- Virginia Tech vs. NC State: 8pm, ACC Network
- Virginia Tech vs. NC State Betting Line: Virginia Tech -7
- Virginia Tech-NC State roster cards: Click here
- Game notes from Hokiesports: Click here
- Blacksburg weather: Click here
- Gameday information: Click Here
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.
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.
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.
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
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