One of my favorite things about a football season is watching a team and figuring them out week-to-week. The more games pile up, the more you learn about the unit and the individual players.
This week against Duke, we saw the continuation of two themes from Game 1 against NC State: a rejuvenated Virginia Tech running game that can pile up big yards; and a defensive line that is able to bring pressure and tally sacks and TFLs.
Those are the positives. On the negative side, we saw a Braxton Burmeister passing performance that wasn’t very productive, a change from Game 1.
It’s the second week down 20+ players, the second week down the defensive coordinator and other coaches, yet the second week where the Hokies gutted out a win. As uncomfortable as it is to go into a game down 20+ players, I’m still glad these guys are playing, and even more glad they’re winning.
Let’s get into it, starting with discussion of that man, Khalil Herbert.
That Man Khalil Herbert
In his scouting report on Khalil Herbert back on February 24 (pre-coronavirus days), Brandon Patterson wrote: “Herbert brings skills to the table with his running. He’ll likely have the best vision of anyone in the RB room and the most consistency, and if he starts, he’ll probably be the most balanced runner Tech has had in a few years.”
This is why Brandon gets paid the big bucks: he’s usually right. I did a double-take Saturday when I looked up Herbert’s height and weight. He’s listed at only 5-9. At 212 pounds, he’s a human bowling ball, and all that muscle rapped in a relatively short body means he has the potential to power ahead through defenders who have done a poor job of making sure they arrive with proper positioning and technique.
The closest recent comparison to Herbert is Stephen Peoples, who last played for the Hokies in 2018. Peoples was listed at 5-9, 222, a full ten pounds heavier than the stout Herbert. We all loved Stephen Peoples, and he was physical, but he wasn’t the natural running back that Herbert is. Peoples’ rushing average the three years he ran the football for Virginia Tech was 3.8 ypc (2016), 3.8 (2017), and 5.0 (2018). He averaged 4.6 ypc in 244 career carries.
Per Sports-Reference.com, Herbert is averaging 5.9 ypc on 346 career carries. Like Peoples, he has gotten better with age, averaging a gaudy 10.22 yards per carry on his last 68 carries over six games:
- Kansas 2019: 4 games, 43 carries, 384 yards, 8.93 ypc
- VT 2020: 2 games, 25 carries, 311, 12.44 ypc
- Combined 2019-2020: 6 games, 68 carries, 695 yards, 10.22 ypc
(Sports-Reference.com has his 2020 stats slightly incorrect, due to a 1-yard carry by Raheem Blackshear being mistakenly attributed to Herbert. I made the correction here based on hokiesports.com stats.)
It’s early in the season, but Khalil Herbert is positioning himself to break a record that has stood for 33 years in Virginia Tech football: Average yards per carry. Maurice Williams averaged 6.36 ypc in 1986, back when yours truly was a senior in Electrical Engineering at Virginia Tech, the Internet was barely a gleam in Al Gore’s eye, and Virginia Tech had never won a bowl game. (They remedied that at the end of that season.)
(Caveat: That stat by Williams, which I got from the hokiesports.com rushing record book, includes the bowl game that year, but bowl games weren’t officially counted until the 2002 season. Take out the 1986 Peach Bowl, and Williams “only” averaged 6.2 ypc. The single-season record holder then becomes Andre Kendrick, who averaged 6.26 ypc in 1999 — and didn’t even lead the team in rushing. Kudos to former Virginia Tech defensive tackle and friend of TSL Jeff Holland for pointing that out on Twitter.)
Since that feat by Williams in 1986 (182 carries, 1,158 yards, 6.36 ypc), here are the ypc averages of every season’s leading rusher since then:
Looking at that list, who does Herbert most compare to? Travon McMillian had good vision and good speed, but not Herbert’s power. David Wilson had superior speed and comparable balance, but terrible vision. Ryan Williams … well, that’s not fair. He’s the best combination of vision, wiggle, burst, power and speed ever to put on a Hokies uniform. His speed wasn’t elite, but it was solid. Darren Evans is probably the best comparison, but so far, Herbert appears to be running behind a better, perhaps far better, offensive line than Evans ever had the pleasure of running behind.
The biggest thing is that this is a fun debate, one we haven’t been able to have for years. When a guy has two back-to-back games like Herbert has had, it signals something different from the usual is going on.
Herbert put his name in the record books with this performance, which included 150 kickoff return yards. His all-purpose yardage total (rushing and all forms of returns) ranks as the highest single-game total since at least 1987:
(Note that Herbert’s rushing totals have since changed from 20 carries for 208 yards to 19 carries for 207 yards, due to a carry being mis-attributed to him, so the number is actually 357, not 358.)
Let’s close the Khalil Herbert love-fest with a highlight package:
My 31-16 prediction of a Hokies win in our game preview was largely based on Duke not being so generous with the football. As we detailed in that preview, Duke had 14 turnovers in their first three games. Those are crazy numbers. That’s 56 turnovers in a 12-game season, and no team does that.
Last season, Hawaii had the most turnovers with 30 in 15 games, and Central Michigan had 30 in 14 games. In 2018, Cal had 31 in 13 games. In 2017, San Jose State had 41 in 13 games, a bit of an outlier. (The second worst was again Central Michigan with 31 in 13 games.) In 2016, Kansas had 36 in 12 games.
Point being, Duke’s turnover rate was unsustainable, and that would possibly keep this game close. Especially if the Hokies got turnover-happy.
Virginia Tech is very fortunate to turn it over three times as they did in this game and still win. The last time the Hokies had three turnovers in an ACC win was back in 2014, when they turned it over three times against UVA and won 24-20 anyway. Virginia had one turnover, just like Duke, for a 3/1 ratio.
The last time the Hokies won any game with 3+ turnovers was when they had four turnovers against Liberty in a 36-13 win in 2016, Fuente’s first game at Virginia Tech.
Connect the dots. This is Fuente’s first three-turnover ACC win in his four-plus seasons at Virginia Tech.
One of the turnovers was particularly painful. Tayvion Robinson’s muff of a punt was eventually recovered in the end zone by Duke. It’s not often that a team punts from their 20-yard line and scores on the play. That sent me back to the 2014 Virginia and 2016 Liberty box scores, and both of those teams scored directly off Hokie turnovers. UVA’s David Dean had a 3-yard interception “return” in 2014, and Liberty’s Alpha Jalloh returned a fumble 71 yards for a TD.
Back to the subject of the game staying close, kudos to “downjerseyhokie” in the comments section of our preview for this prescient prediction:
He nailed it. Duke scored 17 of their 31 points in the fourth quarter to keep it close, and he was only four points off in his prediction (34-31 vs. 38-31).
Duke just isn’t that bad of a football team when they stop turning it over.
Braxton Burmeister’s Day
I’m not a savvy enough football observer to break down the details and the whys and hows of Braxton Burmeister’s day, but the completion percentage fell significantly from the NC State game:
- NCSU: 7-11, 106 yard, 0 TDs, 0 INTs
- Duke: 9-24, 163 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
- Totals: 16-36, 269 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
That’s a pass efficiency rating of 110.8, which lands him No. 58 out of 65 ranked quarterbacks. So under Burmeister, the passing game has been poor, at least by this metric.
Thankfully, the running game has been stellar, and Burmeister is a big part of that. But for this offense to progress and truly leverage all of its weapons, the passing game needs to improve. (Who invited Captain Obvious? Get him out of here, he’s embarrassing.)
There’s an assumption, and I’m guilty of it too, that the return of Hendon Hooker will equal an improvement in the passing game. That’s a strong assumption. As I noted on Twitter about a month ago, Hooker was one of the better passing quarterbacks in the country in 2019, from an efficiency standpoint:
In 2019, @HenBoss2's pass efficiency rating was 165.8, but he was 3 attempts shy of 15 attempts/game, so he's not listed in the NCAA pass efficiency stats.
If he were, he would have finished No. 9, right behind Trevor Lawrence (166.7) and two spots ahead of Sam Howell (160.2). pic.twitter.com/uV9I3sFgQ0
— Will Stewart (@WillStewartTSL) September 9, 2020
But there’s no guarantee. Still, I’m not going to hem and haw. I think you’ll see Hendon Hooker against UNC, and you might see him a lot more than Burmeister. The pressure is on Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen to put together an offensive game plan that can keep pace with a UNC offense that has a lot of firepower but so far hasn’t distinguished itself in 2020. The Heels are No. 30 in the crude metric of total offense at 432 yards per game, while the Hokies are No. 14 at 491 ypg.
UNC is averaging 6.4 yards per play, while the Hokies check in at 7.4. Hmmm.
Sorry, went down the rabbit hole there a little bit. This isn’t a UNC preview.
Burmeister simply hasn’t played very much college football, especially in the last three seasons (2018-2020). He only has 123 attempts in his four years of college football, and 77 of those attempts came in 2017. He has played in just six games in the last three seasons (none in 2019, of course) and has thrown the ball just 46 times. He’s a work in progress, and you can see some nice throws here in his highlight package from the Duke game:
But that interception … yeesh.
I don’t like to use the word “desperate” but if there’s one thing the Hokies desperately need to improve upon, it’s their third down conversion percentage. Virginia Tech was 2-9 on third down against NC State, and then started the Duke game 1-5 (and that one conversion was from a Duke penalty). At that point, the Hokies were 3-14 on the season, but they converted 6 of the next 10 and are 9-24 for the year. That’s only 38% and is only No. 55 in the nation, out of 73 ranked teams.
Don’t sleep on Raheem Blackshear. He’s only averaging 3.8 yards per carry, but that’s just because he hasn’t broken one at this point, with a long of 14 yards in his 23 attempts. I think he has shown some nifty moves and vision between the tackles. He’ll erupt for a big game at some point.
Emmanuel Belmar is a redshirt senior and one of the few throwbacks left to the Frank Beamer era. He committed to the Hokies in July of 2015, four months before Beamer announced his retirement. The classic undersized defensive end recruited during the Beamer-Foster era, Belmar was listed as a 6-2, 220-pound outside linebacker during his recruitment. Years later, he is off to a hot start in an otherwise quiet career with 1.5 sacks per game, ranking him No. 3 in the nation early in the year. All three of his sacks came against Duke, so keep an eye on Belmar.
Virginia Tech rushing yards by quarter: 30, 55, 101, and 138. This is a good sign. Keep pounding the rock. And ignore the fact that against NC State, it went 111, 90, 67, and 46, ha-ha.
Granted, Duke has a bad passing attack, ranking No. 66 out of 74 ranked teams in pass efficiency, but you still have to respect the job done by the fill-in defensive backs, especially walk-on Tyler Matheny and true freshman Dorian Strong. Matheny in particular had a day to remember, finishing third on the team in tackles and clocking Tech’s only turnover of the day with an interception.
Speaking of the defense, the stat sheet is bare. Only 14 guys registered tackles (including special teams play). For comparison, against NC State it was 21 guys, and in eight ACC games last year, the average was 19 guys, with the low being 13 against Virginia. Forgive me … I look at a lot of box scores, and it was strange to see so few guys in the tackle chart.
I noticed that despite the badly depleted defensive backfield, redshirt senior Tyree Rodgers, to my knowledge, didn’t play a snap on defense. As recently as 2018, he played in 12 games, including three starts, but has since been relegated to special teams play.
With eight minutes to go in the second quarter, Lecitus Smith took exception to a Duke player jacking of his face mask and threw a quasi-punch in retaliation. Fortunately no penalty was called. Dumb play? Maybe. Another indication that the Virginia Tech offensive line is nastier this year? Maybe.
Don’t tell anyone, but Brian Johnson has made 16 straight field goals in the last seven games. SHHHHH. The streak has raised his career percentage from 22-of-33 (66.7 percent) to 38-of-49 (77.6 percent). He’s gunning for 80 percent, which means he needs to make the next six in a row to give him 22 in a row … which would tie the Virginia Tech record set by Brandon Pace. SHHHHHH. Don’t tell anyone.
Brock Hoffman, still talking smack on Instagram:
Next Up: Heel Yeah
Boy, it took a while for some ACC rivalries to start forming, and there’s a good one brewing between the Hokies and North Carolina. Here are the ACC standings after the weekend’s games:
This is one of those games that is a fork in the road for the season. Yes, this season has a lot of forks, but this is the first one. Lose to Clemson? Sure, they’re great. Lose to Miami? Eh, okay, it happens. Lose to Virginia? No. Lose to UNC? Heel no.
This is one of the handful of games that forges our impression of a season. A few weeks ago, we weren’t sure if we were going to have a season at all, but within a few days, we’re going to watch one of the biggest games of the season. I can’t wait, and it’s only Monday.