Game Preview: Virginia Tech Travels To Marshall

Virginia Tech vs. Marshall 2018
The last time these two teams met, Virginia Tech beat Marshall 41-20 in Lane Stadium in 2018. (Ivan Morozov)
  • Virginia Tech vs. Marshall: Saturday, September 23 at noon ET (ESPN2) from Joan C. Edwards Stadium in Huntington, W.Va.
  • Betting Line: Marshall -5
  • Roster cards: Click here
  • Game notes from HokieSports: Click here
  • Huntington weather: Click here
  • Gameday information: Click here

Virginia Tech (1-2) is back on the road again this weekend with a trip to Huntington to face Marshall (2-0). The Thundering Herd are coming off an open week, and this is their biggest home game in quite some time. ESPN2 is in town, which doesn’t happen often unless it’s a weeknight. The fans are striping the stadium in a green-white effect. Later that night, No. 1 Marshall men’s soccer takes on No. 3 UCF at home, so this is probably one of the biggest overall sports weekends, in terms of home games, in Marshall history.

Since 2018, the only other time ESPN has visited Huntington for a Saturday game was in 2020 for Marshall’s matchup with FCS Eastern Kentucky, but that was during COVID when many games were canceled at the last minute. This is also the first visit from a Power 5 program since NC State went to Huntington in 2018. Needless to say, Herd fans will be up for this one.

Charles Huff is the Marshall head coach and has steadily improved the program since his arrival in 2021. The Herd went 7-6 in his first season and lost the New Orleans Bowl but improved to 9-4 in 2022 with a victory in the Myrtle Beach Bowl. This season, the group is 2-0, and while it didn’t play well in a 21-17 win against FCS Albany, it won handily on the road, 31-13, in week two against an East Carolina program that is 15-10 over the last two seasons.

This is a program that has become accustomed to winning in recent years. Dating back to 2013, check out these records:

2013: 10-4
2014: 13-1
2015: 10-3
2016: 3-9
2017: 8-5
2018: 9-4
2019: 8-5
2020: 7-3
2021: 7-6
2022: 9-4
2023: 2-0
Total: 86-44

Outside of 2016, this is a program that doesn’t lose very often, and Saturday will be its biggest home game in a long time. Let’s take a deeper look at Marshall.

Marshall’s Recent Defensive Dominance

The Thundering Herd has been consistently good on defense for the last several years. Over the last three years, it’s ranked No. 23 on average in S&P+ defense, the best mark in the country among all current Group of Five teams. It’s been able to keep up that consistency despite changing coordinators very often:

2019-20, Brad Lambert: Left after two seasons for Purdue, and then Wake Forest.
2021-22, Lance Guidry: Left after two seasons to become defensive coordinator at Miami.
2023, Jason Semone: Former LB coach at Georgia Tech

That’s a lot of turnover in a short period of time, but Marshall has still managed to maintain a high standard on the defensive side of the ball.

Thus far in 2023, Marshall’s DF+ defensive rating is No. 18 nationally. DF+ is a combination of the S&P+ defensive metrics along with the FEI defensive ratings. That’s about the same as last season when it had a DF+ rating of No. 15. No matter how you slice it, this appears to be a very well-coached defensive team.

Lambert had previously been head coach at Charlotte, and also coached at Wake Forest, Georgia and Marshall. Guidry was an experienced defensive coordinator with multiple seasons at many FCS schools, plus Western Kentucky and Miami (OH). Semone had experience with linebackers at Georgia Tech but also served as coordinator at Montana and Valdosta State. The Thundering Herd hasn’t been able to hire coordinators with big names but has hired coaches with a lot of successful experience at lower levels, and it’s paid off.

Here are some key numbers for the Marshall defense so far in 2023:

Total defense: No. 28
Yards per play: No. 2
DF+: No. 18
FEI Defense: No. 13
Available Yards: No. 5

Kyron Drones Virginia Tech
Kyron Drones faces another stingy defense on Saturday at Marshall. (Ivan Morozov)

The Thundering Herd might not be quite as good as the Rutgers defense but will have a game of film to study the Virginia Tech offense with Kyron Drones, which is advantage the Scarlet Knights didn’t have.

However, it’s worth noting that the one thing that has given Marshall trouble this year is mobile quarterbacks.

Reese Poffenbarger, Albany: 15 carries, 37 yards, 2.5 ypc. Those numbers are deceptive, as Poffenbarger was sacked seven times by a feisty Marshall defense, and he had a long-run of 54 yards for a touchdown.

Mason Garcia, ECU: 16 carries, 118 yards, 5.7 ypc.

The Marshall defense was dominant against the pass through the first two games, so I would expect a healthy dose of Kyron Drones this week. Most of that yardage came on either designed quarterback runs up the middle or scrambles, and there was very little read option. Still, there will have to be some semblance of balance for the Hokies to be successful offensively. While the Herd has given up a lot of QB rushing yardage, it has been great in all other defensive phases.

Defensive Players To Watch

Marshall has had excellent defensive end play so far this season:

Sam Burton (6-0, 253, r-Sr.): 3.5 sacks on the season. Burton is a sixth-year player with over 1,000 snaps in his career. He had 7.5 tackles for loss and five sacks last season. He’s never been a full-time starter, but he has always graded well.

Owen Porter (6-3, 237, r-Sr.): 4.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack. Another sixth-year player, Porter was First Team All-Sun Belt last season when he had 15 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks.

Even backup defensive end Elijah Alston (6-2, 256, r-Jr.) is a solid and experienced player. The Oscar Smith (Chesapeake) product will have extra incentive against the Hokies. This group of defensive ends will challenge an offensive line that has surrendered five sacks in the last two games.

Cornerback Micah Abraham (5-11, 185, r-Sr.) was a preseason First Team All-Sun Belt selection this year, and Phil Steele named him an Honorable Mention All-American after the 2022 season. He has played exactly 2,500 career snaps in his Marshall career. The fifth-year player finished third nationally in interceptions last year with six and defended a total of 16 passes. He’s shown that he’s capable of playing against Power 5 competition as well, with one of the best games of his career coming last season in the Herd’s 26-21 road victory at Notre Dame.

Linebacker Eli Neal (6-0, 226, Sr.) is another fifth-year player who has played over 2,200 snaps in his career. He finished last season with 98 tackles, including 9.5 TFL and three sacks. He was a Preseason First Team All-Sun Belt selection by conference coaches heading into the 2023 season.

Jaylin Lane Bhayshul Tuten Virginia Tech
Jaylin Lane, Bhayshul Tuten and the Hokies face a solid defense in Marshall. (Ivan Morozov)

There are a number of very experienced key players for Marshall on the defensive side of the ball. Perhaps the least-experienced starter is the most talented, cornerback Josh Moten (6-1, 171, So.). He was a 4-star recruit, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, who signed with Texas A&M out of high school. He’s played 110 snaps, nearly all at nickel, through the first two games. Run defense hasn’t come easy for him thus far, so he’s a player to keep an eye on.

Safety JJ Roberts (5-11, 190, r-Jr.) is a veteran player who was in the rotation at Wake Forest before transferring to Marshall. He’ll play free safety and is likely one of the Herd’s more exploitable players. Same with inexperienced cornerback Jacobie Henderson (5-11, 194, r-Fr.), who Marshall actually lists as a safety on its official roster. I’d say that Roberts and Henderson are weaknesses, but it’s all relative. This defense has been solid across the board through the first two games, with the lone exception being mobile quarterbacks. That’s where Virginia Tech must to take advantage.

Clint Trickett: An Inexperienced OC

You probably remember Clint Trickett as a quarterback for both Florida State and his hometown West Virginia Mountaineers. Now he’s in his second season as Marshall’s offensive coordinator after serving as co-OC for Florida Atlantic in 2020. He’s only been coaching since 2015, and he’s only been coaching non-JUCO football since 2017, so his experience as a coach and coordinator is limited.

So far, Marshall’s passing game has regressed since his arrival, while the running game is very strong. Either way you slice it, he won’t have the experience advantage over Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Chris Marve that the Hokies’ first three opponents enjoyed.

Marshall’s Two-Headed Monster In The Running Game

Although Cam Fancher (6-1, 201, r-So.) only took over the starting quarterback position for the final seven games of the 2022 season, he still had a very productive year on the ground. He had 466 yards on 107 carries (4.4 ypc), including a 136-yard performance against Old Dominion. Fancher hasn’t been able to get loose thus far in 2023, but with three games worth of film to study of the Virginia Tech defense, plus a bye week, you can bet the Herd will have a pretty good idea of how to attack the Hokies.

One avenue will be through running back Rasheen Ali (6-0, 209, r-So.). Though he missed most of last season with an injury, Ali was a Football Writers Association Freshman All-American in 2021, as well as a First Team All-Conference USA performer. He ran for 1,401 yards and averaged 5.6 yards per carry while scoring 23 touchdowns.

An excellent all-around running back, Ali also had 45 receptions that season, with 334 yards and one touchdown tacked on for good measure. He was so valuable that the Marshall coaches only allowed him to return one kickoff, which he returned 97 yards for a touchdown. Through two games in 2023, Ali is averaging 111 yards per game with five touchdowns and 6.2 yards per carry, and he’s already caught five passes as well.

Norell Pollard and the Hokies will have their hands full with Marshall running back Rasheen Ali. (Ivan Morozov)

Ali is an extremely powerful runner with very good acceleration who can make safeties miss. Here are some of his highlights from the 2021 season (with Grant Wells handing him the ball and throwing him a few passes, haha)…

That’s a great video. However, it’s worth nothing that the Marshall running game hasn’t been firing on all cylinders so far this season. In its last game against ECU, Ali had just six yards on 15 carries before exploding at the end of the game to finish with 85 yards on 18 carries. The Herd was losing that game 13-10 in the fourth quarter before running away with it at the end, so there will certainly be a great chance for Tech to stay in the game and win it.

Coming off a bye week, you can bet that Ali and Fancher are both expecting to have good games against the Virginia Tech run defense, assuming they iron out some of the difficulties of the first two weeks. Each of Tech’s first three opponents recorded season-highs in rushing yards and yards per carry against the Hokie defense. I keep expecting that to improve, and I expected it to improve against Rutgers, but it hasn’t happened yet. Here’s where Tech ranks in run defense:

Yards per game: 212, No. 127 nationally out of 133
Yards per carry: 5.17, No. 122 nationally out of 133

(In case you were wondering, James Madison ranks No. 1 in the country in both of those categories — 22.67 yards per game and 0.77 yards per carry.)

It goes without saying that Virginia Tech’s rushing defense must improve this week or the Hokies could be in for another long afternoon. Marshall has been inconsistent, but it is dominant when clicking.

The Marshall Passing Game

Fancher did struggle somewhat in the passing game as a redshirt freshman. He completed 55.7% of his passes for 1,558 yards with 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. His 6.6 yards per attempt is not a good number, and he had two games as a starter where he threw for under 100 yards.

Has he improved in 2023? It’s hard to say. He did well against Albany, as you might expect, but he struggled against East Carolina, completing 15-of-28 (53.6%) for 178 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions.

Chuck Montgomery (5-10, 190, r-So.) started last season as a redshirt freshman and led the team with 36 catches. He has seven catches for 97 yards and a touchdown this season. Tight end Cade Conley (6-4, 239, r-So) is the leading receiver on the team thus far with nine receptions for 114 yards. Watch Conley, as Purdue’s tight ends gave the Hokies all sorts of trouble two weeks ago.

Mansoor Delane and the Virginia Tech cornerbacks might not have a super busy week in pass coverage. (Ivan Morozov)

The Marshall passing game won’t scare too many teams, but neither did the Rutgers passing game. The Hokies held the Scarlet Knights to just 46 passing yards and 2.9 yards per attempt and still lost the game by 19 because they couldn’t stop the run. That’s the area where Virginia Tech must improve this week.

Marshall Special Teams

Rece Verhoff (5-11, 182, So.) was a mixed bag last year as a freshman kicker, going 13-of-20 while also missed a pair of extra points. His workload was high while also seeing spot duty as the Thundering Herd punter. Through two games in 2023, he is 0-of-1, and that attempt was blocked. Kameron Lake (6-2, 189, r-Jr.) started last week against ECU and was 1-of-2, but his make was only from 20 yards.

John McConnell (6-4, 197, r-So.) only averaged 38.9 yards per punt last season but is at 41.6 yards so far in 2023. The Thundering Herd wasn’t great in punt coverage last year but wasn’t bad either. It’s possible that the Hokies could find an advantage in this area of the game.

Kickoff returner Jayden Harrison (5-11, 195, r-Jr.) hasn’t done as much recently, but he had a 99-yard return for a touchdown two years ago. Talik Keaton (6-0, 190, r-Sr.) averages 7.9 yards per return for his career. He had a touchdown in 2019 but hasn’t averaged more than 6.6 yards per return since that season.

So far, Virginia Tech ranks No. 43 nationally in SF+ (combination of FEI and S&P+ special teams ratings) while Marshall ranks No. 124. Last season, Marshall was No. 127; in 2021, it was No. 101. This is a program that hasn’t been great at special teams for quite some time. The Hokies need to take advantage by winning the field position game and generate a big play or two.

Before we make our staff picks, what’s your prediction?

What's your prediction for the 2023 Virginia Tech-Marshall game?

  • Thundering Herd Wins by 1-10 (36%, 457 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 1-10 (31%, 387 Votes)
  • Thundering Herd Wins by 11+ (27%, 341 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 11+ (6%, 75 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,260

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Virginia Tech-Marshall Final Thoughts

Marshall will certainly be up for this one. The program doesn’t get home Saturday games on a major network very often, and it doesn’t get Power 5 teams at home very often as well. Sometimes emotions can positively impact a team, but sometimes it can cause them to lose focus. If I was Tech, I’d try to come out with some misdirection to really test the focus on the Herd defense. That’s a very experienced group, though, so I would expect them to be dialed in.

Trying to predict how emotions can affect 18-22 year olds is an exercise in futility, so we’re better off just sticking to the facts. The Thundering Herd has a quarterback and a running back who are both capable of putting up big yardage and will be running behind four redshirt juniors and a redshirt senior on the offensive line. The passing game is questionable, but that didn’t seem to matter for Rutgers last week. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, the Herd seem to be very good and very disciplined across the board, though perhaps not quite as big, fast or athletic as Rutgers. That group faces a Virginia Tech offense that has struggled. The Hokies have to lean on Drones to put up big numbers on the ground against a Marshall defense that has struggled against quarterback runs, and it would also be beneficial for them to gain a major advantage on special teams.

I view Marshall as a team that perhaps isn’t quite as talented as Rutgers but is just as well-coached and experienced, and I think highly of Rasheen Ali as running back. As good as Kyle Monangai was last week, I don’t think he’s as good as Ali, but I do feel like the Rutgers OL is better. The Hokies can win this one, but they’ll need to play a lot differently than they did in Piscataway last week.

Beyond those matchups, there’s another basic way to look at this game. The Hokies are 4-10 in their last 10 football games dating back to the start of the 2022 season. In that same timespan, Marshall is 11-4, and the Herd have had a winning season in nine of the last 10 years. This is a program that is used to winning, while Virginia Tech seems to be growing more and more accustomed to losing. Tech will win again this year, of course, but Marshall is the favorite this week for a reason.

I do think this one will be close. Despite a great running game, Marshall only eclipsed 30 points on two occasions last year, and one of those was against Norfolk State. I don’t think the Herd will score a ton on the Hokies, though I didn’t think Rutgers would, either. However, on the other side of the ball, the Herd have only allowed 30 points this season after allowing just 16 points per game all of last year. It’s hard for me to see Virginia Tech scoring enough to win.

I can definitely see a path to victory for Virginia Tech in this one. However, I can also see a path to another 19-point defeat. The Hokies are going to have to clean up some stuff before I’ll feel confident in picking them to win again.

Prediction: Marshall 24, Virginia Tech 20

Will Stewart’s Take: This is very similar to last week’s matchup, in that Marshall has a strong defense against the run and an offense that is so-so in the passing game. I would put Marshall’s Raheem Ali slightly above Rutgers’s Kyle Monangai as a tailback, which is not good for the Hokies, because Monangai had 143 yards rushing against VT.

The Hokies simply must figure out how to slow down the running game. Purdue ground the Hokies down, and Rutgers gashed them for 108 yards and three touchdowns on three plays that went for 19, 34, and 55 yards. Limit the big plays, and the Hokies can stay in this.

This game looks like a potential low-scoring slugfest, but we thought the same about last game (and so did Vegas, putting an over/under of 37 on it), and that one featured 51 points.

Marshall has an explosive running back, and the Hokies haven’t stopped the run. Marshall has a good defense, and Virginia Tech is only averaging 23 points per game. Virginia Tech hasn’t forced a turnover in the last two games, and Marshall has turned it over just twice in two games. This simply doesn’t look good for the Hokies.

So I’m picking the Hokies to pull a rabbit out of a hat. I don’t know how they’re going to do it, but someone has to pick the game differently to get some separation, right?

Will Stewart’s Prediction:  Virginia Tech 27, Marshall 24

David Cunningham’s Take: Virginia Tech still has a number of question marks across the board. Kyron Drones played OK in his first career start last week at Rutgers, and even if Grant Wells was healthy enough to participate at his former school, I’d still lean Drones. I thought he opened certain things up that gave the Hokies a chance to do some damage, and I think it’ll be a similar scenario at Marshall.

However, I have no confidence in the Tech defense. It’s a unit that features a number of veterans yet still gave up acres on the ground in Piscataway. The main question I have defensively is if Jalen Stroman is healthy enough to play. If he is, that’s a big boost. If he isn’t, it’s going to be a long afternoon. At Wednesday’s practice, he was active but wasn’t a full participant. I’m going to lean on the side of caution, especially after Alan Tisdale didn’t dress out and Keonta Jenkins barely played last week. Tech has an injury bug, and there aren’t any easy fixes when there isn’t much depth. That’s worrying.

Virginia Tech will have a number of opportunities to win this game, but it’s going to take a great effort defensively to stop this Marshall rushing attack. Ali is the real deal and is one of the better backs Tech will see this season. The Herd’s experience on the defensive side of the ball also worries me. Tech will find ways to do some damage and sustain drives, but there have been too many times this season where the group hasn’t been able to punch it in the end zone. That has to change. Until it does, and until I know for sure that the Hokies have what it takes to stop the run, I’m picking the opposition. Marshall gets a big win at home.

David Cunningham’s Prediction: Marshall 26, Virginia Tech 17

Andy Bitter’s Take: The Hokies haven’t played great, but they haven’t completely stunk it up, either. The Purdue game was tied in the fourth quarter and could have gone either way. Rutgers was close, despite the final score, a one-score game until the Scarlet Knights broke a big run for a touchdown that opened the floodgates. The end result is a 1-2 record after playing two middle-of-the-pack Power 5 programs, but the path to getting there isn’t complete doom and gloom.

While Marshall is 2-0, it’s not a clean 2-0. The Thundering Herd struggled to beat Albany at home, then were in a tight one with a not-so-great East Carolina team until the fourth quarter. Perhaps these teams aren’t as unevenly matched as it seemed when the line opened at nine points earlier in the week.

Sometimes it’s less about matchups than where you think a team’s head is. On paper, Marshall sure looks like it’ll just run all over a Hokies rushing defense that’s been anything but stout. But Tech’s also been hearing about that all week after the Rutgers embarrassment. Here’s guessing the Hokies’ rushing defense comes out and plays with something to prove. Coupled with an offense that looked like it got better under Drones as the Rutgers game wore on and should have Jaylin Lane back, I’m picking Tech to go into Huntington and win a close one, similar to how the Hokies defied expectations by beating Liberty last year in another Group of 5 road game. 

Let’s test out the “things usually aren’t as bad as they seem” theory and pick an upset.

Andy Bitter’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 20, Marshall 19

Last Game’s Virginia Tech-Rutgers Prediction Poll Results

Game Result: Rutgers 35, Virginia Tech 16

What's your prediction for the 2023 Virginia Tech-Rutgers game?

  • Scarlet Knights Win by 1-10 (39%, 550 Votes)
  • Scarlet Knights Win by 11+ (37%, 523 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 1-10 (21%, 293 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 11+ (3%, 43 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,409

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2023 Virginia Tech Football Predictions Tracker - TSL Staff
Chris (9-4)
Andy (9-4)
David (9-4)
Will (8-5)
Wake Forest
NC State
2023 Virginia Tech Football Predictions Tracker - Fans (10-3)

(record based on W-L, not margin of victory)
Fan Poll
Hokies Win by 11+
Hokies 36, ODU 17
Hokies Win by 1-10
Purdue 24, Hokies 17
Rutgers Wins by 1-10
Rutgers 35, Hokies 16
Marshall Wins by 1-10
Marshall 24, Hokies 17
Pittsburgh Wins by 1-10
Hokies 38, Pittsburgh 21
@Florida State
FSU Wins by 11+
FSU 39, Hokies 17
Wake Forest
Hokies Win by 1-10
Hokies 30, Deacs 13
Hokies Win by 1-10
Hokies 38, Orange 10
Cardinals Win by 11+
Cardinals 34, Hokies 3
Hokies Win by 1-10
Hokies 48, Eagles 22
NC State
Hokies Win by 1-10
Wolfpack 35, Hokies 28
Hokies Win by 1-10
Hokies 55, Hoos 17
Hokies Win by 11+
Hokies 41, Green Wave 20

22 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. Choices: Stacked Deck

    The Picker’s have 2 choices each week, and the Fans have 4. Fans chances of being correct by odds is 1 in 4. Experts is 1 in 2 – BIG Advantage.

    Yet I note that the fans are even with the experts, meaning they are better than the experts. I say level the playing field and let us pick a winner, or credit us for picking the winner, even if the point differential is different! Thanks,

  2. There’s a special tie between VT and Marshall – Frank Loria. These folks remember – and they remember the last time VT visited Huntington. My wife and I went to hat game. Everywhere we went – people thanked us for coming and thanked VT (and Beamer) for treating the trip as being special for VT. It’s special again for the Marshall fans.

  3. I don’t know what to make of this one. I was confident we’d lose to Rutgers last week and we did. But I didn’t think we’d lose by 19. This time I’m 50/50 split. IF we lose…expect the wheels to fall off rapidly. That’s a prediction I’m pretty confident in. Pry can only defeat G5 teams and near-G5 teams (Boston College). But this is one G5 I don’t see us beating. Marshall 27-17.

  4. Based on my eye test and the tendencies observed from the past 3 games, if VT scores at least 7 points in the first quarter and ends the first half with a minimum of 17 points, along with Marshall only scoring 7 points, VT can possibly win. Anything less in the first quarter or first half and I think VT will lose by 14 to 17 points. Bases on Fuga’s and Strong’s statements during their press conferences, I think the locker room has already become divided and players are no longer “trusting the process “. I’m actually excited to watch this game, because I think the outcome will determine not only the rest of the 2023 season, but also into 2024. Show me what you got Hokies, because your back is against the wall….

  5. Correction Chris Marshall never trailed in that ECU game it was tied 13 all at the half. They did however trail Against U of Albany deep into the 4th qtr. Albany had played the week before.

  6. Just looking at the state of our program, I will be SHOCKED if we win this game. I expect Marshall to win in a blowout. I hope I am wrong.

  7. They beat FCS Albany by 4 points…..if we lose this game just shut the program down and hit the reset button. I don’t care what the spread is. WIN THE DAMN GAME!!!!

    1. Albany had already played a game, Marshall did some very Hokiesqe things in that game by shooting itself in the foot on multiple occasions. Not the least of which was the TD called back from the first play of scrimmage after a block in the back that had nothing to do with the score.

  8. Also, the tracker is wrong. There’s a green check for fans picking Rutgers by 1-10, but they won by 19… unless you’re just counting straight up win or lose predictions ?

  9. Another typo FYI: I assume your line about Marshall’s records is supposed to read: “Dating back to 2013” instead of “Dating back to 2023”

  10. Y’all should film a little “picks” video to put at the end, similar to how gameday does their picks. That would be a fun way to get your predictions for the game. I know there’s a version of this in the podcast, maybe that can be cut out.

    Marshall 24 Hokies 10

  11. The only thing I know for sure is that the VT radio broadcast is worth listening to, even when we have TV video. Two guys really “in the know.” AH.

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