Hokies Cover 20-Point Spread at Home in a Tale of Two Halves
The #19 Virginia Tech Hokies defeated the visiting Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders Saturday afternoon, 35-14.
A few three-and-outs marked the start of the game before VT finally settled in and put points on the board via a six-yard fade to the sideline from Braxton Burmeister, who had already gone to and returned from the locker room after taking a hit on a run, to Tayvion Robinson.
However, this aerial connection was one of few throughout the first half; while many expected the Virginia Tech coaching staff to take chances against an inferior opponent, Head Coach Justin Fuente and Offensive Coordinator Brad Cornelsen stuck with their religious reliance upon the run game.
MTSU came out as the aggressor in the game, frequently stacking the box and sending blitzers from different points around the line of scrimmage. Tech’s offensive line was magnificent against #10 North Carolina in their 17-10 victory last Friday, but for much of the first half, they were unable to impose themselves upon a spirited group of visitors.
The turning point in the game came in the third quarter when Jalen Holston used a series of cuts on the right side to break free for a 29-yard touchdown run; on the next possession, Jermaine Waller made a great read and used his anticipation to pick off Bailey Hockman of MTSU, setting up a 6-yard TD run by Raheem Blackshear to put Tech up 14-0 in third-quarter scoring.
It was plain sailing from there for the Hokies, who only relinquished a garbage-time score on the way to their 21-point victory. It is hard to nitpick a top-20 team that covers the spread, but for as many positive takeaways as there are, there are harrowing ones too.
The Glass is Half Full
Virginia Tech is now 2-0 and could move beyond its #19 ranking if a non-top-10 ranked program loses this week; the Hokies have an excellent chance to go somewhere between 5-2 and 7-0 before their late-season road stretch, with matchups at West Virginia (next week) and against Notre Dame standing as the obvious roadblocks. WVU should be favored at home, but VT has a real chance to knock off a Notre Dame team that has beaten Florida State and Toledo by a combined six points.
The maroon and orange also hung 35 points on the board in a game in which they seemed lethargic and lifeless, potentially due to an emotional hangover from defeating North Carolina eight days prior. The defense only gave up seven points in the first 59 minutes and 33 seconds, won the turnover battle, and did so without resorting to any of their tricks.
A win is a win, and a 21-point margin of victory should not usually disappoint anybody; however, that is assuming that the glass is half full.
The Glass is Half Empty
Virginia Tech’s lack of aggression in play-calling has been shocking, even for a team that was expected to be conservative. This week was an opportunity for Braxton Burmeister to be put to the test as a passer, and he only finished the game 14/24 with 142 yards and a touchdown. This was 27 yards fewer than he threw for against #10 UNC, and he only received five more attempts.
James Mitchell left the game injured, but before he did, he got a workload of— wait for it— one catch for one yard. While Jelani Woods of UVA recorded five receptions for 122 yards and a touchdown en route to Brennan Armstrong setting a program-record for most passing yards in a game (405), Mitchell, a consensus top-five tight end in America, continues to be underutilized by a team that could easily feature him in play-action while still keeping their ground-based approach.
Justin Hamilton’s defense was the hero of week one’s upset and bailed the offense out again against MTSU, but outside of a few individual moments, they were mostly uninspiring.
After being forced to play off in zone coverage, Armani Chatman was seen yelling at the sidelines after MTSU picked up a first down on an easy out route; Chatman’s outburst mirrored the emotions of the fans, who had seen their elite secondary lock down a top-10 team in press coverage just one week prior.
VT was also hesitant to pressure Hockman in MTSU’s backfield, ultimately winding up with three sacks in what felt like one at most. This is after they sacked pre-season Heisman candidate Sam Howell six times on 32 passing attempts, the same amount that Hockman had today.
This Virginia Tech team has been built around being tough to beat; fans have known that since they pushed Clemson to a 10-10 tie near the end of the second quarter last season. But in the same breath, they are not designed to dominate games, and thus leave themselves susceptible to being blown off the field in a future matchup. Losing Hendon Hooker to Tennessee does not help matters either, as he was the real risk-taker and playmaker whenever the Hokies fell behind.
There is a phrase in sports that moral victories are for losers; somehow, this win feels like a moral loss for a constituency that wanted to see their team fire on all cylinders before their trip to Morgantown. Next week will be the biggest test for a VT team that is deservingly in the top-20 but not yet a contender.
When the Hokies play with aggression like they did against the Tar Heels, they look like world-beaters; when they take their foot off the gas like they did against the Blue Raiders, they leave much to be desired.
In the end, every week is about going 1-0; Virginia Tech has done that twice, and they are now tasked with continuing the trend at West Virginia next Saturday.