Game Preview: Virginia Tech Looks To Start 2-0 Against Duke

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Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech and Divine Deablo will look for revenge when they take on Duke Saturday. (Ivan Morozov)

Virginia Tech (1-0, 1-0 ACC) travels to Durham for a Saturday afternoon matchup with the Duke Blue Devils (0-3, 0-3).  Duke has yet to win this season, as they’ve had horrible problems with turnovers, but the Hokies also know that this team came into Lane Stadium and smacked them 45-10 last season.

Duke is a struggling football program.  They are just 2-9 since beating the Hokies last season.  Meanwhile, Virginia Tech is 7-3 since that Friday night disaster.  Nobody would have predicted that at the time, but it’s what has happened. 

The Blue Devils dropped a tough 27-13 game to Notre Dame to open this season, and things have gone south since then.  They were punchless in a 26-6 loss to Boston College, and then lost to UVA 38-20.  That UVA score was a bit misleading, though.  Duke led 20-17 and had the ball first and 10 at the UVA 22 yard line late in the third quarter, threatening to go up by two scores, and UVA fans were understandably nervous.  But the Blue Devils tried a trick play, and wide receiver Jalon Calhoun threw an interception.  UVA went down the field and scored to take the lead, and then the Blue Devils proceeded to turn the ball over on three straight possessions, or four straight possessions if you count Calhoun’s interception.  They went from potentially being up by 10 points heading into the fourth quarter to losing by 18 points. 

Duke can be a dangerous team when they don’t turn the ball over.  At the same time, you are who your record says you are, and there’s probably a reason they are turning it over so much.  Let’s start the preview by touching on those turnovers.

The Duke Offense: A Turnover Machine

Duke has turned the ball over 14 times over the course of the first three games of the season, which ranks dead last in the country.  Georgia Tech ranks next-to-last with 12 (Go ACC!), while Middle Tennessee State ranks well behind both with “only” nine.  That’s how bad Duke has been when it comes to turning the ball over.

I can give another example.  The Blue Devils rank No. 72 nationally in turnovers out of 72 teams that have played.  Texas State ranks No. 67, which is pretty bad, but despite playing one more game than Duke, they still only have six turnovers for the season.  They are only five spots better in the rankings, but they have fewer than half the number of turnovers.

Clemson transfer quarterback Chase Brice (6-3, 235, r-Jr.) was expected to help the Blue Devil offense reach new heights.  Instead, he’s helped them reach a new low.  Brice is completing just 51.3% of his passes with two touchdowns and six interceptions.  Here are his game-by-game numbers…

Notre Dame: 20-of-37, 259 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT
Boston College: 23-of-42, 217 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT
UVA: 16-of-36, 246 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INTs

The main issue with Brice isn’t necessarily that he’s been bad, it’s that he appears to be getting worse on a game-by-game basis.  It’s not just passing, either.  The Duke offense has five fumbles on the season, and he has three of those.

Noah Gray broke open for a TD last year that gave Duke a lead they would never relinquish. (Ivan Morozov)

Not that all of it is the fault of Brice.  The Blue Devils don’t have as much talent on offense as they used to.  They certainly don’t have a Jamison Crowder playing in the slot these days.  They do have one very good offensive player, tight end Noah Gray (6-4, 240, Sr.).  Gray is expected to be a high pick in the NFL Draft, and he leads the team in receptions (13) and yards (152) through three games.  He had a big game against the Hokies last season, catching six passes for 50 yards and two touchdowns.

Tailback Deon Jackson (6-0, 220, Sr.) has had a solid career at Duke, and he could sneak into the late rounds of the NFL Draft.  He is also a solid receiver out of the backfield.  Mataeo Durant (6-1, 195, Jr.) will also see playing time, and like Jackson, he’s also a capable receiver coming out of the backfield.  It was Jackson who torched the Hokies on the ground and through the air in 2019…

Rushing: 9 carries, 56 yards, 1 TD, long of 32
Receiving: 5 catches, 45 yards, 1 TD, long of 25

Duke’s two best offensive linemen this season have been right tackle Devery Hamilton (6-9, 310, r-Sr.) and center Will Taylor (6-3, 305, r-Jr.).  Right guard Jacob Monk (6-3, 310, So.) has also been solid.  However, the left side combo of tackle Casey Holman (6-4, 290, r-So.) and guard Maurice McIntyre (6-2, 330, r-So.) has struggled. Holman has particularly struggled in pass protection.  He’ll draw the assignment of blocking Emmanuel Belmar off the edge, while the Hamilton-Justus Reed matchup on the other side should be entertaining.

Duke has some solid players on offense, but probably not enough of them, and they need a quarterback who is operating at max efficiency to have a chance to have success.  You have to wonder if Brice has another game like he did against BC or UVA whether or not Cutcliffe will consider making a change. 

I think the Duke offense will challenge the Virginia Tech defense mentally more than the NC State offense did on Saturday night.  The Blue Devil coaches know what they are doing, and they are capable of stressing defensive backs and scheming guys open.  However, I don’t think they are as physically gifted as the Wolfpack up front, and I don’t think their running backs are as physical.  This will be a different type of challenge for the Hokies, and we likely won’t even know who Tech’s defensive coordinator will be until gameday.

Virginia Tech
Could Virginia Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker’s be back against Duke? (Ivan Morozov)

The Duke Defense: Hung Out To Dry

If you watched Duke play defense through their first three games, you wouldn’t think that they are an 0-3 football team.  They aren’t a dominant stop unit, but they are solid across the board.  Their numbers don’t necessarily indicate it, but they’ve been put in some bad positions by their offense.  The numbers are below average, but consider the turnovers.

Total Defense: No. 46
Yards per Play: No. 44
Rushing Defense: No. 40
Yards per Carry: No. 32
Passing Defense: No. 50
Yards per Attempt: No. 45
Opp. Rating: No. 41
Third Down: No. 28
Tackles For Loss: No. 17
Sacks: No. 4

(Remember, only 72 teams have played a game so far.)

The Blue Devils do a very good job of getting into the backfield and creating some havoc for the opposing offense.  The offensive turnovers that they’ve had to endure haven’t helped this unit.  Virginia’s last two touchdown drives last week totaled 59 yards.

That said, the Blue Devils certainly aren’t impenetrable.  UVA tailback Wayne Taulapapa ran for 95 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 16 carries (5.9 ypc) while quarterback Brennan Armstrong had 47 yards on 10 carries.  Overall, the Hoos ran for 188 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry against Duke, which is a good sign for the Hokies going into this week’s game.

A name you might remember is defensive end Victor Dimukeje (6-3, 265, Sr.), who selected Duke over Virginia Tech during the recruiting process because he wanted a Duke degree.  He currently leads the nation in sacks with four, and he is projected to be a late round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Safety Michael Carter (5-11, 190, Sr.) is also a projected late round pick, and he has been a good player for the Blue Devils through the years.  The team captain is very consistent, and his absence against Virginia Tech two years ago due to injury was felt in the Duke secondary as the Hokies picked up a big win in Durham behind the deep ball of Ryan Willis.

Middle linebacker Shaka Heyward (6-4, 220, r-So.) leads the team in tackles with 27 through three games, while nobody else has more than 18.  Overall, this defense is somewhere between average and above average across the board.  I think they’ll present a greater challenge than NC State did a week ago, as the Wolfpack were without two key starters.

James Shibest hopes to have the Hokies’ special teams playing better on Saturday. (Dave Knachel, Virginia Tech Athletics)

Special Teams

Justin Fuente was disappointed with how the Hokies played on special teams last week, apart from kicker Brian Johnson and punter Oscar Bradburn.  That’s not too surprising.  The lack of practice time will affect special teams as much as anything else.  He and special teams coordinator James Shibest will be looking for a better display this week.

Through three games, Duke has a special teams rating of 83.8.  That’s a very good mark, and it’s fourth-best in the ACC so far behind Florida State (oh look, they actually do something well!), Clemson and Pitt.  Redshirt freshman Charlie Ham is 4-of-5 on his field goal attempts with a long of 47 yards.  It’s still early in his career, but he looks like a capable player.

Punter Porter Wilson is averaging 42.4 yards per punt.  He’s boomed two of his 14 punts 50+ yards, and six of them have pinned the opponent inside their own 20-yard line.  Opponents are averaging -1 yard per return, so the punt coverage unit for the Blue Devils has obviously been quite good.  The won’t wow you in the return game themselves, but overall this appears to be a solid, well-coached unit.

Final Thoughts

Justin Fuente and his players haven’t walked away from what happened in last season’s game.

“They came in and beat the crap out of us,” – Lecitus Smith, on Tuesday.

“They came out and exposed us for what we were, a soft football team,” Justin Fuente on Monday night.

That’s fine.  You can’t change for the better until you admit that you have a problem.  Fuente and the Hokies admitted they had a problem after last year’s Duke game, they identified the problem, and they fixed the problem in a matter of just one week.

I didn’t feel good last year heading into the Duke game.  I didn’t think the Blue Devils were all that great, but the Hokies had looked pretty bad in their first three games of the season, and I picked Duke to win 20-17.  They went on to win 45-10.  So I was right…but I was also waaaaay wrong.

The crazy thing about that game is that while it really seems to still bother the rest of the fanbase, it doesn’t bother me much.  I guess it’s because the Hokies turned it around the next week, and it’s also because I spent part of the day tailgating and talking baseball with Andruw Jones.  That’s a highlight of my life, so it’s hard for me to get too upset about anything else that happened that day.

This year I don’t feel bad heading into the Duke game.  The Hokies are 7-3 since that game, with one of those three losses coming without their starting quarterback, and all three of those losses were to teams better than Duke.  Tech is a tougher team now than they were then, mentally and physically.  I think the Blue Devils have the potential to be better than that 0-3 record, but at the same time I don’t think they have quite the firepower as the Hokies.

Meanwhile, Duke is 2-9 since they mauled the Hokies that night.  Here are the scores of those 11 games…

Pitt: 33-30 L
GT: 41-23 W
UVA: 48-14 L
UNC: 20-17 L
ND: 38-7 L
Syracuse: 49-6 L
Wake: 39-27 L
Miami: 27-17 W
ND: 27-13 L
BC: 26-6 L
UVA: 38-20 L

Their two wins came against a Georgia Tech team that tried to run a regular offense with Paul Johnson’s recruits, and the victory over Miami probably says more about the 2019 Hurricanes than it does about the Blue Devils.  This is a team that is in a serious rut.  Somehow a 35-point victory in Blacksburg seems to have killed their program, and somehow a 35-point loss at home seems to have reenergized Virginia Tech’s.  That’s crazy.

I think Chase Brice has the potential to do more damage than NC State’s Bailey Hockman (who doesn’t?).  Still, I’m not going to pick a team that is 2-9 in their last 11 games to beat the Hokies no matter what happened in the meeting between the two teams last season.

Chris’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 31, Duke 14

Will Stewart’s Take: Since losing to Duke last year, Virginia Tech’s only losses have been to Notre Dame, Virginia, and Kentucky, all by narrow margins. Both UVA and Kentucky benefitted from garbage defensive touchdowns late that made the final margins nine and seven points, respectively. Subtract those touchdowns, and the Hokies lost those three games by a combined four points.

That has nothing to do with Duke, other than to point out that Virginia Tech has been very competitive since the 45-10 Friday nightmare last year, and Duke hasn’t.

I don’t think the “revenge factor” will play any sort of role in this game, but it will be nice to get a victory and erase the stain of what happened. Virginia Tech got its first-ever ACC victory over Duke back in 2004, and the Hokies are 13-3 against the Blue Devils in ACC play. It’s just wrong to have Duke beating Virginia Tech in football.

It wouldn’t surprise me if this game is tighter than the NC State game, for a few reasons. Number one, surely Duke won’t keep turning the ball over like that. I haven’t read any of David Cutcliffe’s quotes this week, but perhaps he’s thinking of putting Chase Brice on the shelf and changing quarterbacks. I know I would be.

Secondly, the more I reflect, the more I think NC State coached a terrible game in Blacksburg. They stuck with Bailey Hockman way too long and put too much on his shoulders, instead of leaning on their stout running game. The Pack didn’t recognize and exploit Virginia Tech’s defensive weaknesses, with the exception of a couple drives. Cutcliffe has seen the film, and I anticipate that his staff will attack the Virginia Tech defensive backs, particularly trying to isolate Noah Gray against the Hokie DBs. Cutcliffe knows that the subpar game that Virginia Tech’s linebackers had won’t repeat itself, so I think he’ll go after the DBs.

On the other side of the ball, I have faith in Virginia Tech’s coaches to come up with a  good game plan, and I can’t wait to see Brock Hoffman and the Blacksburg Vice Squad line up against a Duke defensive line that has 81 career starts (41 for Victor Dimukeje, and yes, I spelled that correctly without even looking it up — that’s how long he’s been at Duke). Was Virginia Tech’s running attack so successful against NC State because the Pack D-linemen are playing in a scheme they’re not suited for, or is the Tech O-line really that good? We’ll start finding out Saturday.

Perhaps the most surprising aspects of Virginia Tech’s win over NC State were the lack of turnovers (zero) and the low penalty count (just five). Keep that up, and the Hokies will be fine.

My pick is based on Duke cutting down on the turnovers, coaching a good game, and being a tougher out than NC State. Tech scores late to make the final margin comfortable.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 31, Duke 16

I swear, I did not look at Chris’s prediction before making my own.

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

  • Hokies Win by 11+ (64%, 525 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 1-10 (32%, 265 Votes)
  • Duke Wins by 1-10 (2%, 18 Votes)
  • Duke Wins by 10+ (1%, 9 Votes)

Total Voters: 817

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29 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. after reading all the comments I would also feel better if Chris and Will had picked Duke but Will picked them last year and he should get the Duke game right two consecutive years, Can we lose in Durham? Can Chris and Will both be wrong this week? How good is their crystal ball?

  2. 2 touchdowns and 2 two point conversions. It should be payback time and hokies win but Duke has some talent and could be a problem in this covid environment. I am praying the hokies take care of business. Will we see all 3 qb’s saturday? Will our running game dominate Duke? Can Duke pick apart our db’s?

  3. 41-17 Hokies. Offense gets going again. Duke plays super conservative early to try and protect the football. Hokies jump out early and roll

  4. I just don’t feel super confident in this game. I guess I’m really in a wait and see approach if they can bring it week-in and week-out. I think it’s going to be a pretty close game, with them scoring on a couple possessions in the 4th quarter to make it too close for comfort. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them put up upper 20’s to low 30’s on our D, while we are still working everyone back in and short handed in some spots. We need to score touchdowns in this game and get into the mid-30s. 34-31 Hokies.

  5. It seems that the name “Vice Squad” has taken hold and I kind of like Blacksburg Vice Squad (BVS). Yes, another acronym.

  6. Will – 16? How do they get to 16? 2-TDs and a safety? 2-TDs and 2-2pt conv? TD, missed XP, TD + XP, FG.

    This is will the determining factor if there is a tie 🙂

  7. your quip of Florida State special teams success is great because the Special Teams Coordinator at Florida State is actually a Virginia Tech Alumni.

  8. Weren’t we leading the country in turnovers after two games in 2016 including 5 against Tennessee? Things “turned” around for us after that so I expect Duke to be much less accommodating than their record indicates. Closer than I would like but Good Guys win 24-14.

  9. Didn’t you guys see Bull Durham – never f$#k with a winning streak. You should have picked Doook

  10. Chris & Will-
    Sorry but I would have felt better going into Saturday’s game if you both would have picked Duke.

  11. 45-7 feels right with QP taking a knee at their goal line as the clock winds down. I like the +3 symmetry for avenging the loss… the team says they have put it behind them, but until that last glance at the Dukies with their heads bowed in submission, it will still be burning in their bellies…..

  12. Hokies 37, doooooook 12. Slow start, Tech up but not by much at the Half, then the Hokies wear them down, take advantage of errors, and pull away.

  13. If you didn’t look at his prediction before making yours, then you guys are WAY too alike in your thinking!!! Of course, I know you and I believe you!

  14. Any early indications about the status of players and coaches For this game. Sort if that has been covered somewhere else.

  15. I watched parts of Duke last week against UVA, and the middle of their defense is not very good. Taulapapa and Armstrong were consistently getting 5-6 yards between the tackles. I don’t think it matters who starts at quarterback because we should just run it up the middle 3/4 of the time. I am worried this is the week their offense finally gets its act together and stops turning over the ball. We’re going to have to get stops the old fashioned way.

    Hokies 31
    Duke 17

  16. We Hokies don’t need much to get us excited about our team. The Duke game will highlight whether we can grind out a win with a solid game plan and coaching. Beating Duke has a trap feel because it’s high risk, low reward. Let’s grind them and not lose our concentration. We’re better than they are. Let’s make the score show it.

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