Duke (5-1, 2-0 ACC) travels to Blacksburg to take on the Virginia Tech Hokies (3-3, 1-1 ACC) on Saturday. The Blue Devils are searching for a win to earn themselves bowl eligibility for the first time since 1994. A win against the Hokies, however, would be a first for the program since 1982. Despite the disappointing start to 2012, Virginia Tech remains a contender in the ACC Coastal Division, and the Blue Devils will have to play some of their best football of the year to bag a win in Lane Stadium. It's Homecoming Weekend in Blacksburg, and the Hokies will be looking to get their season back on track after two straight losses.
Each week, BDN brings in an opposing beat writer to provide an inside look at the Blue Devils' opponent. This week, we welcome in another outstanding writer in Andy Bitter, who is the Virginia Tech football beat writer for The Virginian-Pilot. Andy joined The Pilot in October 2011 after spending three years covering Auburn for the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer. His eventful time on the Auburn beat included a coaching change, a Heisman Trophy winner, the school’s first national championship in 53 years and the poisoning of the school’s iconic oak trees. BDN is happy to have Andy join us this week to give his take on this Saturday's matchup.
Raise your hand if you thought Duke would be 5-1 and Virginia Tech 3-3 heading into the Hokies' Homecoming weekend. Probably not many. What is the mood within and around the Virginia Tech program after the 3-3 start?
It’s certainly not one of satisfaction. Virginia Tech has gotten off to slow starts before, but nothing quite like this. This is the earliest the Hokies have lost three games since 1992, when they went 2-8-1. That was also the last time Tech didn’t go to a bowl game.
I would describe the mood around Blacksburg as urgent, but not panicked. Players and coaches have said this week that they aren’t in “crisis mode” yet. And while it’s tough to gauge whether or not they’re being truthful, quarterback Logan Thomas made a good point this week. “We’ve been able to move the ball and we’ve been able to stop people,” he said. “We just haven’t done it all in the same game yet.”
He has a point. The Hokies have looked the part either on offense or defense at times this year, but never at the same time. And for a team that’s probably not as talented as it has been in the past, having turned over basically the entire offense from last year other than Thomas, it makes for a much smaller margin of error. It’s still a talented team, but not one that can get by just by showing up, which has been the case in past years.
Despite returning just 3 starters on offense, the Hokies were the consensus pick to win the ACC Coastal in 2012 behind QB Logan Thomas. Through the first half of the season, however, Virginia Tech hasn't been able to put up points consistently and ranks towards the bottom of the ACC in several offensive categories. What has been the source of the struggles for Thomas and the Hokies' offense?
I think a lot of it comes back to the offensive line, and by extension, the running game. The line, which replaced four starters from last year, hasn’t been able to get any kind of consistent push up front. It hasn’t helped that injuries have forced the Hokies to shuffle things in the interior. It hasn’t looked pretty. Tech has averaged 88.75 rushing yards per game against teams from BCS conferences, a jarring change from the past, when the Hokies have been able to produce consistent yards on the ground. Not having a Darren Evans or Ryan Williams or David Wilson on the roster at tailback has contributed to that, but the tailbacks they do have aren’t getting much of a chance to run the ball, getting hit either behind or near the line on every carry.
Those struggles have impacted the passing game too. Defenses don’t have to respect the run, so they’ve been able to rush Thomas with impunity. The o-line has done an OK job blocking for him but not great. As a result, Thomas still looks jittery back there at times. His footwork hasn’t been the same and he doesn’t seem as comfortable, and it’s affecting his passes.
Year after year, Bud Foster puts together one of the top defensive units in the ACC. In 2012, the Hokies boast a veteran defense that ranks second in the conference in pass efficiency, led by seniors Bruce Taylor and Antone Exum. Last week, Gio Bernard and the Tar Heels were able to score 48 points on the typically stingy Hokie defense. How have opponents been successful moving the ball against Virginia Tech this year?
Well, those passing statistics are more a function of who Virginia Tech has played so far (Georgia Tech was an option team and Austin Peay and Bowling Green couldn’t pass worth a lick). The problems have been all over. The secondary was shuffled in the offseason, with Exum moving to corner and two corners moving to safety. They haven’t jelled like the team had hoped and there have been busts in run support from the group. (Attrition has left the secondary thin, too. The coaches only trust about five defensive backs on the roster, and even that might be generous.) The linebacking group hasn’t had Tariq Edwards all year, which has forced Taylor to play out of position. But other than that, the Hokies simply aren’t making plays like they have in the past. The pass rush has been non-existent and players aren’t getting to the ball in packs like they have before. Foster thinks there’s a little bit of a trust issue on defense, something the team has taken measures at correcting this week.
The Blue Devils have given the Hokies a few scares in recent years, but Duke's last win against Virginia Tech was back in 1982. With Duke riding a four game winning streak and the Hokies dropping two in a row, can the Blue Devils finally snap their streak on Saturday? How do you assess this match up?
I still get the sense that Duke’s start is a bit of a mirage, just by looking at the teams the Blue Devils have beaten (Wake Forest and Virginia might be the worst two teams in the ACC). That said, they have the Hokies’ full attention this week. I think Virginia Tech was sleep-walking in last year’s matchup a little bit, with the bye on the horizon. I don’t think that’s the case this year. But this simply isn’t a Virginia Tech team that can overwhelm an opponent like it has in the past. This defense has issues, and Duke’s offense has enough weapons to be able to exploit it Saturday. I think Thomas might have turned a corner with his passing last week (he had a career high 354 yards to go with two long touchdown passes), so Tech might have some success there. The key might be whether the Hokies’ stagnant running game can get going against a Duke rushing defense that gave up big chunks of yards on the ground to UVa last week. If Tech can run consistently, I think it will win a high-scoring game, something like 30-27. But I expect it to be close.