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Scouting the opponent: No. 13 Virginia Tech feeds off elite defense, hostile home crowd

<p>Travon McMillian leads a deep Hokie backfield that features seven players with at least 100 rushing yards this season.</p>

Travon McMillian leads a deep Hokie backfield that features seven players with at least 100 rushing yards this season.

Heading into Saturday’s contest, Virginia Tech appears to be going in the opposite direction as the Blue Devils. 

After a setback to defending national champion Clemson to start ACC play, the No. 13 Hokies have strung together consecutive conference wins, including a 59-7 trouncing of North Carolina last Saturday.  

Duke, on the other hand, has seen its season unravel throughout the month of October, culminating in last weekend’s excruciating 24-17 loss to a stumbling Pittsburgh team at home. Virginia Tech and Duke match up well historically, and the last four games played between the two sides have been decided by just three points or less. 

And although the Blue Devils have won in their last two trips to Lane Stadium, the Hokie team awaiting them for this Saturday night tilt may be the toughest in recent memory, particularly on the defensive side. 

“They’re probably the most efficient defense that I’ve seen in quite some time,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “Whether it’s coverage, run defense, rushing the passer, playing the perimeter, it’s really almost impossible to find anything you could call a weakness.”

Although Virginia Tech has played a relatively unimpressive schedule, the Hokies have dominated throughout much of the season. Outside of the 31-17 loss to Clemson, only one team has come within seven points of Virginia Tech, giving it the eighth-best scoring margin in the NCAA at 23.8 points per game. 

Much of that success can be attributed to the Hokies’ defense, which has pitched shutouts against both Delaware and Old Dominion and surrenders a mere 12.7 points per game on average. That will prove to be a massive challenge for Daniel Jones and the Duke offense, which continued its struggles against a relatively weak Pittsburgh defense. 

In addition to limiting opponents to fewer than 300 total yards per game, Virginia Tech’s defense and special teams have proven effective at getting the ball into the end zone, epitomized during last weekend’s thrashing of the Tar Heels, when the Hokies scored on a punt, fumble recovery and interception. 

“It’s putting an emphasis on the execution,” Cutcliffe said of those defensive touchdowns. “One of the things that I think they do a great job of in their punt return game is that you can tell their players believe that if they do their job, that guy behind them is going to make it happen. There’s an intensity to it.”

Virginia Tech’s defense has also stifled opponents on third down, with much of that success attributed to the pass rush. The Hokies have sacked opposing quarterbacks 18 times this season and have held opponents to a third-down efficiency of just 23.7 percent—the second-best mark in the nation. 

On the offensive side, Virginia Tech balances its aerial and ground game through its redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Jackson, who has tossed 16 touchdowns this season against only four interceptions. Following the departure of Jerod Evans to the NFL after just one season in Blacksburg, Jackson has shown no hesitation about filling into the starting role. The Ann Arbor, Mich., native has started all seven games for the Hokies this season and boasts a 64.2 percent completion rate.

As a team that leans heavily on the run—the Hokies average 179.0 rushing yards per game—Virginia Tech will test a Duke run defense that surrendered more than 300 yards on the ground last week. Although redshirt junior Travon McMillian features as the starter, the Blue Devils’ task will be complicated by the fact that the Hokies have seven different players with at least 100 rushing yards on the season as well as seven with at least one rushing touchdown. 

The Hokies possess a tremendously potent offense that averages 37.0 points and more than 450 total yards per game, and they are even more dangerous at home. Lane Stadium is one of the most raucous environment in the ACC, and the advantage Virginia Tech enjoys there has been clear throughout the season. The Hokies have outscored opponents 141-38 at home, a stunning margin rivaled by few teams in the nation. 

“Playing in that atmosphere, I think it’s important that we go out there and set the tone,” redshirt senior left tackle Evan Lisle said. “Otherwise, that can take over. It’s important as a team that we don’t let that affect us.”

After three consecutive losses by a touchdown, the Blue Devils will not get a break with their toughest game of the season looming. Virginia Tech is ranked higher now at No. 13 than it ever was last season, with both sides of the ball firing on all cylinders. 

“They’re a team that’s functioning at the highest level I’ve seen in quite some time,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re a huge challenge, but also a huge opportunity.” 


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