No. 19 Virginia Tech Looks For 2-0 Start Against Middle Tennessee

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Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech returns to action on Saturday against Middle Tennessee. (Ivan Morozov)
  • Virginia Tech vs. Middle Tennessee: 2pm, ACC Network Extra
  • Virginia Tech vs. Middle Tennessee Betting Line: VT -20
  • Virginia Tech-Middle Tennessee roster cards: Click here
  • Game notes from Hokiesports: Click here
  • Blacksburg weather: Click here
  • Gameday information: Click Here

Virginia Tech is back in the top 25, coming in at No. 19 in the AP Poll and No. 21 in the Coaches Poll.  The Hokies will look to keep things going with a non-conference home game against Middle Tennessee on Saturday.

Rick Stockstill has been Middle Tennessee’s head coach since 2006, where he’s compiled a solid 94-92 record, including a 71-45 conference record in both the Sun Belt and Conference USA.  He’s taken the Blue Raiders to eight bowl games in that span.  His best season came in 2009 when Middle Tennessee went 10-3 with a win in the New Orleans Bowl. Their best season in recent memory came in 2018 with an 8-6 overall record, and a 7-1 mark during the conference regular season.  They won Conference USA East that year before falling to UAB in the CUSA Championship Game.

The Blue Raiders haven’t been quite as good the last two years, however, going 4-8 (3-5) in 2019 and 3-6 (3-5) last season, though it remains up for debate how much we should judge programs based on 2020 performances.  Before 2019, they hadn’t had a losing season since 2011.

Middle Tennessee got their 2021 campaign off to a good start with a 50-15 victory over Monmouth on Saturday night.  Monmouth is a solid FCS program that has gone to the playoffs in three of the last four seasons.  Some of the statistics in that game aren’t indicative of a 35-point margin of victory, however.  For example, the Blue Raiders only outgained Monmouth 337-274, and they ran for just 89 yards while averaging 2.6 yards per carry.

Stockstill’s team played their own version of BeamerBall against Monmouth, scoring a touchdown on defense and special teams while also playing the field position game.  Three of their touchdown drives were short: 35 yards, 38 yards, and seven yards.  Short fields hurt total offense numbers, however, so it’s fair to say that the Blue Raiders made the most of their opportunities.

Middle Tennessee comes into this contest having never beaten a Top 25 opponent, and they’ll be relishing their opportunity on Saturday.  Let’s dive in for a deeper look at the Blue Raiders.

Virginia Tech
There should be plenty of opportunities for Amare Barno and the Virginia Tech defensive line this week. (Ivan Morozov)

The Middle Tennessee Offense

The first thing that stands out about the Middle Tennessee offense from the Monmouth game is their aforementioned rushing numbers: 34 carries, 89 yards, 2.6 yards per carry, 2 TDs.  What stands out even more is the number of different players who had carries.  It breaks down like this…

5 different RBs
3 different QBs
3 different WRs
1 OL (I assume after a fumble)
2 TEAM carries

The Blue Raiders don’t appear to have a go-to guy.  The player with the most carries (7 for 18 yards) was Florida State transfer Amir Rasul (5-10, 198, r-Sr.), who is a former 4-star recruit who was rated the No. 1 running back in Florida by Rivals and ESPN.  However, Rasul never lived up to the hype, and he has just 262 career rushing yards.

The other unique stat is the breakdown of Middle Tennessee’s yards gained and yards lost.  They gained 146, but lost 57 for a net of 86.  They went forward plenty of times, but they also spent a lot of time going backwards.  That number includes 27 yards lost due to two sacks.

Perhaps the main reason the Middle Tennessee running game struggled was the lack of size and experience on the offensive line.  Here’s a list of the starters…note their size and age.

LT Steven Losoya (6-4, 290, r-Fr.)
LG Dorian Hinton (6-4, 315, r-Fr.)
C Jordan Palmer (6-0, 290, Jr.)
RG Netori Johnson (6-4, 320, r-Jr.)
RT Lance Robinson (6-3, 275, Fr.)

That’s three freshmen starting up front for Middle Tennessee, including a right tackle who is undersized in terms of height and weight.  Center Jordan Palmer is also undersized.  Tech’s defensive front shouldn’t have trouble holding up against this group.  The Blue Raiders held up a bit better in pass protection than they did against the run, but for a Tech defense that ranks in a tie for fourth nationally in sacks per game with six, the Hokies also have to like their chances of putting some pressure on the Middle Tennessee quarterback.

Speaking of the quarterback, with the running game struggling, it was Bailey Hockman (6-2, 200, r-Jr.) who had to carry the load.  That should sound familiar to you. Hockman started for NC State against Virginia Tech last season and struggled mightily, going 7-of-16 for 82 yards with two interceptions.  However, Hockman played well for the Blue Raiders on Saturday, completing 17-of-22 passes for 215 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

The receivers to keep an eye on are Jaylin Lane (5-8, 175, Fr.) and Jarrin Pearce (5-11, 190, r-Sr.).  Pearce finished 20th nationally in receptions per game last year, while Lane enjoyed a great start to the 2021 season.  He returned a punt for a touchdown against Monmouth, and he caught four passes for 91 yards and another touchdown.

On paper, this doesn’t appear to be a good matchup for the Middle Tennessee offense.  They have a freshmen-laden offensive line going up a defense that registered six sacks last week against UNC and they have a quarterback who struggled mightily against the Hokies last season. On top of that, if UNC’s wide receivers couldn’t have any success on the outside against Tech’s cornerbacks, it’s unlikely that the Blue Raider wideouts will have much success.

Middle Tennessee played a whopping 38 players on offense last week against Monmouth.  Some of that is due to the blowout nature of the game, some of that could be that the Blue Raider staff believes in rotation, and some of it could be that their coaching staff is still trying to figure out exactly what they have on that side of the ball.  Here’s how the playing time broke down at each position…

QB: 3
RB: 5
WR: 12
H-Back: 3
OT: 4
OG: 7
C: 3

That’s only 37 players, if you did the math.  The 38th player is actually labeled as “unknown player” by PFF, with no jersey number and no position.  I have no idea who that is, so we’ll just call him the aptly-named Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Game-Preview.

I’d find it hard to believe that Middle Tennessee will play that many guys against the Hokies this weekend.  It’s hard to find rhythm with that many players making their way on and off the field.  I’m guessing we’ll see a more settled playing rotation on Saturday.

Virginia Tech
The Virginia Tech running game will look to get going against a smaller Middle Tennessee defense. (Ivan Morozov)

The Middle Tennessee Defense

The Blue Raiders played well defensively against Monmouth last week, but it can be hard to get a feel for how good a defense is or isn’t by focusing on their stats from a game against FCS competition.  Instead, let’s look and see how they’ve fared against P5 offenses the last few years…

2017: 339.3 ypg allowed against P5 offenses, No. 17 nationally (3 games)
2018: 384.7 ypg allowed against P5 offenses, No. 37 nationally (3 games)
2019: 520.0 ypg allowed against P5 offenses, No. 115 nationally (3 games)
2020: No games against P5 competition in 2020

In 2017 and 2018, the Middle Tennessee defense held up very well from a total defense perspective against Power 5 competition.  In fact, they were No. 11 in yards per play allowed in 2017.  However, their yards per play dropped to No. 100 in 2018, despite their solid total defense ranking, which indicates that opposing P5 teams simply didn’t run many plays against them that year.  They were beaten 35-7 by Vanderbilt, 49-7 by Georgia and 34-23 by Kentucky.

In 2019, MTSU’s defensive performance against P5 competition dropped off the map. The Blue Raideres were torched by Michigan, Duke and Iowa to the tune of 520 yards per game and 6.78 yards per play (No. 102 nationally).  As their overall records indicate, it seems as if we’ve seen a steady drop in talent in Murfreesboro over the last couple of years.

Those past defensive performances aren’t necessarily reflective of what we’ll see on the field against the Hokies this Saturday, but like their offensive line, the Blue Raider defensive line is undersized and inexperienced.  Here’s the breakdown of the two-deep…

LE: Richard Kinley (6-0, 220, r-Fr.), Jorden Starling (6-4, 215, r-So.)
LDT: Jordan Branch (6-0, 289, r-So.), Ja’Kerrius Wyatt (6-3, 270, r-Jr.)
RDT: Zaylin Wood (6-1, 268, r-Fr.), Marley Cook (6-1, 278, r-Fr.)
RE: Jordan Ferguson (6-2, 255, r-Jr.), JR Bivens (6-0, 243, r-Fr.)

Middle Tennessee has a bit more beef at right end than left end, but on the whole, that is a very small defensive line, and 50% of it is made up of redshirt freshmen.  Three of the top four defensive tackles weigh 278 or less, and nobody tops 289.  The left defensive end position is particularly small.  Those players were very good last week against Monmouth, particularly Marley Cook and Jordan Ferguson, but they’ll be tested by a much bigger and more physical offensive line this Saturday.

The Blue Raiders are also a bit undersized at linebacker, with Jonathan Butler (6-0, 215, Jr.) starting at the MLB spot with Devyn Curtis (6-2, 218, Fr.) backing him up.  DQ Thomas (6-2, 218, Sr.) starts on the weak side, and he’s backed up by Wayne Parks (5-11, 210, r-Jr.).  Thomas is his team’s most experienced player with 34 consecutive starts, while nobody else on the team has more than 11 straight starts.

The Middle Tennessee secondary played well against Monmouth last week, allowing the opposition to throw for just 186 yards on 42 attempts.  That’s 4.4 yards per attempt, which is an excellent number.  The safeties are more experienced than any other position group. 

FS Reed Blankenship (6-1, 200, Sr.): 2,862 snaps.  With last year’s free COVID year, Blankenship will go into his fifth season as a starter.  You won’t find many guys in college football who have played more snaps.  He had a down year in 2020, but overall, he’s had a very good career.

SS Greg Gate (5-11, 186, Jr.): 1,446 snaps.  Gate and Blankenship form one of the most experienced safety combinations in the country.

The cornerbacks aren’t as experienced as the safeties, but on the whole, I feel like the secondary will prove to be the strength of the Middle Tennessee defense, especially over the middle of the field.

Final Thoughts

The longer you watch football, the more you learn.  Perhaps what I’ve learned – or finally come to realize – over the last few years is that oftentimes you think you learn a lot about your team in that first big game of the year, but hindsight proves what you think you learned to be incorrect.  I don’t want to fill out an entire list and go into great detail, because I can spend the entire afternoon doing that, but here are some examples, a couple from the distant past a couple of more recent ones.

1995: Tech started 0-2 and finished 10-2.  What did we really learn in the season opening game against Boston College?  In hindsight, not much.

1996: Tech barely beat Akron to start the season, and everybody thought we were in trouble.  Tech won the Big East and went to the Orange Bowl.  Did we actually learn anything that Akron game?  No.

2017: I was firmly convinced that Josh Jackson would break some VT career passing records.  As it turned out, he ended his career on the bench at Maryland.

2018: After smacking FSU around 24-3, we thought the Hokies were good.  As it turned out, FSU just stunk.

You get the point.  We can sit here and say we learned a lot in Friday night’s game, but the reality is that we didn’t.  We will gradually learn about this team as the season progresses.  Each passing game will lift a little bit of the fog of war.  All we truly know right now is that the Hokies are 1-0.

I think I know some things.  I think Justin Hamilton showed that he’s a good X’s and O’s schemer when he’s got the time to prepare and the proper personnel.  I think Braxton Burmeister showed a better ability to throw the deep ball.  I think Tech’s trio of cornerbacks is among the best in the country.  I don’t think Tech has anybody like Khalil Herbert, and I’m still concerned about the ability of the wide receivers to beat good defensive backs.  But it’s only September 8, and plenty of the things I think I know could be proven wrong, and some of them probably will.

I don’t know how much we’ll learn against Middle Tennessee this week.  It’s the dreaded “trap” game between two rivals.  If Jalen Holston runs for 100 yards, is that because Tech’s running game is better or because Middle Tennessee’s front is small an inexperienced?  I don’t think we’d know that answer until more evidence against P5 teams is gathered.  On the other hand, if VT’s receivers struggle to get open against the Middle Tennessee cornerbacks, we can probably take that as a bad sign.

I just wanted to get all of that down in article format, for the record.  I’m very happy and satisfied with Friday night’s win, but the past has proven many times that the first game isn’t necessarily reflective of what’s going to happen.  There will be different challenges and different matchups along the way.

I think Saturday’s game is a good matchup for the Hokies.  Middle Tennessee is a well-coached team, but I don’t see Bailey Hockman behind a freshmen-laden offensive line causing much damage to the Virginia Tech defense, and I don’t know that the undersized and inexperienced Blue Raider front can hold up for very long, either.

Chris’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 38, Middle Tennessee 10

David Cunningham’s Take: As I sat in the press box watching Virginia Tech’s win against North Carolina on Friday, I was most impressed with the defense’s performance. Like Chris, I had concerns about Justin Hamilton’s defense, particularly at boundary safety. I was also worried about how much pass rush the Hokies would be able to generate against the Tar Heels.

Both question marks delivered in week one. Nasir Peoples was fantastic in his first start on the back end, while the Hokies pestered Sam Howell all night up front – nine TFLs, six sacks, two forced fumbles, and three picks.

Will Virginia Tech put up those numbers defensively every week? I’m not sure, like Chris said. So much depends on matchups, and week one results often mean less than people give them credit for. Teams improve so much (usually) over the course of a season.

I think this is a game that, while a potential trap game, won’t trouble Tech too much. Bailey Hockman and MTSU can put up some points, as they showed vs. Monmouth, but the Hokies should come ready to play. That’s been the mantra through Monday and Tuesday from Justin Fuente and the student-athletes – “We have to flip the script and come ready to play.”

I have a feeling Burmeister, under less pressure than he might’ve been against a top-ten opponent in the season opener, will find his rhythm against MTSU and play a full two halves of football.

Tech’s defense was solid, and while I’m still unsure if they can put strong defensive performances together against difficult teams in back-to-back games (I’m refraining from saying, “Yes, they’re going to go dominate again,” until I see another good performance like UNC), the Hokies should be fine on Saturday. Tech should be able to get after Hockman and stop the run, similar to UNC, and the cornerbacks should be lock-down as they were against the Tar Heels.

I don’t really have any concerns about this matchup except it being a potential trap game. After seeing close results in previous years against Furman, Rhode Island and Old Dominion, I’m hesitant to say the Hokies will blow MTSU out of the water like they once did against Group of Five schools, but I think Fuente & Co. will win handily. Maybe we’ll even get to see a little bit of Knox Kadum and other backups.

David’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 31, Middle Tennessee 13

Will Stewart’s Take: Virginia Tech should clearly win this one, based primarily on what appear to be matchup issues in the trenches. Virginia Tech’s lines are bigger, better, and more experienced. That more than anything should tell the tale in this game. Assuming that Middle Tennessee’s declining win totals over the last couple of years and their youth indicate a program that is struggling and is down right now, the Hokies should win comfortably.

So let’s talk instead about what the best scenario would be for Virginia Tech, and what to look for. In a game that appears to be a mismatch, your hope is that Virginia Tech will start out strong, get out to a big lead, and coast to the finish while finding playing time all around for lesser-used players.

That’s what the better programs do, and it serves two benefits: it gets your starters out early and protects them from injury, and it helps to develop the backups by getting them playing time and game film for review. These are great developmental games, if you win them big. Play enough of them, as Virginia Tech did in their peak years, and it helps your program build and maintain momentum.

In the last three seasons (2018-2020), Virginia Tech has struggled to put away teams that should have been overmatched. Tech beat William & Mary 62-17 in 2018, but then lost to a bad (4-8) ODU team 49-35.

In 2019, Tech beat a really bad (1-11) ODU squad by just two touchdowns, 31-17, then beat FCS Furman by even less, just 24-17. A second game against another FCS team, Rhode Island, produced just a 34-17 win.

In 2020, there was only one OOC game, and we know how that one went: Liberty, who it turned out was not an overmatched team, beat the Hokies 38-35.

So there’s what to look for in this game: a clear indication that Virginia Tech is the better, stronger, faster team. Multiple score separation, and playing time for young players and backups.

Brilliant, right? Well, there’s not much else to say about this game. If that separation doesn’t occur and the Hokies instead find it necessary to play their starters and front-line players all 60 minutes, that will be an indicator — not proof, but an indicator — that the Hokies are going to battle to the wire in most games this season. Games like Richmond and Duke, for example, won’t be seen as pushovers either, if the Hokies can’t romp over Middle Tennessee.

We’ll talk about these things in more detail in today’s podcast, but for now, I’ll get to my optimistic pick, which would represent the Hokies’ biggest margin of victory since that 2018 William & Mary game, with the exception of a 45-0 win over Georgia Tech in 2019.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 45, Middle Tennessee 10

What's your prediction for the 2021 VT-Middle Tennessee game?

  • Hokies Win by 11+ (92%, 1,657 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 1-10 (6%, 106 Votes)
  • MT Wins by 1-10 (1%, 19 Votes)
  • MT Wins by 11+ (1%, 13 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,795

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Last Game’s Virginia Tech-UNC Prediction Poll Results

Game Result: Virginia Tech 17, North Carolina 10

What's your prediction for the 2021 Virginia Tech-UNC game?

  • Hokies Win by 11+ (12%, 194 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 1-10 (49%, 782 Votes)
  • UNC Wins by 1-10 (22%, 357 Votes)
  • UNC Wins by 11+ (17%, 268 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,601

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2021 Virginia Tech Football Predictions Tracker - TSL Staff
Chris (2-3)
David (3-2)
Will (2-3)
Notre Dame
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26 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. Just win, win big in the first half and get out of this game with no injuries. Be the only thing that could happen, getting a starter hurt but that’s football.

  2. UNC may not be any good–preseason poles are BS.
    We often lack that killer instinct when playing these “smaller” teams.
    Time to be killers boys!

  3. If this were the sixth or seventh game of the season, I’d be more concerned about it being a trap. But in the second game, I think the team is still fresh and still motivated – my feeling is this won’t be a problem.

  4. Hokies All, I “called” this game an AUTO-W, couple weeks ago, as the game should be. If we cannot run for significant yardage we are in trouble against P5 teams. Our rushing stat’s will indicate the team we are. GO HOKIES!!!!

  5. Don’t sleep on the Blue Raiders. This is the type of game that has given the FU fighters fits over the years.

    1. I am worried like you. How many times after a big win have we spent our time reading our own press clippings, and not getting ready for our next game.

  6. 3 words that have been missing in games like this one that VT has in 2021:
    Hard, Smart, Tough.

    Look for game over by halftime as this is the toughest team we’ve seen u set Coach Fuente since year Uno

    Let’s Go… Hokies!!!
    Hang half a hundred on these Raiders

  7. 41-10. Running game is going to go nuts, but we need to increase confidence in BB and the WR, not just run to secure a win and only win by 14-17 pts. If this defense wants to be great, then it is every weekend with the intensity.

  8. I’ve been disappointed by our performances in these types of games for a while, but I believe in these “kids”. They are going to show discipline needed in games when the crowd doesn’t juice you and you can’t forget the fundamentals trying to force it against a physically outmatched opponent.

  9. I have not been confident going into a VT football game in a long while. Seems like we rarely dominate a team that we are supposed to, particularly in the trenches. The Marshall game a few years back come to mind, our offensive line outweighed their defensive line by a large margin and we got no push at all. I hope this game is different and we can open up some big holes for the running backs.

    Go Hokies!

  10. A few derivative points to Will – I would specifically like to see:
    – Payoute – Is be healthy and ready to play?
    – Lofton / Jones – how “stud” like are they at this point?
    – Nelson / Pene – did the loss of all those DE hurt us or were they going to be beaten out by these 2?
    – Kaden Moore – how many pancakes will he have in this one?
    – Hunter – if he can’t play more now vs this team …
    – King – can he rebound from the fumble?

    Let’s see!

  11. Wow, we’ve actually got a few people picking MTSU to win in the on-line poll. Those are some deeply scarred fans! (I’m still scarred, too, but I refuse to believe that this team will allow a major letdown to happen).

  12. Is a r-Fr in his 3rd year with last year not counting? Everyone is essentially classified a year off correct?

  13. Could you add an additional column in the Predictions Tracker table? That column could be The Voters (who would be 1-0 after the UNC victory).

  14. Edit the roster to reflect Nasir Peoples’ measurables. Looks like it’s hunter’s measureables with Nasir’s name and number

  15. “I think Braxton Burmeister showed a better ability to throw the deep ball.”

    Maybe I am missing something, but from what I remember, there were only two throws that would be considered “deep”. One to Tre, and one to Tay. Both we great throws, but hardly a data set to hang your hat on. Now, I hope you are correct that he is a good deep ball man. I wanted to see more of the deep ball last week, so let’s hope we get a good dose this week.

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