Everything You Need To Know: Louisville v. Virginia Tech

Kickoff: 4:00 ET, ACC Network

Spread: Virginia Tech -3.5, O/U 67.5 (Bovada)

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Louisville and Virginia Tech last squared off against each other in the 2006 Gator Bowl, a game that many remember for quarterback Marcus Vick’s infamous stomping of Elvis Dumervil’s leg. Louisville withstood that to take a 24-13 lead with 13:37 left in the fourth quarter, after Hunter Cantwell threw his third touchdown pass of the game to Gary Barnidge. But Virginia Tech rallied with 22 points in the final three minutes of the game, including a pick six by James Anderson with 5:04 left, to take a 35-24 win over Louisville.

Virginia Tech leads the all-time series 5-2. Louisville’s last win against the Hokies came in 1992 at (old) Cardinal Stadium.

Meet the 2020 Virginia Tech Hokies

After this game on Saturday, Louisville will have officially played everyone affiliated with ACC football. But Louisville hasn’t played Virginia Tech since 2006, so there is a lot of ground to catch up on.

Virginia Tech would go on to win three more ACC championships with Frank Beamer as head coach after the 2006 Gator Bowl. They also had eight straight seasons of 10+ wins from 2004-11, with four top ten finishes in the final AP polls (2004-05, 2007, 2009).

But after a 2011 season that saw Virginia Tech come up short in the Sugar Bowl against Michigan, the Hokies went into a bit of a decline. They went 29-23 from 2012-15, what would end up being the final four years of Beamer’s legendary coaching career in Blacksburg.

VT decided to replace the retiring legend with Justin Fuente, who had turned the Memphis football program around with back-to-back 9+ win seasons for the Tigers (very similar to Florida State’s Mike Norvell). Fuente led the Hokies to an ACC Championship game berth in 2016 by winning the Coastal Division, going 10-4 and leading them to a top-20 finish in the final polls. Fuente has since went 26-18 as the Hokies head coach, and has maintained Virginia Tech’s bowl streak of 26 consecutive seasons dating back to 1992.

The Hokies are 3-2 heading into Saturday’s game, coming off a road upset loss at Wake Forest.

Offensive Players to Know: RB Khalil Herbert & Raheem Blackshear, TE James Mitchell

Virginia Tech has a unique situation at running back, where two transfers came in competing for a starting job this offseason. Khalil Herbert transferred from Kansas and eventually won the starting job, after averaging 8.9 yards per carry in a four game stint with the Jayhawks in 2019.

Herbert has kept up the same big play ability in 2020, averaging 8.75 yards per carry this season while also being the ACC’s top rusher (131 yards per game). Virginia Tech runs a lot of outside zone with Herbert and Blackshear, and it’s not hard to see why with the former. When Herbert bounces runs outside, he can really accelerate and get yards in a hurry. They don’t run a lot of unbalanced sets that Louisville has struggled with, but Louisville’s defense has had problems containing the edge as far as outside runs and perimeter plays go. Herbert has also handled responsibilities as a kick returner, and that helped him set the single game school record for all-purpose yards against Duke earlier this month.

The other transfer back is Raheem Blackshear, who arrived at Blacksburg after three years as a primary contributor with Rutgers. He’s a versatile back with proven pass catching ability, but with Herbert leading the ACC and Virginia Tech quarterbacks being threats in the running game, he hasn’t had a lot of opportunities to showcase that. They do try to get him involved in the game; he averages nine carries (nine per gam), and he can bounce runs outside as well as showcase toughness between the tackles. He could be due for a breakout year in 2021 once Herbert leaves.

Virginia Tech doesn’t have to ask a lot out of their passing game (65/35 run/pass split heading in), but part of their woes this year have been inaccuracy. They have good athletes with Braxton Burrmeister and Hendon Hooker at the position, but the Hokies enter the game completing 52% of its passes as a team. Louisville has been showing better pass coverage skills in recent weeks against Notre Dame and Florida State, but they will have a matchup at a position that has been problematic in recent years.

Tight end James Mitchell, to me, was the best player out of the Hokies receiver group. He has really good ball skills that you want out of a tight end; good concentration, soft hands, and athletic ability in space. He’s also a key blocker in Virginia Tech’s run scheme, especially the outside zones as the weakside blocker.

Defensive Players to Know: DL Amare Barrio & Emmanuel Belmar, LB Rayshard Ashby

Virginia Tech has a really strong front seven that can get to the quarterback. The Hokies average 3.6 sacks per game (third in the conference), with Amare Barrio leading them in that category (3.5) and eight tackles for loss. The Hokies have a lot of speed on the edge with Barrio and Emmanuel Belmar at defensive end, and that really shows up when they decide to bring additional rushers.

Barrio is a JUCO commit that has really emerged as one of Virginia Tech’s top playmakers on defense. He’s an athlete on the edge that can run and bend to get good looks at the quarterbacks. Emmanuel Belmar is a three-year starter that has 29 career starts (and counting) in his career, he’s a good complementary piece to Barrio on the edge.

Linebacker Rayshard Ashby is coming off an All-ACC season in 2019, racking up 120 tackles and 17 for loss. He’s also among the team leaders in negative plays this year, with three sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. He’s got the London Fletcher, Zack Thomas body type for a linebacker (5’10”, 240+ lbs.); scouts will tell you that’s undersized for the position, but I think you can find gems like Ashby every now and then for the pros. He’s definitely an early down menace that can really challenge Louisville’s propensity for first and second down runs.

Points of Interest:

  • Can Louisville’s defense stop the Virginia Tech ground attack?

The Hokies are one of the best rushing teams in all of college football, averaging 292 yards per game on the ground. Virginia Tech isn’t short on bodies either, with Hooker, Herbert, and Blackshear (carries pending) all able to produce in the running game.

Much like Virginia Tech needs to stop Louisville on early downs with their run-heavy tendency, Louisville will need to find a way to contain Virginia Tech’s running game. They will especially have to set the edge and keep Virginia Tech from turning upfield on the outside runs. Having third-and-longs could force Hendon Hooker to beat Louisville with his arm, which did work out well for the Cardinals against Jordan Travis and Florida State last week. Virginia Tech is completing 36.5% of third downs heading into Saturday, and Hooker is completing under 50% of passes on third downs with an 0:2 TD/INT ratio.

Hooker’s scrambling ability, though, could pose problems for Louisville. He does have an ability to turn nothing into somethings, especially when defenders overpursue and leave lanes for him to take. Louisville has to take those lanes away from Hooker and keep him in the pocket. While Hooker has been good at taking care of the football (17:5 TD:INT ratio), Louisville has also been improving at breaking up passes and playing man coverage since the Miami game.

  • Which tight end will affect the outcome more?

Even though it was Tight Ends week last week, Louisville’s Marshon Ford and Virginia Tech’s James Mitchell should have prominent roles on Saturday. They are both very well rounded tight ends that can not only find success in the short and intermediate game, they’re also solid blockers and really important pieces in the running game.

Both thrive off of play action, and that’s why stopping either team on early down runs is crucial to the outcome. If one team is able to get its ground game going, you’ll likely see them try to capitalize with play action at some point. This will especially be prevalent in the red zone, with both having four touchdowns apiece.

  • Will Louisville’s offensive line contain Virginia Tech’s pass rush?

The Louisville offensive line has been superb in pass protection in recent weeks, allowing just one sack in the last two games. They will be tested against one of the better front sevens in the ACC, and hoping for better results than the last time they faced a similar front.

One important thing to note: Virginia Tech has given up over 200 yards rushing in their two losses (at North Carolina, at Wake Forest). They’ve also been vulnerable through the air, giving up over 300 yards to Boston College and watching North Carolina and Wake Forest both complete over 70% of their passes. So while Virginia Tech has had a good front seven and been able to get negative plays, they’re not exactly foolproof on the defensive side. They’ve also had four sacks in the two losses, versus 14 in the three wins.

So, it will start upfront for Louisville’s offense. Can they continue to carry their momentum from the last two weeks? If Louisville is able to create lanes for Javian Hawkins, you’re likely going to see similar results from Saturday’s win over Florida State. Consistency in pass protection would also buy time for Malik Cunningham to spread the ball and attack Virginia Tech’s defense vertically.

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