This game between the Hokies and the Blue Devils on Saturday is the very definition of a trap game. The Hokies have made it through the first part of their schedule and despite losing tons of different players at various points during the season due to injury (most of whom are on defense) they have made it to this point with a 3-1 record in the conference which puts them on top of the Coastal Division. And next week is a MUCH, MUCH needed bye week where some of the banged up players will get a chance to recharge their batteries as the team gears up for an enormous divisional game against Georgia Tech in Atlanta on a Thursday night.
That combined with the fact that Duke has historically not been very competitive in the ACC makes it far too easy for the Hokies to overlook this week's opponent. And while Duke is the weakest ACC opponent the Hokies will play this season (BC only lost to the Blue Devils because of a fluke miss on a 19 yd-FG attempt), I think we've seen what can happen when the Hokies don't come to play with the necessary concentration and effort. The game-that-won't-be-named from last season was in Lane Stadium and was against an opponent far worse than the Blue Devils. So it's obviously possible for Tech to lose a road game against an ACC opponent. And the only thing that works in Tech's favor this time, as crazy as this sounds, is the injuries.
I think it's the fact that so many players are hurt on defense that will help keep Tech focused on this game. The remaining starters on defense will want to pick up the slack, the youngsters filling in for their hurt teammates probably won't play as well but I doubt they'll lack for effort. And the offense, recognizing that the usually stout defense isn't at full strength, will likely feel the burden of victory lies with them (just like in the Miami game). So let's take a look at our opponent.
Duke's special teams this year have been bad (48th in punting, 104th in FG's and 70th in kickoff returns). BUT there is an asterisk that goes there because K Will Snyderwine was injured the first half of the year and he is much better than his 6-for-10 accuracy would seem to indicate. The Hokies meanwhile are struggling in the return game with the loss of Dyrell Robert on kickoffs and more recently Jayron Hosley on punt returns. And while new P Michael Branthover can obviously get the job done, he is a freshman and is apparently prone to a 9 YARD DAMN PUNT every once in a while. For the record, I can actually kick the ball farther than 9 yards. I tried it on Sunday after watching the Hokies vs. BC game again. I kicked the ball 21 yards. OK so I nearly pulled my groin and broke my ankle, but the point is this kid needs to keep his head on straight because the defense needs a little more field position help than usual. Duke has no real threats in the return game, so this battle of field position will really come down to if Branthover can punt it well or not. Keep your fingers crossed.
VT Offense vs. Duke Defense
The Duke defensive line is the weakest defensive line the Hokies will play this season. They just don't have any playmakers at that position. Now the first half against Boston College was by FAR the worst-called half of football Coach O'Cain has had all season. Why he wouldn't run some trap plays against the back of BC's blitz or get Drager involved in the short passing game (BC's linebackers were blitzing from all over the place) was enough to make me wonder if Stinespring had somehow snuck back up into the booth. I was highly pissed to put it mildly. Fortunately, O'Cain is able to actually make in-game adjustments (I know, astonishing, right?) and while he kept Drager in for pass-protection in the second half, he also committed to the run and the results spoke for themselves.
So against Duke O'Cain needs to recognize this defensive line won't be able to get a push and while Duke will try and key on David Wilson, hopefully we don't stay away from the run for an ENTIRE HALF. Wilson is too good and you have to give him his touches. Meanwhile, Duke plays a ton of nickel with a tweener named Matt Daniels who would be a good fit at whip for the Hokies. He's a big hitter (leads the team in tackles) but fast enough to cover TE's and the flats. Still there aren't any All-America candidates in this secondary and as long as Logan Thomas can continue his incredible run he should be able to make some plays downfield to a newly rejuvenated Jarrett Boykin and the always open Danny Coale. By the way, I just want to highlight how good Thomas has been this year - his first ever as a starter. He now has the record for the most consecutive games with over 260 yards passing in the Coach Beamer era. Not Tyrod, not Marcus Vick, not Bryan Randall, not Michael Vick, not Jim Druckenmiller. Logan Thomas. Wow.
All that said, this is a road game. And for just ONCE this year, (ok twice counting App State) I sure would like the Hokie offense to come out firing on all cylinders. An early lead could help puncture whatever emotion Duke will be playing with at the outset of the game. I would trade the past few game opening drives the Hokies have had for a bag of asses. That trend needs to change this weekend.
Duke Offense vs. VT Defense
If the Hokies were taking the field with their opening day lineup on defense, I would have very little concern about this game. Duke's running backs are all banged-up and so is their most talented player QB Sean Renfree. Renfree is a very effective leader and a solid passer. He is patient and makes few mistakes. But he's got a bad hip and you can be sure Bud Foster will have whoever's in the game frothing at the mouth for a few hits on Renfree. Duke's receivers are very talented but if the Hokies can shut down the running game and get pressure on Renfree, it wouldn't matter if Duke had Calvin Johnson at receiver with no one able to get him the ball. Ok, if they had Calvin Johnson, they probably would be able to get him the ball because Calvin Johnson has a gravitational field around him the somehow transports the ball into his possession. But they don't. AND Tech gets superstud Jayron Hosley back this weekend from his hamstring injury (assuming he doesn't re-tweak it this week during practice, knock on wood, throw salt over your shoulder, say three Hail Mary's and every other superstitious thing you can think of).
Nick Dew is going to be a beast at whip during his career. But right now he's still struggling to know his assignment on each play. Fortunately, with Duke throwing the ball so often, the Hokies will be in nickel a lot and Dew will probably only be on the field for 10-12 snaps. All we can do is hope that he can hang on for dear life. At linebacker, I feel a lot better because even though All-ACC LB Bruce Taylor got Lisfrancked, Barquell Rivers is effective enough to play 75% of the game at LB. His injured quad has cost him a half-step but it didn't get rid of his incredible instincts. And Jack Tyler had a fantastic game against Florida State in the ACC title game when Taylor left that one with a shoulder injury, so when he comes in to give Rivers a series off, there will be very little drop-off. MLB ought to be OK. I do have serious concerns up the middle at tackle, because the Blue Devils are very strong up the gut on the offensive line. If James Gayle isn't fully recovered from his ankle injury, there isn't going to be a lot of heat off the edge and the tackles will be needed to collapse the pocket. Skip Hopkins can obviously do that but he will get a double team on most plays, so true freshmen Luther Maddy and Corey Marshall are going to have to win some one-on-one battles. I think how many points Duke scores will be directly related to how well that defensive line can get pressure in the pass game.
Coach Cutcliffe is the right coach for Duke. He is changing the culture of their football team. Right now, he's battling as many injuries as the Hokies are and unlike Tech, the backups aren't quite talented enough. If Tech stays focused on the task at hand and plays up to their ability, they should win this game. But that's the reason they play on Saturday instead of just putting an "X" in the win column. Because these are college kids, and there is a slim chance they are overlooking Duke and that would be a catastrophic mistake. Coach Beamer had better not be letting off this week. The bye is NEXT week, Coach.