The Chalkboard: WVU – Virginia Tech
Their units won’t face each other directly, but the match-up between West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson and Virginia Tech counterpart Bud Foster is one of the marquee features of this game. The numbers Foster has recorded at Tech are phenomenal (Tech is first or second in 10 different defensive categories nationally since 1996) and they figure to be quite salty again this year.
Gibson’s numbers aren’t quite as impressive, but it should be remembered that he didn’t have the benefit of being a DC in the old Eastern and Big East eras of football, when things were played much closer to the vest and 27 points was considered an offensive explosion. He’s every bit as talented as Foster, and some of the things he has been able to do to slow Big 12 offenses are just as impressive. Holding Texas Tech to 17 points or Baylor to 21 are huge accomplishments. And it’s instructive to note that while Tech yielded 22.8 points per game in 2016, WVU gave up just 24.
Over the course of the series, which hasn’t included the spread ball era, each team has yielded an average of just 16 points per game to the other. If either team matches that, it’s going to be a win, but that’s unlikely. The questions to track are these:
1) Which unit with questions – West Virginia’s defense and Virginia Tech’s offense – will seize control of that match-up?
2) Will Tech’s stout defense be able to clamp down WVU’s wide receivers in single coverage, and thus hold a numbers advantage against the run?
The victor in these two confrontations will almost assuredly come out on top on Sunday night.
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It was pointed out in our weekly chat session on BlueGoldNews.com that there hasn’t been much heard yet about Virginia Tech’s special teams, and the Hokies’ kick-blocking prowess in particular. (Shoutout to Mexman here!) The thing to note, though, is that it’s not just blocking kicks that have made Tech special teams great. It has also been their ability to score. Over the past three decades, Tech has scored 57 touchdowns on returns of all stripes, and has also racked up 11 safeties on special teams.
Add that to the 140 blocked kicks over the same span (one every 2.7 games) and it’s a big concern. This puts pressure not only on West Virginia’s protection units, but also on the kickers and punters themselves, as well as the snappers. Execution must be flawless and timing perfect – otherwise Tech will enjoy its normal advantage in this phase of the game.
WVU didn’t have a punt or placekick attempt blocked last year, but suffered blocks on all three types (punt, field goal and extra point) during the 2015 season.
West Virginia hasn’t faced Tech since the advent of some recent developments in punt protection schemes, including the three-man front wall employed by many teams. While that has been effective, it also allows rushers to get close to the punter – an occurrence that should make Mountaineer fans nervous. While each Tech team has undoubtedly been different in terms of its kick-blocking prowess, the long-term results are undeniable. In addition to crisp play, WVU must hope that this year’s Tech team isn’t dotted with players that have the ability to make plays in the kick game. Four Tech returnees blocked a kick last year.
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A couple more defensive numbers to consider. While WVU gave up 85 more yards per game than Tech did a year ago, the Mountaineers evened up the production battle by allowing foes to score touchdowns on just 50% of their red zone trips. Tech, which stifled opponents on third down (27% conversion rate) gave up TDs on 61% of their trips. That’s a really good number, but West Virginia’s was stellar.
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Virginia Tech has had the upper hand recently in the series, trimming WVU’s overall lead from 25-13-1 to 28-22-1. The Mountaineers have done very well in neutral site games, going 5-1 at three off campus venues. West Virginia has won two games in Richmond and single games in Bluefield, Charleston and, oddly enough, Huntington, against a single Hokie victory in the Virginia state capital. Those six games occurred between 1916 and 1962.
Need one more encouraging factoid? WVU is 4-0 all-time on Sept. 3.
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Offensive coordinator Jake Spavital will be on the field, and presumably right next to head coach Dana Holgorsen, as the former makes play calls this year. Their proximity should eliminate any communications delays, but it means that WVU will not have an offensive coach stationed in the press box. There figures to be a graduate assistant stationed there to provide the bird’s eye view, but this is definitely an unorthodox approach.