Three Reasons Why NC State Could Beat Virginia Tech
The Virginia Tech Hokies finally take the field this Saturday, opening the season under the lights at Lane Stadium against the NC State Wolfpack. After an offseason unlike any other, the Hokies are finally ready - and most importantly, healthy enough - to play football this Saturday.
When the ACC formally released its revised football schedule back in early August, NC State was originally set to kickoff the season against Tech on September 12th. However, NC State had a COVID-19 outbreak within their program, forcing the game to be postponed until this coming Saturday, the 26th.
The Hokies were hoping to already have a game under their belt at this point, as Tech was slated to play in-state rival Virginia last Saturday in Blacksburg. However, as has been well-documented, Virginia Tech has had COVID-19 issues of its own within the program, forcing large numbers of players into quarantine over the least two weeks. The game against Virginia will now take place on December 12th to conclude the campaign.
Alas, NC State is once again the opener for Virginia Tech. Can they pull off an upset in Blacksburg and spoil the opener for the Hokies?
Here's three reasons why it could happen.
1. NC State's Defense is better than it appears
When NC State beat Wake Forest last Saturday 45-42 to open the season, one of the larger takeaways on a macro-level was how bad both defenses looked.
On the surface, it was a fair assumption. Nobody expected this game to get into the 40s, and both defenses looked helpless at times against the opposing offenses.
NC State's defense surrendered 385 offensive yards and 35 points in the opener, with the other seven Wake Forest points coming on a Bailey Hockman pick-six in the third quarter. The 35 points allowed by NC State is less than ideal, but the defense actually was not quite as bad as it looked.
The Wolfpack allowed those 385 total yards on 85 offensive plays by Wake Forest. The 4.53 yards per play allowed by NC State is actually good for 4th in the ACC to this point in the season. Only Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, and North Carolina have been better in that department to date.
This doesn't mean that Virginia Tech won't have trouble scoring on NC State this Saturday, but I think we can all collectively pump the brakes on the Wolfpack having one of the conference's worst defenses. If the Hokies keep plugging away offensively, the dam is likely to break as it did for Wake Forest against the 'Pack last Saturday.
However, it's likely that Virginia Tech will have to grind it out and be patient against this NC State defense and take what's given offensively.
2. NC State has found offensive balance that was missing in 2019
NC State's offense last year wasn't exactly a sight for sore eyes. For much of last season, the Wolfpack had no idea who its quarterback was - eventually settling on freshman Devin Leary. Leary completed a mere 48% of his passes for 1,219 yards and eight touchdowns to five interceptions.
If there was one area where Leary needed to grow, it was in his efficiency, where he struggled to hit open receivers and complete passes when NC State needed him the most.
It was widely expected that Leary would enter the season as the starter, and it was confirmed by NC State head coach Dave Doeren a couple weeks prior to the original opener against Virginia Tech. Up until opening kickoff against Wake Forest, Leary was still the presumed starter, but instead it was Bailey Hockman who took the field for the Wolfpack at quarterback against the Demon Deacons. Leary never saw the field, as Doeren said that he was not "the most ready quarterback" during preparation.
While most were surprised that Hockman played, he actually looked quite good and kept the Wolfpack offense on schedule all night. Hockman finished the game 16-for-23 for 191 yards and two touchdowns to one interception. As mentioned earlier, the interception he threw was returned for a touchdown, but outside of that one throw, he was very good.
NC State's issue offensively last season is that the passing game was extremely poor and it didn't do the running game any favors. Balance was clearly needed, and in game one against a terrible Wake Forest defense to kickoff the 2020 season, it appears that the Wolfpack found that balance that was so desperately needed.
Not only did Hockman throw for nearly 200 yards, but the running game showed how good it could be with a competent passing attack. Junior running back Ricky Person Jr. carried the ball 14 times for 99 yards and two scores, while sophomore Zonovan Knight rushed 11 times for 97 yards and a touchdown. As a team, the Wolfpack rushed for 270 yards in total and averaged 5.5 yards per attempt in a strong opening effort to begin the new season.
While it's only a one-game sample size, it looks as if NC State will be a much better version of itself offensively this season. Some Virginia Tech fans may dismiss it due to Wake Forest's defense being objectively terrible, but to NC State's credit, the offense wasn't good enough last year to get into a shootout, let alone come out on the other side of one with a victory.
3. The rust factor
This is subjective, and impacts teams in different ways, but the rust factor is something that shouldn't be dismissed.
Let me acknowledge this to start - this could be totally overblown. Look no further than the Duke Blue Devils, who opened the season with a loss to Notre Dame in South Bend before proceeding to lose 26-6 to a Boston College team this past Saturday who had yet to play a game.
Rust was not a factor for Boston College, as the Eagles cruised to an easy victory against Duke despite not playing a game in week one of conference action.
Will Virginia Tech come out looking like Boston College did against Duke? Or will a slow start force the Hokies to play from behind?
If Virginia Tech does start out slow, how the team responds to early NC State momentum will be interesting to observe. Whether we want to admit it or not, no matter how many scrimmages or live practice action a team has in camp, there is absolutely nothing that replaces in-game experience against another program. The Wolfpack hold the advantage of having a game under their belt already, while the Hokies will be starting from a blank slate on Saturday night in Blacksburg.
With a true freshman in Keonta Jenkins starting at safety, and a host of new playmakers in the backfield for the Virginia Tech offense, will a slow start plague the Hokies?
Keep an eye on this, as it could potentially factor into how Tech fans are feeling about things throughout the first half against the Wolfpack.