Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech athletics
It was quite a start to the 2021 college football season in Blacksburg, Va.
Not only did Virginia Tech knock off then-No. 10 North Carolina, but it marked the return of “The Terror Dome.” It marked the return of 66,000 screaming fans. It marked the return of everything Virginia Tech football stands for on the national college football landscape. It also cooled off head coach Justin Fuente’s seat considerably as his team entered the AP Poll this week at No. 19.
But now, a new challenge unfolds this weekend. Upset minded-Middle Tennessee makes its way to Blacksburg hoping to play spoiler inside Lane Stadium.
Game Day Information
When: Saturday, Sept. 11, 2 p.m. ET
Where: Lane Stadium, Blacksburg, VA
TV: ACC Network Extra
PXP: Bill Roth
Analyst: Eddie Royal
Forecast: 75 F, Partly Cloudy, 0% Chance of Rain
Series History: First Meeting
Line: Virginia Tech -20
Last Time Out
It was a Friday night to remember inside a sold-out Lane Stadium when the No. 10 North Carolina Tar Heels rolled into town. In fact, more than 12 million people will remember Metallica’s Enter Sandman that evening after they watched the replay of the infamous Virginia Tech entrance on social media.
Although just a one-possession game in which the Hokies came out on top 17-10, the contest was very much controlled by Virginia Tech. Fuente’s team controlled the time of possession, annihilated the Tar Heel offensive line, kept the ball away from Sam Howell, and took it away when he had it.
The Heisman Trophy hopeful had a game to forget. He was sacked six times and served up a career-high three interceptions. The bulk of the credit goes to Virginia Tech’s defensive line. Howell was harassed all evening long, and the downfield coverage by the Hokies’ secondary made it tough for the junior quarterback to make the plays that he’s capable of making.
Quarterback Braxton Burmeister had a solid first game in front of a filled Lane Stadium. Even though his 169 yards through the air and 12-for-19 completion rate won’t knock your socks off, he controlled the contest, and executed the game plan as well as Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen could’ve hoped for.
But the Hokie coaching staff doesn’t want to hear much about the North Carolina win anymore. It’s all about Middle Tennessee. That’s the main focus heading into Saturday’s match-up.
Mixing Things Up
We saw a lot of great things from Virginia Tech last weekend. Now the big question is, how are the Hokies going to build off that?
We’ve seen Fuente’s team in the spotlight before, but for Virginia Tech to capitalize on a prime-time showing with a win over a top-10 team at home in maybe the venue’s loudest version ever, is big-time for the program. Personnel-wise, it should be too.
It’ll be interesting throughout the afternoon to see how much Virginia Tech utilizes the passing game as opposed to how it used it against the Tar Heels. There weren’t a lot of deep shots taken by Burmeister and company last Friday night. We expect that to change this weekend.
Another big question is, how will Virginia Tech change up the pace offensively? Certainly, the Hokies won’t be trying to keep the ball out of the Blue Raiders’ hands as they did with Carolina. So it’ll be interesting to see what the scheme will look like there.
It’s likely that Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson get more heavily involved in the receiving game. The same could be said for guys like Drake Deiuliis and Nick Gallo, who sit behind star James Mitchell at the tight end position.
Some Different Looks
Fans want to see Virginia Tech’s depth as well. It’ll be nice if you’re wearing maroon in orange to see Virginia Tech jump out to a big lead. For one, it shows there’s no letdown following Virginia Tech’s first top-10 home win since 2009. Fans are anxious to see what the Hokies have at the backup quarterback position with Knox Kadum.
They’ll get to see what Marco Lee has in the run game. They’ll get to see what Jaden Payoute and Da’Wain Lofton have in the receiving corps. Defensively, they’ll get to see where Devon Hunter is at from a rust standpoint. They’ll also get to see the depth on the line like with a newcomer in Cole Nelson.
That being said, the Hokies still have to show up. Middle Tennessee is going to want to have a say in whether or not Virginia Tech can utilize its reserves. Playing spoiler is what’s on the minds of Middle Tennessee.
The Blue Raider Effect
Longtime head coach Rick Stockstill has built up a pretty solid program during his time in Murfreesboro. They’re hungry for more, though. The Blue Raiders haven’t had a winning season since 2018, and they haven’t knocked off a Power 5 team since they took down Syracuse at the Carrier Dome back in 2017.
The quarterback? Hokie fans may remember him. Bailey Hockman will be who the Blue Raiders ride the shoulders of as they hope to snap a 6-game losing streak to Power 5 opponents. The former NC State quarterback is going to have a chip on his shoulder after his subpar performance last year at Lane Stadium with the Wolfpack.
The lefty signal caller went just a mere 7-for-16 passing while totaling just 82 yards and two interceptions in NC State’s 45-24 loss to the Hokies.
He’s not really a threat to run either, which is the case for most of the Blue Raider backfield. Middle Tennessee only produced a quaint 112 yards on the ground last weekend in a 50-15 win over FCS Monmouth. Top back Chaton Mobley only produced a slim amount of that yardage, rushing for just 24 on the ground.
If the Blue Raiders are to have some success Saturday afternoon, they’re going to have to target top receivers Jarrin Pierce and CJ Windham. Whether or not Hockman will have the time, or if Pierce or Windham can break loose from that Virginia Tech secondary remains to be seen.
The former ACC starting quarterback has had his moments. Hockman actually had decent numbers following his debut in Blacksburg, and he ended up going 17-for-32 for 215 yards and three touchdowns in the win last weekend.
Defensively for Middle Tennessee, there’s some holes. But linebacker DQ Thomas and safety Reed Blankenship certainly aren’t among them. Blankenship may be the best Group of 5 safety in the country. The fifth-year starter has easily worked his way into a middle-of-the-pack 2022 NFL Draft pick.
It’s not going to be easy, but this is the Blue Raiders’ lone chance to pick off a Power 5 opponent this season. For a team that was picked to finish fifth in Conference USA’s East division, a win like this would go a long way in putting the rest of the league on notice. It would also be a big step toward qualifying for their first bowl appearance since 2018.
Hokies’ Keys To the Game
Put Them Away
The big thing for Virginia Tech this weekend is to do what it actually did not do well last week in the win over North Carolina. If you’re the Hokies, take Middle Tennessee out of the game early, put the foot on the gas and never let it believe it has a chance.
Are the Blue Raiders the next James Madison, East Carolina, Old Dominion, or Liberty? That’s the big question the more pessimistic side of the fan base is asking. Virginia Tech needs to leave no doubt and get some valuable game experience for the younger reserves.
Get Burmeister More Comfortable
It’s hard to criticize anything about the Oregon transfer’s performance last week against the Tar Heels. But there were some throws he would like to have hit.
This is a chance to make sure Burmeister is comfortable in the offense. He’ll have a chance to improve from last week and build some confidence before next week’s contest with West Virginia.
Get To Hockman
We already had talked about this earlier, but Hockman isn’t exactly the most mobile quarterback. The goal will be to keep him in the backfield and force him to make a play if you’re that Virginia Tech front. Continue to show that last week’s attack on Howell was no fluke.
If the Hokies do that, this game shouldn’t be a problem for Virginia Tech.
It’s easy to say this is a trap game for the Hokies: Sandwiched right in the middle of two rivalry games, a Group of 5 opponent, we get it. It’s a game Virginia Tech could easily fall into a trap.
That won’t happen this time around, however. After a close first half and a few big plays from Burmeister, the Hokies will pull away and score in the waning minutes to cover the spread and give Virginia Tech a nice feel-good win.
Prediction: (19) Virginia Tech 38, Middle Tennessee 14