After improving to 2-0 on Saturday, #19 Virginia Tech turns its attention to a ranked matchup with #8 North Carolina in Chapel Hill. As players spoke to the media on Tuesday, it was clear they understand the test that faces them this Saturday.
Hokies Preparing for Huge Matchup with Tar Heels
While the Hokies’ first two games were large challenges due to the COVID-19 issues that the program was facing, Saturday’s matchup with UNC is the first major test on the schedule.
The Tar Heels enter the game at 2-0 as well with ACC wins over Syracuse and Boston College and surprisingly UNC has been led by their defense.
The battle to watch will be in the trenches as the Hokies try to run on North Carolina’s stout front seven. Tech currently lead the nation in yards per carry on offense with over seven yards per tote. However, they will face a Tar Heels front that has allowed just 108 yards rushing in their first two contests, which also leads the nation.
“They have a really good front seven. Those linebackers are really fast and athletic to the ball,” running back Khalil Herbert said. “It’s going to be a nice matchup, but those guys up front do a good job getting off of blocks and being physical.”
The Hokies have seemingly run the ball with ease throughout their first two games with over 300 yards in both matchups. However, establishing the ground game will be no easy task against the Tar Heels this week.
Defensively, the Hokies will have plenty of challenges to face as well. Quarterback Sam Howell lit up the conference as a freshman last season, and although his stats haven’t been as impressive so far this season, he can still make a defense pay.
It helps to have plenty of weapons available to you. Howell and the Heels return two 1,000-yard receivers with Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome. Those two will undoubtedly be the toughest matchup the Hokies’ secondary has had this season.
“They have a lot of guys with dynamic skillsets. It isn’t just one guy that you can key out and one guy who you can say runs better go routes than Dazz Newsome or something like that,” defensive back Nadir Thompson said. “They’re all pretty good. It’s a pretty balanced receiving corp.”
The Hokies have won four straight games against North Carolina, including last season’s six-overtime thriller in Lane Stadium. This game looks to be a tight one once again as the winner will place themselves firmly in the race to get to the ACC Championship game.
Herbert for Heisman?
After an efficient performance of 150 scrimmage yards on just seven touches in his debut performance against NC State, Khalil Herbert followed it up by breaking Virginia Tech’s all-time record for all-purpose yards in a game.
With over 208 yards rushing and two touchdowns, plus 150 yards as a kickoff returner, Herbert has established himself as one of the top playmakers in the country early in the season.
His performances have even prompted his teammates to begin the conversation about the Kansas transfer as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate.
“I’m not worried about [Heisman talk] right now. I’m just trying to focus on UNC this weekend,” Herbert said. “We’ve got to continue to do the same thing week in and week out. After the season, I’ll be able to stop and reflect.”
Herbert may not be the type to take credit for his hot start, but his accomplishments thus far speak for themselves. Through two games, Herbert’s 156 rushing yards per game leads the entire nation.
“Khalil is one of those backs that even when the line messes up a little bit and doesn’t get every task done, he’ll still make the correction on the play and can still make it a big play for us,” offensive lineman Doug Nester said. “It’s very special to have a back like this in our program right now.”
Nester’s ‘Vice Squad,’ as the offensive line is affectionately known, has been leading the way for Herbert and the running backs throughout the last two games as the Hokies have racked up over 600 rushing yards. Having such a strong group up front has certainly helped out Herbert significantly during his spectacular start to the year.
“We take that to heart knowing that we can block so well that game that our running back looks that good and break the all-purpose yardage record for that game,” Nester said. “For us to be blocking for him, it was unbelievable.”
Herbert will have plenty to prove this weekend against the top rushing defense in the country. It will be ‘good-on-good’ in Chapel Hill on Saturday, and the senior tailback will have a chance to turn the Heisman rumblings up another notch.
Next Man Up in the Secondary
To say the least, the secondary was very thin against Duke due to COVID-19 protocols. Starters included Nadir Thompson, true freshman Dorian Strong and walk-on Tyler Matheny. However, the Hokies saw these relative unknowns step up and make huge plays on the way to a win.
“It was just a next man up mentality,” Thompson said. “I know that I have ten other guys on the football field that have my back, and I just have to do my job and everybody else will do their job.”
Thompson had been preparing as a safety throughout fall camp and early in the season. However, when almost every scholarship corner on the roster was unavailable, he had to switch up his preparation quickly.
“I didn’t have many reps at cornerback throughout last week, but Coach Fuente has been telling us throughout the season that we have to overprepare,” Thompson said. “We have to be ready to go in at any time at any position. I’ve been taking that to mind and doing that.”
Across from Thompson, Strong made his first career start at the other corner. As a three-star cornerback with his only other offer coming from Delaware State, there were plenty of questions about whether he would be ready to play so early. He answered the call in Durham.
“I know he’s a competitor, so when they called both of our numbers that game, I knew that I had somebody on the other side of the field who was going to give 110% just like I would,” Thompson said. “I knew he wouldn’t get in there and budge at all.”
If reinforcements aren’t on the way, Thompson, Strong and others will have to be ready to take on the explosive Tar Heels’ offense. After their performance against the Blue Devils, confidence should be much higher than last week.
“We just have to prepare like we do every week. We’re going to have ten guys out there other than me, and we just have to be ready to play,” Thompson said. “Whatever they bring out on the field, we have to be prepared to defend it.”