Virginia Tech-NC State Preview: Hokies Face Unbalanced Wolfpack

Virginia Tech-NC State 2020
NC State returns to Virginia Tech for the first time since the Hokies’ 45-24 win in 2020. (AP Photo / The Roanoke Times, Matt Gentry, Pool)

Virginia Tech-NC State Game Preview

Virginia Tech (5-5, 4-2) enters the final two games of its season having won four of the last six games to turn a 1-3 start into potential bowl eligibility. They’ll face NC State (7-3, 4-2) this Saturday, and a win would guarantee the Hokies a bowl trip that has been somewhat elusive over the past few years, for various reasons.

The Wolfpack is the third-best team the Hokies have faced this year. It is good enough to take Louisville down to the wire and good enough to beat Miami but bad enough to look very pedestrian against a bad UConn team, and bad enough to lose 24-3 to a Duke team whose starting quarterback (Henry Belin IV, who has since been benched) went 4-of-12 for 107 yards.

Head coach Dave Doeren will bring a team to Blacksburg that is very similar to Louisville defensively, but very similar to Syracuse, Pitt and Wake Forest offensively. This is a team that isn’t particularly well-balanced, but their defense has been good enough to lead them to a 7-3 record. Two former Tech coaches – defensive line coach Charley Wiles and cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell – are on the staff.

The Hokies are a slight home favorite against an NC State team that has lost more home games (two) this season than road contests (one). Both teams still have an outside shot at facing Florida State in the ACC Championship Game, and the loser of this contest will be 100% eliminated.

It will be Senior Day in Blacksburg and Virginia Tech will look to finish its home slate on a high note while also qualifying for a bowl. Let’s get into some detail about the Wolfpack.

Brennan Armstrong
Former UVa quarterback Brennan Armstrong is 0-2 against Virginia Tech as a starter. (Ivan Morozov)

Virginia Tech’s Old Friend Brennan Armstrong

Former UVa quarterback Brennan Armstrong (6-2, 212, r-Sr.) will get the start against the Hokies for the third time in his career. After going from an All-ACC quarterback at Virginia in 2021 to putting up horrid numbers overnight, Armstrong transferred to Raleigh to be reunited with former offensive coordinator Robert Anae. The reunion hasn’t gone as planned.

Armstrong has had a tough season statistically and was benched for four games in favor of MJ Morris. The passing numbers slightly favored Morris, though the vast majority of that came in one game against Marshall. In his other three starts, Morris averaged 151 passing yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions, and his 6.4 yards per attempt over all four starts is one of the worst in the country.

I’m here to bury the line of thinking that Morris is better. He’s not, especially if you consider rushing numbers. Morris averaged just 0.5 yards per carry in his four starts, and here are the career rushing numbers for both players:

  • Morris: 81 carries, 101 yards, 1.3 ypc, 1 TD
  • Armstrong: 459 carries, 1,700 yards, 3.7 ypc, 24 TDs

Armstrong has been the second-highest grading player for the NC State offense this year, but here’s where the Wolfpack rank in the ACC in the other team offensive grades:

  • Pass blocking: No. 10
  • Receiving: No. 13
  • Running: No. 12
  • Run blocking: No. 8

The Wolfpack has one of the worst wide receiver corps in the country (with one notable exception), and starting running back Jordan Houston decided to redshirt and transfer after three games, so it doesn’t have good running backs either. Combine that with an offensive line that features just three players who have appeared in all 10 games, and the NC State offense is a mess. NC State’s 23 dropped passes this year rank next-to-last in the ACC, ahead of only Boston College.

Had Morris been the starter against Tech, I would have 100% picked the Hokies this Saturday, because their offense would have been completely one-dimensional with him behind center. I’m less certain with Armstrong, because he can at least run the football when the rest of the offense isn’t working.

That said, the Hokies always managed to contain Armstrong on the ground when he played for UVa:

  • 2020: 15 carries, 23 yards
  • 2021: 9 carries, 7 yards

If the Hokies can limit him on the ground in 2023, I’m confident they’ll win the game.

KC Concepcion
KC Concepcion (10) is one bright spot on NC State’s offense. (247Sports)

Lack of Skill Position Talent for NC State, But One Player Is Exceptional

Despite being benched for four games, Armstrong is still NC State’s leading rusher on the season with 433 yards. No one else has more than 251 yards. In the Wolfpack’s most recent game, which was a 26-6 win over Wake Forest, Armstrong led the team with 96 rushing yards. The second-leaving rusher was wide receiver Kevin “KC” Concepcion, who had 86 rushing yards. Concepcion (more on him later) has been getting a lot of carries lately, and he’s actually got more carries than receptions in the last two games. That should tell you how good Concepcion is, but it should also tell you how limited the NC State offense is as a whole.

Concepcion (5-11, 187, Fr.) is excellent, however. He leads the team with 50 catches for 573 yards and six receiving touchdowns. Nobody else has more than 21 receptions, nobody else has broken 200 receiving yards, and nobody else has scored more than two receiving touchdowns. He’s also averaging 11 yards per carry and has rushed for 198 yards on the season. He’s become heavily involved in the running game over the last four weeks, and here are his running totals in that span:

  • Duke: 4 carries, 33 yards, 8.3 ypc
  • Clemson: 2 carries, 51 yards, 25.5 ypc
  • Miami: 6 carries, 22 yards, 3.7 ypc
  • Wake: 5 carries, 86 yards, 17.2 ypc

Concepcion was only a 3-star recruit by 247 and ranked just No. 23 in the state of North Carolina and the No. 97 wide receiver in the country. However, he can clearly play. The good news is that if the Hokies can limit him, there doesn’t appear to be anybody else on this NC State offense who can beat them.

Just to show you how limited the Wolfpack is, here are their offensive numbers…

  • Rushing: No. 84
  • YPC: No. 88
  • Passing: No. 114
  • YPA: No. 116
  • Total: No. 108
  • OF+: No. 82
  • Available Yards: No. 126

Those are all bad numbers, but that available yards number is the most telling. The Wolfpack offense has gained just 33% of the yards available to gain this season, which is just about as bad as it gets.

Virginia Tech
Mario Kendricks (22) and Norell Pollard (3) hope to feast on NC State’s offensive line. (Ivan Morozov)

NC State Offensive Line Issues

As if the lack of skill position talent isn’t enough, the Wolfpack has only had three offensive linemen play in all 10 games this season. Here were their starters in their most recent game against Wake Forest:

LT Anthony Belton (6-6, 336, r-Jr.): 10 games, 1,293 career snaps, 70.7 grade
LG Anthony Carter Jr. (6-3, 305, r-So.): 10 games, 735 career snaps, 58.0 grade
C Dylan McMahon (6-4, 305, r-Jr.): 8 games, 2,744 career snaps, 70.3 grade
RG Timothy McKay (6-4, 312, r-Jr.): 10 games, 1,798 career snaps, 60.4 grade
RT Jacarrius Peak (6-4, 285, r-Fr. 9 games, 293 career snaps, 59.9 grade

Peak has been forced into action before he’s ready, with McKay sliding inside from his normal right tackle position.

Overall there is enough experience up front for NC State, but some injuries haven’t been beneficial, and this group just hasn’t been consistent enough as a unit.

Tony Gibson And The NC State Defense

Remember those bad numbers offensive numbers that we went over earlier in the article? Well, the Wolfpack defense is the direct opposite…

  • Rushing: No. 15
  • YPC: No. 23
  • Passing: No. 49
  • YPA: No. 35
  • Total: No. 21
  • DF+: No. 16
  • Available Yards: No. 12

Opposing offenses are gaining just 35.3% of the yards available against the NC State defense this season. That puts the Wolfpack defense among the top 10% in the country. This will be a lot different than facing the Pitt, Wake, Syracuse and BC defenses. This is going to be like playing Louisville, so the Hokie offense will have to play a much better game than they did two weeks ago.

Defensive Coordinator Tony Gibson was a great hire for Dave Doeren. He was the right-hand man for Rich Rodriguez back in the day, and his 3-3 odd front defense has been very good ever since he was elevated to defensive coordinator in 2020. The year before he was elevated to DC, NC State went 4-8, with a 1-7 record in the ACC. Since then they are 32-15 overall with a 21-11 mark in conference play.

Payton Wilson NC State
Payton Wilson is the real deal. (Pack Insider)

This group has a lot more strengths than weaknesses. Linebacker Payton Wilson (6-4, 238, r-Sr.) is perhaps the Wolfpack’s top strength. He originally chose NC State over UNC and the Hokies, and Dave Doeren is not hesitant to say that he believes Wilson is the best defensive player in the country. He’s obviously a bit biased, but Wilson has 112 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, four sacks, two interceptions, six passes broken up and two fumble recoveries this season. Sometimes stats can be deceiving, but he matches up on PFF as well, with the third-highest linebacker grade in the country out of 211 players with 400+ snaps. The Hokies will have to account for him on Saturday, though nobody else has been able to do so outside of Notre Dame in week two.

A lot of defenders stand out on this team, and we won’t try to go through every one of them. But here are a few…

DE Devin Vann (6-2, 280, Jr.) is tied for the team lead with 5.5 sacks. He’s played over 1,500 career snaps and he’s one of the most experienced players on the team. His backup is Red Hibbler (6-2, 264, Jr.), who also has 5.5 sacks!

Slot corner Robert Kennedy (5-10, 188, r-Sr.) will be one of the best nickels the Hokies face this season. You might recognize his name. He’s a transfer from Old Dominion who returned Virginia Tech’s botched field goal snap for a touchdown last season.

Safety Devan Boykin (5-10, 195, Jr.) is a very good player who will be one of the best safeties Tech faces this year against the run. However, he can be picked on in the passing game to a certain extent.

Cornerback Shyheim Battle (6-2, 195, r-Jr.) has been a model of consistency during his career in Raleigh. This is the third consecutive season in which opponents have failed to complete 50% of their passes when targeting him.

This is a very good defense no matter how you slice it, and they are very well-coached.

Charley Wiles Virginia Tech
Charley Wiles, now the DL coach at NC State, has made a successful transition late in his career. (Ivan Morozov, 2018)

Charley Wiles And His Transition From Virginia Tech to NC State

Speaking of well-coached, the NC State defense features a pair of former Virginia Tech assistants. Brian Mitchell has done a great job with the Wolfpack cornerbacks after developing Caleb Farley in Blacksburg, and I’ve always considered him to be a very good coach. However, the guy I want to talk about is former defensive line coach Charley Wiles.

Wiles was Bud Foster’s top assistant and one of his best friends for years and he was responsible for the development of many excellent defensive linemen in Blacksburg. The job Wiles has done at NC State has been even more impressive than the one he did at Tech, however. After spending his entire career coaching in Foster’s scheme, Wiles had to transition to coaching in an odd-front defense. That’s generally not a transition that gets made late in a coaching career, and it’s perhaps a little surprising that Doeren and Gibson hired him in the first place, considering his lack of experience in that type of scheme.

But hire him they did, and NC State’s defensive line has been a very consistent part of the Wolfpack defense since Wiles came on board in 2020. He was always one of the most affable coaches on the Virginia Tech staff for all those seasons, and it’s good to see that he’s landed on his feet at a good program.

NC State Special Teams

NC State kicker Brayden Narveson (6-0, 210, r-Sr.) is 12-of-16 on his field goal attempts this season, with a long of 57 yards. Two of his three misses have been from beyond 50 yards, and he’s a perfect 6-of-6 from between 40 and 49 yards. He’s a very dangerous player.

Kickoff specialist Collin Smith (5-9, 185, r-Jr.) has put 32 of his 48 kickoff attempts in the endzone for touchbacks. His touchback percentage of 66.67% ranks No. 27 in the country. That said, the Wolfpack allows 26.36 yards per return when it doesn’t go for a touchdown, which ranks No. 132 out of 133 teams, so there could be some room for the Hokies.

The Wolfpack is middle of the pack in allowing punt returns, ranking No. 65 nationally, with Caden Nookester (6-6, 215, r-So.) averaging 42.9 yards punt. Either Jaylin Lane or Tucker Holloway could have an opportunity on Saturday.

NC State has been outstanding in the return game. Kick returner Julian Gray (5-11, 190, r-So.) is averaging 27.9 yards per return, and he had an 82-yard touchdown against VMI. He’s got 31 career returns, so he’s a veteran back there. Punt returner Jalen Coit (5-11, 173, r-So.) is averaging 12.3 yards per return this year with a long of 33. That said, much of his yardage was racked up against VMI, though he’s had some solid returns in some other games as well.

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

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

  • Hokies Win by 1-10 (58%, 869 Votes)
  • Wolfpack Wins by 1-10 (22%, 330 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 11+ (16%, 241 Votes)
  • Wolfpack Wins by 11+ (4%, 56 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,496

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Virginia Tech-NC State Final Thoughts

I’ve got a healthy amount of respect for the job that Dave Doeren has done at NC State, and I think their defense is just as good as the Louisville defense that shut down the Hokies just a couple of weeks ago. However, I also think their offense is pretty bad across the board, and it makes whoever is playing quarterback for them look worse than he actually is.

What you might not realize is that Virginia Tech’s defense ranks No. 22 nationally in total defense, just a few yards behind NC State, who is No. 21. That’s a product of scheduling, I think. The Hokies have faced just one really good quarterback this season, and the overall level of the offenses they have faced has been quite bad. We’ve seen what good running teams do against the Hokies…they gash them.

However, we’ve also seen what the Virginia Tech defense does against subpar offensive football teams with ineffective running games…they dominate them. NC State is a subpar offensive football team with an ineffective running game. They aren’t likely to score much against the Hokies on Saturday.

The NC State defense will be one of the biggest challenges of the season for the VT offense, though. It’s a talented, well-coached group, and odd fronts seem to give the Hokies trouble at times. The Wolfpack got gashed by Notre Dame and also allowed 41 to Marshall thanks in part to three MJ Morris interceptions, but other than that, the defense has been great. They held Miami and Wake to six points each in their last two games, and held Clemson to 24 the week before that.

The Hokie offense is a lot better than Wake’s, though, and Miami has failed to score 30 points in five of their last six games. I don’t think Tech will reach 30 against this very good Wolfpack defense, but I don’t think it’ll get held to six. Tech will play better than it did against Louisville, but not as well as they did in some of those other games.

It’s a big one, I think. Brent Pry has had a winning record exactly two times in his Tech career. The first came in September of 2022 after back-to-back wins against BC and Wofford. The second came after the season-opening victory over ODU in 2023. The Hokies have never had a winning record after the month of September under Pry. If they beat NC State on Saturday, they’d be 6-5, and it would be another sign that the program is moving forward.

I’ve got the Hokies in a close one.

Chris’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, NC State 20

Will Stewart’s Take: Oh, there’s no “take” here. No analysis. I’m picking the Hokies to win this week and next week.


Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 23, NC State 16 (lots of field goals)

David Cunningham’s Take: I went against the grain last week and picked Boston College to beat Virginia Tech. The Hokies had yet to prove they could start fast and win on the road, which they did. Kudos.

I’m going to do it again here. This is a very talented defense the Hokies will face on Saturday, one that can really frustrate opposing offenses. I’m not convinced Tech is quite up for that challenge yet. This is an opportunity to prove me — and others — wrong.

I’m expecting a very close game, one that comes down to a special teams play of sorts, where the last team to have the ball has the best chance to win. In that setting, I’m sliding with the more experienced head coach in Dave Doeren and the Wolfpack to squeeze one out on the road, but this one has 50-50 written on it.

David’s Prediction: NC State 24, Virginia Tech 21

Andy Bitter’s Take: We said points would be at a premium last week and Virginia Tech and BC went out and combined for 70. But this week, we really mean it. NC State’s got a great defense, up there with Louisville and Florida State as the best the Hokies have faced this year. Conversely, the Wolfpack have a terrible offense, though who knows what kind of rabbit Armstrong can pull out of a hat at times.

A lot of this boils down to where this game is being played. Tech has been great at home lately; NC State has mostly been bad on the road, not looking impressive at UConn, barely getting by UVa and no-showing at Duke before a solid effort last week at lowly Wake Forest. I think the Hokies keep rolling at home and get bowl-eligible, finally finishing with a point total in the 20s. 

Andy’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, NC State 16

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

Game Result: Virginia Tech 48, Boston College 22

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

  • Hokies Win by 1-10 (47%, 600 Votes)
  • Eagles Win by 1-10 (31%, 392 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 11+ (16%, 209 Votes)
  • Eagles Win by 11+ (6%, 79 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,280

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Chris (8-4)
Andy (8-4)
David (8-4)
Will (7-5)
Wake Forest
NC State
2023 Virginia Tech Football Predictions Tracker - Fans (8-3)

(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

12 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. I’m going with the home team. I picked it to be a close one, although a trick play up coach Pry’s sleeve could break it open.

  2. I wouldn’t feel as good about it if this game was in Raleigh, but I’m optimistic because we’re playing at home. I picked VT by 11+ in the poll because the NCSU defense can’t do anything about the scoring if they’re on the sideline. I’m predicting two defense/ST scores that break the game open for VT and the offense gets a couple of field goals to make it a 20-6 final.

  3. Hokies by 1-10. Should have beat them last year.

    Armstrong is the key to their success…if he has a good game, they win.

  4. Article, game, and comments are very interesting. This is a tough game to pick. Hoping for the Hokeis, but we have not beaten a quality opponent in a long time, and a 7-3 NCSU team that beat Clemson and which 62% of the “nation” thinks will win, is a quality opponent. New hurdle for Brent’s crew. Let’s hope for a win, but I’m not yet a believer, despite true talent on our O – in order: Tuten, Lane, Drones, Wright, Felton. We can score, but will we? Maybe Tucker can be the winning difference! Go Hokies!

  5. Louisville creamed us. It’s was JV vs Varsity. If the nc state D is that good then how will we win? Time to grow up and play a great game against a quality opponent, program and coaching staff. Dave Doeren is a really good coach. Nc st is not an easy job and he has done well.

  6. I think we have more playmakers and will win by 10 – if there is no special teams gaffe or turnover differential.

  7. I’m in the minority here but I don’t expect this game to be terribly close. Just not sure who comes out on top. Given the potential for the VT defense to dominate a bad NC St offense, I think the Hokies win comfortably with some turnovers and big special teams plays but I could see the same script playing out in NC State’s favor.

    Time to get bowl eligible!

  8. Has VT had a defensive touchdown this year? It’s time, and that’ll be the difference in this game.

  9. Their passing defense is ranked No. 49, and even if it wasn’t, they can’t cover us, no more than they did when we took a 21-3 lead on them last season without even a modicum of the talent Tech now boasts.
    Amrmstong is gritty and may gives us a bit of a game but lacks the horses to get it done.
    There defense will wear down under the pounding. Tech is once again a top ACC program and this game will be the proverbial house that lands on David Cunningham.
    Hokies 34-Pack 16

  10. NCSU has only lost 3 gms, and those have been against teams that were ranked at the time. They are a strong team…a win would be our first in the Pry era where we beat a team better than us. Home game, momentum, a lot at stake….no reason to be flat.

    NCSU 24
    VT 13

  11. Playing BC and Castellanos last week should help the defense get ready for Armstrong who Captain Obvious says is the key to beating NCSU. If VT can keep him below 100 yards rushing, then I think the Hokies can score enough to win – especially if they stay in + column in turnovers like they did at BC. It looks like the weather may cooperate and there will be an enthusiastic crowd on hand for Senior Day.

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