Game Preview: Virginia Tech Takes On Duke

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Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech faces Duke on Saturday afternoon. (Jon Fleming)
  • Virginia Tech vs. Duke: 3:30, ACC Network
  • Virginia Tech vs. Duke Betting Line: VT -11
  • Virginia Tech-Duke roster cards: Click here
  • Game notes from Hokiesports: Click here
  • Blacksburg weather: Click here
  • Gameday information: Click Here

Duke is a struggling football team, and the numbers indicate that it is the worst football team in the ACC.  After losing to Charlotte in week one, the Blue Devils ran off three straight wins against North Carolina A&T, Northwestern (thanks to five Wildcat turnovers) and Kansas, but since ACC play began, they’ve struggled.  Here are the scores of their ACC games…

38-7 L at UNC
31-27 L vs. GT
48-0 L at UVA
45-7 L at Wake
54-29 L vs. Pitt

The David Cutcliffe era, after some years of good, solid football, appears to be sputtering to an end.

Is Duke worse offensively or defensively? It’s hard to tell by looking at their scores, but looking at the F/+ metrics – which are a combination of the FEI and S&P+ advanced ratings – it’s dead even as the Blue Devils rank No. 98 in offense and No. 98 in defense.

However, a closer look reveals that the Duke offense is probably better than the defense, but the offense is held back by its struggles in the red zone.

The Duke Offense

To put into perspective how bad the Blue Devil offense has been this season, consider the fact that the unit failed to score against a UVA defense that ranks No. 99 in F/+ defense and allowed 66 to BYU, 40 to Georgia Tech, 59 to UNC and 33 to Louisville.

That’s despite having one of the nation’s top tailbacks this year in Mataeo Durant (6-1, 195, Sr.).  Durant is the nation’s fifth leading rusher, averaging 118 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry.  He’s also third on the team with 23 receptions, and he’s been a very good all-around back for the Blue Devils this season.

Let’s focus on his numbers against Power 5 defenses…

Northwestern: 22 carries, 102 yards, 4.6 ypc, 1 TD, 4 catches, 41 yards, 1 TD
Kansas: 21 carries, 124 yards, 5.9 ypc, 1 TD, 3 catches, 62 yards
UNC: 19 carries, 114 yards, 6.0 ypc, 1 catch, 2 yards
GT: 43 carries, 152 yards, 3.5 ypc, 1 TD, 1 catch, 8 yards
UVA: 17 carries, 82 yards, 4.8 ypc, 5 catches, 5 yards
WF: 20 carries, 103 yards, 5.2 ypc, 1 catch, 3 yards
Pitt: 24 carries, 89 yards, 3.7 ypc, 4 catches, 39 yards, 1 TD

Those are impressive numbers, and you’ve got to figure that Durant would have even better stats if Duke brought the threat of a good passing game to the table.

The Blue Devils do rank No. 46 nationally in passing yards per game, but only No. 77 in the country in passing efficiency. Four different quarterbacks have thrown a pass for Duke this year, with the starter being Gunnar Holmberg (6-3, 205, r-Sr.). He has plenty of experience in Duke’s system. Some of his numbers are very impressive; others not so much.

2021: 178-of-257 (69.3%) for 2,034 yards, 7.9 ypa, 7 TDs, 6 INTs

That’s an excellent competition percentage, his yards per attempt is middle-of-the-pack, he doesn’t throw that many interceptions, but he only has seven touchdown passes on the season.

The lack of touchdown passes indicates that Duke has problems in the red zone, and that appears to be the case. The Blue Devils have made it into the red zone 28 times against FBS teams, which ranks No. 71 nationally. That’s not good, but it’s also not terrible. However, their touchdown percentage in the red zone is only 42.86% (12-of-28) which ranks No. 122 nationally, and their overall scoring percentage is only 64.3% (18-of-28) which ranks No. 127 out of 130 teams. Generally speaking, the Blue Devil offense will bend you, but they won’t break you.

Will that be the case again this week? Unfortunately, the VT defense ranks No. 99 in red zone touchdown defense (66.67%) and No. 93 in overall red zone defense (87.5%). One of those trends has to give way in a game like this, right?

The Blue Devils don’t have as much receiving depth as they have at times in the past, but they do have two good ones this year.

  • Jake Bobo (6-5, 215, Sr.): 59 catches, 628 yards, 10.6 ypc, 1 TD
  • Jalon Calhoun (5-11, 190, Jr.): 41 catches, 609 yards, 14.8 ypc, 3 TDs

Durant is the team’s third-leading receiver with 23 catches. Those three guys have combined for 123 of Duke’s 198 receptions this season, so they will get the majority of the targets on Saturday afternoon.

For the season, the Blue Devils have been solid in run blocking, though they have struggled a bit in pass blocking. Center Jack Wohlabaugh (6-4, 305, r-Sr.) is a very experienced player with over 2,100 career snaps under his belt, and he’s arguably been Duke’s best overall offensive player this season. However, the tackles have struggled with pass blocking at times, as have a couple of the backup guards.

This is a strange Duke offense to figure out. The team boasts an excellent running back, and a quarterback who throws for a high percentage without tossing picks. The Blue Devils have No. 67 nationally in Available Yards, which is right in the middle of the pack. That means they are able to move the ball decently; however, they have a terrible time with stalling in the red zone. That will be key to Saturday’s game.

Virginia Tech
Duke struggled to stop the Virginia Tech running game last year. (Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports)

The Duke Defense

Here’s how the Duke defense grades out in each of the key Pro Football Focus categories…

Overall: No. 11 in the ACC
Rushing: No. 9 in the ACC
Tackling: No. 12 in the ACC
Pass Rush: No. 8 in the ACC
Coverage: No. 13 in the ACC

The fact that the Blue Devils are pretty average in their absolute best defensive stats bodes well for Virginia Tech. Likewise, it’s nice to see a passing defense that is nearly the ACC’s worst in coverage. The Blue Devils rank ahead of only Georgia Tech in coverage, and you saw what Virginia Tech was able to do against the Yellow Jackets – Burmeister’s 254 passing yards represented a career-high. On the other hand, we don’t even know if Burmeister or wide receiver Tre Turner will play this week, so is that poor Duke pass defense exploitable by the remainder of Virginia Tech’s personnel?

The Blue Devils don’t appear to have settled on a regular starting lineup in the secondary this season. According to PFF, four Duke safeties have played 235 or more snaps, while five cornerbacks have played 292 or more snaps. That includes slot corner Jalen Alexander (5-11, 160, Jr.) among the cornerbacks. 

Alexander seems like a player who could be attacked.  He lacks size, and he has subpar tackling (51.4) and coverage (55.2) grades so far this season. He’s backed up by the even smaller Jaylen Stinson (5-8, 165, So.) who has played over 200 snaps, and Stinson has also had tackling and coverage issues. This is the first place I’m looking to attack if I’m Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen.

Other attackable players include…

  • Field corner Josh Blackwell (6-0, 175, r-Sr.): 47.5 overall, 41.9 run, 46.6 tackling, 49.8 coverage
  • WLB Dorian Mausi (6-2, 210, So.): 53.3 overall, 53.6 run, 57.9 tackling, 51.7 coverage
  • Safety J’Marick Woods (6-3, 215, r-Sr.): 56.1 overall, 62.1 run, 60.9 tackling, 53.3 coverage
  • MLB Shaka Heyward (6-4, 220, r-Jr.): 58.2 overall, 52.8 run, 62.3 tackling, 70.0 coverage

Three of Duke’s four defensive ends have also performed at the average-to-below-average levels this year, with the exception being RJ Oben (6-4, 255, r-So.). He has 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.

The strength of Duke’s defense appears to be its defensive tackles, particularly DeWayne Carter (6-3, 300, r-So.) and Gary Smith III (6-2, 320, So.). Those players will be difficult to move off the line of scrimmage on the interior, especially if Brock Hoffman can’t play due to his injury problems over the last couple of weeks.

The Blue Devils don’t put opponents behind the chains very often, nor do they generate much pressure on the quarterback.

  • TFL: 5.44 per game, No. 78 nationally
  • Sacks: 2.11 per game, No. 70 nationally

On the whole, the Blue Devil defense is struggling, and it’s been susceptible to both the run and the pass. With questions surrounding the health of both Tre Turner and Braxton Burmeister, I would expect a heavy dose of the running game this week from the Hokies.

Special Teams

Watch out for Duke in the return game. Jaylen Stinson (5-8, 165) is a small, shifty guy who took a kickoff back 86 yards for a touchdown last week against Pitt. He earned ACC Returner of the Week honors as a result. It didn’t matter in the end, but a play like that could turn out to be the difference in a closer game.

Scott Boylan (5-10, 185, r-Sr.) and Josh Blackwell (6-0, 175, r-Sr.) have been solid in punt returns, each having a return of over 20 yards. However, Boylan hasn’t played in the month of November, and the job appears to be Blackwell’s as of now.

The Blue Devils are just 9-of-15 (60%) on field goals this season.  Starter Charlie Ham (6-2, 180, r-So.) has been good from inside 40, but is just 2-of-6 from beyond 40 with a long of 50 yards. 

The Blue Devils have been excellent on their coverage teams, particularly the kickoff team, with opponents averaging only 14.67 yards per kickoff return, which ranks No. 5 in the country.

14 of Porter Wilson’s (6-5, 225, r-So.) 48 punts have gone for 50+ yards this season, and only two have gone for touchbacks. However, 21 have been returned, so there should be opportunities available for Tayvion Robinson if his teammates can block well for him.

Virginia Tech-Duke Final Thoughts

Geez…I dunno about the game itself. What I do know is that I personally need Virginia Tech to win a football game. I missed the Georgia Tech game, with the exception of watching the condensed version a day later.  That means I haven’t watched Virginia Tech win a football game live since they beat Richmond on September 21, and that wasn’t exactly an impressive victory (21-10 final). It’s now November 10, and I’m ready to see a victory again. Against anybody. Duke is bad, but if the Hokies win, I’ll be happy no matter what.

But will the Hokies win? Well, a lot of that has to do with the quarterback position and who is going to play for Virginia Tech. Fuente was coy about Braxton Burmeister during his Monday press conference, saying he “will go if he can go.”  That’s the smart response on Monday; alas, it doesn’t help me with my game prediction, though.

What about Tech Talk Live?

“We’ve got Connor [Blumrick] coming back. We’ve got Knox [Kadum] and Braxton. If something happened and we didn’t have those three then Tahj would be in an emergency role. He’s not ready for that, he doesn’t need that.”

That doesn’t tell us much either. Yes, we’ve known since the Monday after the Notre Dame game that Blumrick would be out “about a month” but is that going to be this week, or the next week? And it doesn’t shed any further light about Burmeister’s situation. All it tells us is that – barring an amazing piece of gamesmanship by Fu – Tahj Bullock isn’t ready to play yet.

At the time of this writing, I haven’t heard anything from any sources about the quarterback position. Gun to my head, I think Burmeister will be out there, but how effective he can be with an injured shoulder and ribs is very questionable. I could also see Tech starting Blumrick if he’s healthy and Burmeister isn’t ready to go, and of course Kadum is the only completely healthy quarterback right now, so that’s a possibility.

Shoot, I don’t know. Last week I thought it was going to be Burmeister vs. the BC backups, so I picked VT. Instead, it was Jurkovec vs. Kadum, and the Eagles won. I have no idea what to expect this week, or how to make my pick.

I think I’ll just pick it based on the fact that Virginia Tech is playing a home game inside Lane Stadium.  That sentence would have sounded good 10 years ago, but not so much these days. This is the second time in a row I’ve picked Duke to beat Tech in Blacksburg. Wrap your head around that for a second.

Chris’s Prediction: Duke 24, Virginia Tech 20

Will Stewart’s Take: Geez, here’s something that used to be a sure sign of the Apocalypse: Duke owning Virginia Tech in Blacksburg:

You can’t blame this stuff all on Justin Fuente, either – it started in Frank Beamer’s last two home games against the Blue Devils. Devilish, indeed. That 2019 hammer job shook Virginia Tech football to its core.

Can Duke beat Virginia Tech yet again in Blacksburg? Syracuse and Boston College, two mediocre teams, have combined for three ACC wins, two against Virginia Tech. Duke is 0-5 in the league, so it’s hard to imagine them beating the Hokies, but BC and Syracuse are 1-7 in league play against teams not named Virginia Tech. So, yeah. Duke could win.

Scott Glesner, who regularly brings the heat to the TSL Podcast YouTube comments with awesome stats, noted Monday that the last five times Virginia Tech has scored fewer than seven points, they have averaged 33.4 points in their next outing. I did the research:

  • 1997: UNC 42, VT 3. Next game: VT 38, ECU 3
  • 2006: BC 22, VT 3. Next game: VT 36, Southern Miss 6
  • 2011: Clemson 23, VT 3. Next game: VT 38, Miami 35
  • 2014: Wake Forest 6, VT 3. Next game: VT 24, UVA 20
  • 2014: Miami 30, VT 6. Next game: BC 33, VT 31

Yep, that’s 33.4 points per game. What will happen in 2021? Who knows, because Justin Fuente’s Hokies have never scored fewer than seven points in a game until last Friday at BC. Heck, they’d never gone into single digits before under Fuente until doing it twice in the last four games (28-7 vs. Pitt, 17-3 vs. BC).

There’s no analysis to be done here, because we don’t know if Burmeister and Tre Turner are going to play, and if they do play, we don’t know how effective they’ll be. So let’s pick a score out of a hat. Using a random number generator to pick numbers between 1 and 30 (even though 1 is impossible in a football game), with Virginia Tech going first, I get:

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 25, Duke 15

David Cunningham’s Take: I guess I’ll start my pick with “geez” too. Like Will and Chris, I’m not sure how to feel about the game this weekend. It all depends on whether Braxton Burmeister can go or not at quarterback, in my opinion.

If Burmeister is healthy enough to play, I’m picking Virginia Tech. But if he can’t go, I’m siding with Duke. As far as this pick goes, I’m going to go with the assumption that Burmeister will NOT play, simply because he looked in a lot of pain against Boston College and I’m not sure how long it’ll take him to recover from the injury he suffered.

This is a toss-up game, and it feels weird to say it against Duke. The Blue Devils aren’t good… but if we’re being honest, the Hokies aren’t that good either, really. This one could go either way.

I feel confident that Virginia Tech will run the ball well because Malachi Thomas and Raheem Blackshear have done that well over the past three weeks. Will that be enough, though? Last week, Tech was fairly efficient running the ball, but when it got into third down situations and had to pass, it stalled. 

I do think it’ll be a really close game either way because it’s Senior Day. Final game in Lane Stadium, which, you would hope, accounts for something. I think Tech will come out motivated at home for one final time this season.

The bottom line: in my opinion, Virginia Tech has a good chance to win this game, but I only feel confident about the team if its starting quarterback is playing. If Burmeister plays, I think VT wins. Otherwise, I’m taking Duke in a close one because I don’t think the Hokies will be able to do enough. 

David’s Prediction: Duke 17, Virginia Tech 13


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

  • Hokies Win by 1-10 (35%, 372 Votes)
  • Duke Wins by 1-10 (34%, 361 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 11+ (20%, 216 Votes)
  • Duke Wins by 11+ (11%, 120 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,069

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Last Game’s Virginia Tech-Boston College Prediction Poll Results

Game Result: Boston College 17, Virginia Tech 3

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

  • Hokies Win by 1-10 (47%, 551 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 11+ (40%, 467 Votes)
  • BC Wins by 1-10 (11%, 124 Votes)
  • BC Wins by 11+ (2%, 24 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,166

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2021 Virginia Tech Football Predictions Tracker - TSL Staff
Chris (5-6)
Will (6-5)
David (7-4)
Notre Dame
@Georgia Tech
@Boston College
2021 Virginia Tech Football Predictions Tracker - Fans (7-4)
Fan Poll
Hokies Win by 1-10
Hokies 17, UNC 10
Hokies Win by 11+
Hokies 35, MTSU 14
Hokies Win by 1-10
WVU 27, Hokies 21
Hokies Win by 11+
Hokies 21, Richmond 10
Notre Dame
Hokies Win by 1-10
Notre Dame 32, Hokies 29
Pittsburgh Wins by 11+
Pittsburgh 28, Hokies 7
Syracuse Wins by 1-10
Syracuse 41, Hokies 36
@Georgia Tech
Hokies Win by 1-10
Hokies 26, GT 17
@Boston College
Hokies Win by 1-10
Boston College 17, Hokies 3
Hokies Win by 1-10
Hokies 48, Duke 17
Hokies Win by 1-10
Miami 38, Hokies 26
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31 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. Ru, run, run! Run them to death, wear ’em down, and run some more. Where’s our FB? FBs and TEs are the keys to victory–nobody wants to have to tackle either one play after play.

  2. I think you see a bounce back performance from the VT offense this week. Last week was a disaster of epic proportions when BB went down. However the username seemed to play better in the second half and I’m hopeful that they will show similar sound to the GT and SU games, regardless of the quarterback.

    Duke is really bad. BC was a decent team before their starting QB got hurt. The good guys take care of business and win going away.


  3. What? QB Bullock “not ready to play”. Why not? Other freshmen QBs seem to be able to play at other schools. If not, after a year in the program, he should be or else we didn’t evaluate or developed him like we should. Maybe time to burn that red shirt and get him some experience and be ready for next year and hopefully keep him @ VT and out of the portal.

  4. I want to predict a hearty crowd to show up and show out and send these seniors off in style. Those kids have given roughly 1/4 of their life to VT football.

    Let’s be there for them and leave the boo birds at the tailgate.

  5. Heck Will, 1 is impossible for a football game but since it’s us, who knows? We might perform so bad or “crazy” that the rule changes in “midstream” and we end up with just 1 point, lol!!!!

  6. Pride goeth before a fall

    Frank Beamer may have been right when he said “When things are good, you’re not as good as you think; when they’re bad, you’re not as bad as you think…”

    Nah. Frank was wrong. We may be even worse than we think.

  7. I guess predicting a 0-0 tie going into the 5th OT is unrealistic…..but……someone wins by 2 points!
    Shades of VT & Wake 2014

    On a serious side I hope the Hokies but up a win for the seniors, I’ll always pull for the boys no matter who coaches them!

  8. I am really disappointed that no one believes that based on our close loses to some very good teams, that our team does not have the ability or determination to win against Duke. In addition, why would we not expect that with a week working with the starters, that Knox will be in a better position to throw the ball and that the coaches will be better prepared to call more aggressive plays. I am sure that most of us know that there is nothing that makes us better, than actual combat.

  9. If I’m Whit Babcock, I tell Fuente he has to win this game or he is fired. Then I tell Fuente if he wins 2 of the last 3 games, and fires his whole offensive staff he can stay next year and I go searching for an OC for at least twice the current salary so that I have a prayer of picking up 4-5 offensive starters from this years (likely massive due to COVID) transfer portal.

    1. I had a similar outlook prior to the BC game, where another change means 2+ more years of rebuilding. Seeing how we performed with an unprepared backup QB, while the BC QB was back but far from 100%, I don’t see how Fuente can still be the guy. He should have fired Corny mis-season to save his own tail and show the willingness to correct things, but his trailer is hitched and it will be heading out of the Burg on Nov. 28.

  10. My bet is BB won’t play, neither will Turner, and Fuente knows that too. Since we do not have a 2nd or 3rd string QB Duke will win. Sure hope I’m wrong. GO HOKIES!!!

  11. Everyone gets a lollipop and a trophy but Dook wins the game.

    Imagine it, Dook wins four of five at Lane. The magic has departed.

  12. While the analysis is very good and represents reality, this is depressing.

    To my untrained eye, it appeared that Kadum looked a little bit better as the game went on. I don’t know if that was BC taking their foot of the gas or what. Perhaps there is enough there that we can win no matter who starts. I really don’t know.

    I hope we win on Saturday if for no other reason than to send the Seniors out with a victory. They’ve put up with a lot. I am going to try to enjoy my last opportunity to hang out with friends in Lane one more time in 2021.

  13. For the final kick in the g-nads, duke kicks field goal in last seconds to win 23-20. Fuente put on a wooden rail and carried out of town. Well the first part I can see actually happening.

  14. As bad as things are, I see the Hokies winning by more than 11 even if Kadum is QB. What you are missing is simply how bad all facets of the Duke program are. If Kadum can throw 2 effective passes per quarter, that will be enough to keep Duke honest. By effective….10 yards will do. Duke will not be able to stop Blackshear and Thomas. Our defense will be able to handle Duke.

    If we lose, on senior day – at home, to this terrible a Duke team, then Fu has completely given up. I think coaches or no, we’ve the talent to simply outplay Duke.

    Miami and UVA might well clean our clock, but Duke….this particular Duke…no.

    1. Whether it’s Blumrick or Kadum, they will have had a week with the first team and I think that will be enough.

  15. Duke by 35. Cutcliffe simply out coaches Fu in this one. Durant is going to run for a ton of yards. BB or not, the boo birds will be well earned in this one.

  16. We’re a miserable bunch when it comes to football, that’s for sure. I will never be able to erase the memory of that 2019 Duke loss. I had probably my best seats in Lane ever, 2nd row near the 50 yd line with my wife, and boy was that miserable to sit through. That was the night that pushed me over the edge on Fuente, can’t stand the guy ever since.

  17. Yikes on the predictions….We “should” be able to to put-up 35 plus..Malachi and/or Tayvion will put-up some big numbers if they’re tuned-in….

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