already quarantined.  That’s probably the right decision, but of course the result is that the majority of the players aren’t quite physically ready to block and tackle for 60 minutes.  That’s what happens when half your team is in quarantine for 10-14 days.

The same thing happened to NC State, but the Wolfpack were fortunate enough to have it happen in late August because their semester started earlier.  After pushing back the Virginia Tech game on August 26, they were finally able to assemble a full team of 105 players by the time their game-week practices began last week for Wake Forest.  It took them nearly three weeks to get back to full strength.  The Hokies won’t have that luxury.  They’ve been practicing with a “skeleton squad,” and even those guys who play on Saturday won’t be 100% ready.

Nevertheless, here we are.  This is 2020, and it is what it is.  From a short-term standpoint, the Hokies probably shouldn’t play this game, because they aren’t going to be ready.  However, the longer they wait, the tougher it becomes. If they don’t play this week, then they’ll open on October 3 against a Duke team that would already have three games under its belt, and that isn’t ideal either. The sooner the Hokies play, the better they’ll be later in the season…even if this early game may be difficult to win.

The Wolfpack began their season last week with a 45-42 victory over Wake Forest.  Considering the Demon Deacons already had a game in the books (a 37-13 loss to Clemson), it was a solid win.  Here’s a look at NC State.

Virginia Tech
Jarrod Hewitt and the VT defense must slow down the NC State running game. (Dave Knachel, Virginia Tech Athletics)

Three-headed Monster at Tailback

NC State beat Wake Forest 45-42 on the strength of their running game.  The Wolfpack ran for 270 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per carry, and they used three running backs during the course of the game.

Ricky Person Jr. (6-1, 215, Jr.): 14 carries, 99 yards, 7.1 ypc, 2 TDs
Zonovan Knight (5-11, 206, So.): 11 carries, 97 yards, 8.8 ypc, 1 TD
Jordan Houston (5-10, 190, So.) 14 carries, 54 yards, 4.5 ypc, 0 TD
Total: 39 carries, 250 yards, 6.4 ypc, 3 TDs

You can’t ask for much more than that in one game from your running backs.  Justin Fuente mentioned earlier this week that the Wolfpack were very good running the stretch play against Wake Forest. They also ran the stretch play near the goal line with the quarterback to get an extra blocker, and that was also an effective play for them.

Person, Knight and Houston also combined to catch seven of NC State’s 16 completed passes against the Demon Deacons.  This is a good, versatile backfield, and they’ll be running behind a very experienced offensive line.  The Wolfpack linemen have combined to start 67 games, and the starting line features three redshirt seniors and a redshirt junior.

We can expect NC State to lean heavily on the running game against Virginia Tech on Saturday night.  That’s partially because they are so good at running back, but also because they have question marks at other positions on offense.

Quarterback: Starter by Accident

FSU transfer Bailey Hockman (6-2, 200, r-Jr.) started against Wake because expected starter Devin Leary (6-2, 212, r-So.) missed so much time in quarantine due to the current COVID-19 situation.  Hockman was solid but unspectacular, and we hear through the grapevine that the Wolfpack coaches were very worried about their QB talent heading into this game.  Hockman performed well enough against Wake Forest to keep the starting job against Virginia Tech, but I don’t think he’s someone who will perform at a high level if the Wolfpack running game isn’t going strong.

Hockman was 16-of-23 for 191 yards with a touchdown and an interception against Wake.  He struggled in seven games last season, completing 55.7% of his passes for 546 yards, with one touchdown and four interceptions.  He has some mobility, running eight times for 30 yards and scoring one touchdown last weekend, though his rushing yards are going to come from designed runs rather than Bryce Perkins-like scrambles.

Hockman is a Georgia native who transferred from Florida State, where he never played a down.  Last season he was in a competition with Leary for the starting quarterback position.  Leary only completed 48.1% of his passes, but had a better touchdown-to-interception ration at 8-to-5.  Leary was considered the front runner to be the NC State starter heading into this season, and according to Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren, Leary was a “victim of circumstance.”  He missed so much time due to quarantine that the coaching staff felt more comfortable with Hockman, who had been available to practice on a daily basis.

Hockman is expected to start against Tech, but truth be told, neither guy has shown to be particularly good at this point in his career.  I don’t think either player can beat the Hokies if Tech slows down the Wolfpack running game.  That will be the No. 1 priority for Justin Hamilton’s defense.

Virginia Tech
Doug Nester and the VT offensive line will face a 3-3-5 defense. (Dave Knachel, Virginia Tech Athletics)

Defense: The WVU 3-3-5

NC State finished No. 72 in total defense last season, but by the advanced metrics they were even worse than that.  Here’s how Pro Football Focus rated the Wolfpack defensively out of 14 ACC teams…

Overall: No. 13
Rush Defense: No. 12
Tackling: No. 11
Pass Rush: No. 11
Coverage: No. 13

NC State didn’t do anything well on the defensive side of the ball, so head coach Dave Doeren made a change, handing the reins full-time to Tony Gibson, who was Co-Defensive Coordinator a year ago.  Gibson was a Rich Rodriguez assistant for years at West Virginia, Michigan and Arizona, and he is noted for his 3-3-5 stack defense.

To supplement his staff, Doeren also added Virginia Tech defensive line coach Charley Wiles, as well as VT cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell.  Wiles has spent his entire FBS career coaching under Bud Foster in a 4-2-5 defense, and from the outside looking in the 3-3-5 stack seems to be an odd fit for a defensive line coach who has spent his entire career in the same system.

However, it worked well against the run in NC State’s season opening win over Wake, holding the Demon Deacons to three yards per carry.  Quarterback Sam Hartman threw for 236 yards, but it took him 36 attempts to get there, and he was sacked six times.  In fact, the NC State defense played better than the 45-42 score would indicate.  Wake only had 385 yards of total offense, and seven of their points came on a defensive touchdown.

You’ll recognize a couple of names on the NC State defense.  Nose guard Alim McNeill (6-2, 320, Jr.), a Raleigh native, picked the Wolfpack over the Hokies coming out of high school.  He liked Charley Wiles and Tech a lot, but chose to stay home.  Ironically, he ended up staying home and playing for Wiles.  He had to add about 20 pounds to play nose guard in this scheme.  He had two tackles for loss in last week’s win.

You may also recognize the name Payton Wilson (6-4, 240, r-So.) at weakside linebacker.  Wilson was a top 40 national recruit from Hillsborough, which is just a 45-minute drive to Raleigh.  There was much mutual interest between him and the Hokies, though he eventually decommitted from UNC to sign with the Wolfpack.  Wilson played like a top 40 recruit in his first career start, racking up 10 tackles, four tackles for loss and a sack.  It must be nice to stay within 45 minutes of your own campus and be able to recruit players like McNeill and Wilson.

Still, that Wolfpack defense allowed 35 points to a Wake Forest offense who lost their two best players in the offseason to transfer and opt-out.  The secondary was a big issue for them last season, and we could find that it’s still an issue for them this year once they play more games and we can gather more evidence. 

Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech has been practicing with a “skeleton crew” according to Justin Fuente. (Dave Knachel, Virginia Tech athletics)

Final Thoughts

Tell the truth: Did you read the whole preview, or did you just skip down here to this section?

  • I scrolled right down here. I'm here for the picks. (7%, 139 Votes)
  • I read the whole thing closely. (59%, 1,182 Votes)
  • I sort of skimmed it on my way here. (34%, 691 Votes)

Total Voters: 2,012

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NC State went just 1-7 in the ACC last season, finishing last in the Atlantic Division.  That includes an 0-5 record on the road.  They had major quarterback issues, and injuries in the secondary, and the result was a long year that put Dave Doeren on the hot seat with the fanbase.  They’ve already matched their ACC win total from a year ago, and they’ll be hoping to double that number with a victory over the COVID-wrecked Hokies.

I sit here in my office wearing a Virginia Tech hat and surrounded by Virginia Tech gear.  Later I’ll go home to a house with closets filled with Hokie gear, to a living room table with Virginia Tech coasters, and even a kitchen with a VT wine bottle opener.  Point being, I’m a Virginia Tech fan.  A big one.  But I’m not a homer, and I’ve always tried to be honest with you about what I think is going to happen and why.  That won’t change today, and to put it bluntly, I don’t think the Hokies are going to be ready to play this game, and I don’t think things are going to go well on Saturday night.

Let’s do some math and compare NC State’s return from shutdown to Virginia Tech’s…

1) NC State returned to practice after their lock down on September 1, and they didn’t play their first game until September 16.  They had a full 15 days to get back to full strength.

2) The Hokies returned to practice on September 16, and will only have 10 full days to get back to full strength.

NC State had more time, and Tech’s issues were more recent.  The NC State players have now been back continuously practicing for awhile now, and they have a game in the books.  The Tech players haven’t been back continuously practicing, and they haven’t played a game.  In fact, they haven’t even been able to hit or scrimmage as far as I know, because they haven’t had enough players.

That’s not good.  Think about it in terms of a boxing match.  Tell me which boxer you think is going to win…

Boxer A: This guy has trained continuously for over three straight weeks heading into the match, and he even had a sparring partner (Wake Forest in this case) at one point.

Boxer B: This boxer hasn’t held a full training session in several weeks, and at one point during that stretch he went a full four days without training.  Also, he didn’t have a sparring partner to work with.  All he could do is get in some conditioning and hit a punching bag.

Which boxer is going to win?  I suspect A.  In this scenario, NC State is Boxer A, and Virginia Tech is Boxer B.

With both teams at full strength, I think the Hokies are better, and that opening line of -11 that we saw would be totally fair.  I don’t think the Wolfpack are very good at quarterback, and that could be the great equalizer.  Tech could certainly win this game, and nothing in 2020 would surprise me.

But I can’t in good conscious pick the Hokies.  They just haven’t been able to practice with a full squad, they are going to be missing a guy or two who you were expecting to see play, and quite a bit of the squad will play in Saturday’s game having not been involved in very much full contact practice recently.  None of that is conducive to getting a good result on the field.  I think things will get better the following week against Duke, but for me to pick the Hokies this week, I wouldn’t be taking my job seriously.

Chris’s Prediction: NC State 31, Virginia Tech 23

Will Stewart’s Take: I don’t usually read Chris’s prediction before making my own, but this time around, I did. I can’t add anything to what he wrote, although I will address special teams for a moment, because we have seen some bad special teams play in the early stages of this college football season.

NC State’s punter and placekicker are very good. Punter Trenton Gill averaged 47.6 yards per kick last year, third in the nation, and NC State was 11th in net punting in 2019. Placekicker Christopher Dunn has made 45 of his 51 field goal attempts for an excellent rate of 88.2 percent. He has connected on 12 straight field goals and is 7-9 from 40-49 yards and 0-2 from 50+ yards. I don’t have time to drill down into the long snapper situation, return game, and coverage game, but suffice to say their kickers are good.

Back to the prediction … I wrote in this week’s Monday Thoughts that I felt like a win over NC State would be one of Fuente’s better coaching jobs of his career, given all the obstacles he’s facing. I think in his heart he would rather not play this week, because no coach wants to put himself in such a weak position, but I think he also knows that he needs to get this team out on the field, get the season going, and start improving, or they’ll fall too far behind.

I don’t want to disrespect my craft, but with everything Chris outlined above, why not decide NC State is going to win and use a random number generator for the score? Each team will score between 0 and 50 points, and the random number generator says it will be:

Will’s Prediction: NC State 40, Virginia Tech 12 (yeesh, not a big fan of the random number generator)

What's your prediction for the 2020 Virginia Tech-NC State game?

  • Hokies Win by 11+ (12%, 215 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 1-10 (51%, 899 Votes)
  • Wolfpack Wins by 1-10 (17%, 299 Votes)
  • Wolfpack Wins by 10+ (12%, 212 Votes)
  • Go Use a Random Number Generator (8%, 139 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,764

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59 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. 40 to fricking 12? You should be ashamed. I need to quit reading this half-assed web site. I will come back if you lose the negative outlook

  2. The only thing I would add to the boxer analogy is that Boxer A is about half as talented as Boxer B. At some point, conditioning is responsible for some of the points, but talent and experience is also a big factor here.

    Hokies win a close one.

  3. In need of fresh air….

    Fuente’s system requires edge blocking..check

    Fuente’s needs a QB to be good runner….check

    Fuente’s always holds cards close to vest in true midwestern humble style. Check

    VT will score
    A lot

    J-Ham’s debut on D
    Got his field generals at the second level and weakest point is 3rd level playing against poor QB play. Advantage VT

    Shibest is a sneaky one, he hold ground on hidden yardage vs State.

    We’re Virginians…in the sport of Allen Iverson, practice is for chumps.

    VT wins and Scores a bunch.

    Let’s Go…Hokies
    Have some Faith in O&M
    & get some fresh air

  4. Reading tea leaves and rolling Yahtzee dice, all indicating 93-12 NC State win.
    Who in the hell knows but a -7 spread is more scientific than anything I’ve read here.

  5. Even if I thought we would lose I would pick us to win because the people need to read something uplifting- if I were king.

  6. Should the predictors end up with egg on their faces it may confirm my long term gut feeling on how they lean.

  7. The problem will be game day conditioning, which we don’t have, By the mid 3rd to 4th QTR we will be out of gas. Hoping for a respectable score. 38-14 Pack. Stay heathy and be at full force for the next game.

    1. How do you know we don’t have conditioning? No disrespect, but unless Fu told you, or you are a coach, you really don’t have any idea what type of condition we are in.

      I agree that we are behind the 8-ball, or so it appears, but no one on this board knows what type of conditioning we’ve been doing.

    2. We could play a closer game than that with our 3rd teamers who’ve practiced or our 2nd team who’s had 2 weeks off

      It’s likely a close game

  8. I have full faith in this coaching staff’s ability to put the boys in the best position to win. Even with the irregularities that this year has thrown at the team, a few key defensive pieces missing (Farley, Hunter, possibly Waller), & lack of full contact practicing, Coach Fu and team will put a competitive squad out there.

    This isn’t the same squad that got waxed by GT in 2018 or Duke last year. These boys are a tough mature football team and once they step on that pitch will be ready for business. At the end of the day, the game itself hasn’t changed, and these boys can play. Give me VT 31-24 baby!

  9. Looking to future games, can anyone answer the following two questions: Are those who have tested positive for covid and remained in quarantine for the 10 days with no active disease, still required to be tested and/or contacted on the same basis as those with no positive record of Covid? Are they in any way considered immune? If these answers are yes, we are in for a long season never knowing whether we play week to week, day to day.

    1. I believe that once a player tests positive and quarantines, they are exempt from testing/contact tracing quarantine for 3 months (someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m like 90% sure).

      1. Oh, and I left out that if a player has to quarantine because of contact tracing but still tests negative throughout quarantine and returns to the field, they’re still subject to weekly testing and future contact tracing quarantines.

        So if Dax were to test positive and had recently been in close contact with Ashby and Tisdale, all 3 would quarantine for the full period (Dax for positive test, the others for contact). After they all get out of quarantine, Dax doesn’t have to do COVID tests or quarantine for the next 3 months, but the other two still have to. If Ashby or Tisdale were to test positive halfway through their initial quarantine, their quarantine would reset to the full 10-14 days, but afterwards they would also be taken off the list for weekly tests and quarantine requirements.

  10. Well based on what you guys must know, I would expect a significant line move to happen in the next 48 hours. Even in this coach Fu, championship level lock-down of all info, Vegas will find out the info and tell the tale. I remind all here that NC St. is NOT GOOD, so we must be missing 7-10 starters including Hooker, Darrisaw, maybe Lecitus, a top playmaker or 2, a handful of front 7 guys and Waller as rumored.

  11. If we haven’t been practicing regularly, it will be ugly.

    Think 41-13, NCSU, something like the Duke game last year.

    Hope I’m wrong!

  12. who has the better oline?
    who has more talent at QB?
    who has more talent at WR?
    Who has more experience?
    who has the better linebackers?

    These are all the same answer given what we know today. That is a recipe for winning as long as you have solid ball security and play field position football. Just be patient and wait for the team to respond. Hokies 27-13!

    1. The answer to all of your questions is “we will see when the game is played”..Second answer is “even if VT has better players than NC State in every category, you better not expect VT to do a lot in this game given a brand new defensive scheme,,virtually no contact in practice in a while, no real game experience this year, and probably a QB starting his first game in a couple years unless Hooker plays.” We will most likely be ragged in all phases of the game while NC State has had an opportunity to play more real football and practice more than VT by a large margin. We will have to play like we’re closer to mid season form than first game to win. I hope to eat crow…but I don’t have one in the fridge yet.

  13. Picking VT to win with running game with Burmeister at the steering wheel for the majority of the game. Even if O-line has a few out, we have best depth & experience for 1’s & 2’s and if we have Blacksheer & Herbert, Hokies grind out the win!

  14. 40-12. I’m not predicting a win but this leads me to believe maybe you know more than you’re willing to share.

  15. With lack of much contact in practice the final score may hinge on several fumbles by our ball carriers. Ball security is difficult to practice without real contact

  16. Going into this game with completely open, non-judgmental expectations.

    VT doesn’t have a full team, previously 2nd and 3rd string players are now starting, with a minimum of practice, and the whole team has not solidly practiced together to any normal schedule. NCST has already worked through these issues and has already had a chance to play together as a team against an opponent, and won.

    VT playing a game this weekend is a win in and of itself. With all of that being typed, I still think VT has about a 50% chance to win the game. One thing I doubt will ever go away is VTD’s ability to get after a new QB. That doesn’t change in this game, and I think they may pull it out in the end.

    Go Hokies! Beat the Pack!

  17. If our Defense is healthy (or not with covid) and can stop the run, we will win. Even if we can’t stop the run, I expect to be able to score. Will just be happy to watch a game.

  18. I hope talent overrules practice time. Keep it close early and then begin building some momentum while realizing that we can beat the bad guys. Oh, and one more point…State won a game last week while WF already had a game under its belt. Hmmm. Ready or not…Hokie Nation is ready for some football. May the Hokies ‘stick it in’…without us.

  19. It’s good to be back at it again.

    I skipped right to the score. Guilty as charged. Thanks to you both for all of your hard work.

  20. Great write up guys!

    I tend to agree with both of you regarding the final outcome. But I do think the Hokies compete until the 4th quarter when the up-tempo Wolfpack offense simply wears us out on the defensive side of the ball. We are already razor thin at a couple of positions and by the time the 4th quarter hits I think conditioning will be a HUGE issue.

  21. I tend to agree with farmville. I think our experience and depth will allow us to squeek a win by a touchdown or so. No turnovers

  22. Fuentes teams don’t quite so I think it will be 20-10 State at the half and Tech will roll in the 2nd.
    Final score:
    VT 37-State 23

  23. I like your boxing analogy CC but it has one flaw, Boxer B is by far the better boxer. I think the factors you listed made this closer to a push then really swung the pendulum in NCST’s favor. Could I see NCST winning by a 10+ sure, but I can also see something similar to the UNC-game happening. I think by the middle of the 3rd Quarter, VT will get its leg underneath of them, if they can keep it a 1-2 score game up until that point I think they eventually squeak one out.

  24. Don’t the bettors know all this stuff?
    But VT is still favored.
    I supposed a wise bet is … the farm that Pack beats the spread.
    Bet now B4 the bettors catch on.

  25. Impossible to pick a winner and the score is simply a guessing game. Hope the Hokies can pull this one off with a “W”. You know what they say about opinions…………………….

  26. Regardless of who has had more preparation boxing, including a sparring session, or whatever analogy you choose-VT was better last year, returns more starters, has more experience, etc. We may/will play ugly and make some dumb mistakes, but we SHOULD win. We are a better team.

    Give Ole Miss two weeks more practice than Alabama, but Alabama still wins. Maybe not the best comparison, because we clearly aren’t Bama, but you get the point. Besides, the Pack will be intimidated with 66k screaming fans at night, in Lane.

    Oh wait..

  27. 1st: I did read this one all the way through, but I usually do skip down to the final thoughts section.

    2nd: While I agree with Chris that this VT team isn’t ready to play, I think VT is a lot better than this NC State team with COVID not being a factor. State was just complete garbage last season. COVID certainly is going to hurt VT on this and hurt them bad. I just don’t know if it will be enough to overcome the difference. I’ll go VT, but close. If a lot of the DL are out then I can see this getting ugly.

  28. Agree w the disadvantages listed.
    Add another – VT got no spring, very little fall practice w a “skeleton crew for 90 min of no contact” while incorporating a new defensive scheme and staff. I expect rust on that side for sure.

  29. Making a pick is doing so blind at this point. So I will only address what I feel comfortable doing and that is to addess the VT team. We have maybe 18 returners plus 3-4 transfers who would have started last year is eligible due to the transfer rule. Yes I know we will be missing some due to covid19 but my point is we are both experienced and pretty deep. So I think we will be able to hide some of the missing starters using this depth. Additionally I anticipate a change during the Fuente era. The offense controlling the clock, game and assisting the defense. We have returning offensive coaches and have added a room full of experienced running backs. Behind our OL I think we run the ball first while setting up the pass. And control the time of possession. So it will be more of a 24-17 type score.

    1. You know naming the worst teams in the league is a good way to get Karma’s attention. I hope we dont get punished.

  30. NCSt 38, VT 20 (and that includes a garbage time TD by VT).

    Hope I’m wrong but that’s just the way I see it. Nothing about this game is normal. I think we have a puncher’s chance at Duke if we stay healthy and get more guys back. Want to get some much needed revenge there!

  31. I think this game is almost impossible to pick. I have no clue what to expect or who will win. I’m also way less emotionally invested that I usually am. I hope we win. I’ll watch, but after it’s over, I’ll move on without thinking much about it regardless of the outcome. It feels like a JV game. That said. Go Hokies! Beat State!

    1. Half the battle is hat on hat. The other half is, and always has been, stamina and conditioning. The tired team with hands on hips will lose.

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