Scouting the opponent: Duke football welcomes struggling Virginia Tech

Duke faces a Virginia Tech team struggling to stay afloat in the ACC.
Duke faces a Virginia Tech team struggling to stay afloat in the ACC.

Following a 38-31 win against Boston College, the Blue Devils are now above .500 in conference and three games above .500 overall. This largely unexpected success in head coach Mike Elko’s first season has led the Blue Devils to clinch bowl eligibility for the first time since 2018. Now, the Blue Devils will look to “get greedy in November,” and this mission gets underway with a Saturday matchup at home against Virginia Tech. The Hokies are coming off of a 28-27 loss to Georgia Tech at home. Let’s examine what the Hokies bring to the table. 

To put it lightly, Virginia Tech has been underwhelming this year. The Hokies sport a 2-7 record coupled with a 1-5 conference record, which lands them at the bottom of the ACC Coastal Division. Virginia Tech has not won a game since September, a month in which it had victories against struggling Boston College and FCS opponent Wofford. The Hokies have multiple losses against floundering teams, including a 33-10 loss to a West Virginia team that sits at the bottom of the Big 12 standings and the aforementioned loss to Georgia Tech. Needless to say, things have not gone too well in head coach Brent Pry’s first season at the helm.

A major problem with Virginia Tech this season has been offensive production. The offense has mustered 20.2 points per game to date, with its highest offensive output being 29 points against Pittsburgh. An even more dire problem with the offense comes when looking at total offense, in which the Hokies are 119th in the country with 315.9 yards per game. 

In certainly does not help that Marshall transfer Grant Wells has had a tough time adjusting to the rigor of the ACC. Wells has ultimately seen a decrease in every major quarterbacking stat in his junior season, most notably dropping from last year's 139.0 passer rating to 116.7 this season. Wells has only managed eight passing touchdowns so far, averaging less than one score through the air per game. One aspect of Wells’ game that has certainly carried over from his career at Marshall is his rushing ability. The redshirt junior already has six rushing touchdowns this season, one shy of his output from last season. 

Many of Virginia Tech’s struggles can be attributed to the struggles of the offensive line to protect their signal callers. So far, Virginia Tech quarterbacks have been sacked 25 times for a total of 147 yards lost. This has led Wells to make rushed decisions, which would work to explain his poor touchdown-to-interception ratio. 

Another underwhelming aspect of the Hokie offense is its rushing attack. The Hokies average 103.6 yards on the ground, which ranks joint 118th in FBS. By yardage, junior running back Keshawn King has been the leader for Virginia Tech, averaging 48.3 yards per game. As a team, Virginia Tech has punched it in on the ground 12 times, with six of these coming from Wells. The Hokies have had six fumbles in their first nine games, a statistic that certainly excites Duke’s turnover-happy defense.

One of the few bright spots for the Virginia Tech offense so far has been senior wide receiver Kaleb Smith. Smith has hauled in 35 receptions for 647 yards, good for 18.5 yards per catch. This production has already eclipsed his previous season-best total of 260 receiving yards. His 71.9 yards per game certainly help to keep the offense afloat, as it is one of the better averages in the nation: Smith is 63rd in receiving yards to date, meaning the Blue Devils will have yet another stud wideout to focus on. This is especially true with the injuries Duke has suffered in the secondary, making the challenge of stopping Smith even more daunting. Just like Zay Flowers and Boston College last week, Smith is the only pass-catcher that has seen major production, with second-leading receiver Nick Gallo barely over 200 yards for the season. 

Virginia Tech’s strength is absolutely its defense. This makes a lot of sense if you examine Pry’s coaching background, which includes being the defensive coordinator at Penn State for the last six seasons. Pry has certainly been able to instill his defensive mindset, as Virginia Tech is tied for 58th in FBS in total defense. The Hokies allow 25.1 points per game, including a game in which they held Boston College to 10 points. Virginia Tech concedes 134.1 yards on the ground to go along with 235.2 yards through the air weekly. A large aspect of its success has been its ability to blitz from multiple fronts, which can work to confuse undisciplined teams. Unfortunately for the Hokies, the defense has only forced six turnovers on the season. This is one of the lowest numbers in the country and goes hand in hand with their team turnover margin of -8. 

“Our kids are aware that we need to handle the blitz game," Elko said at Monday's media availability. "And we're gonna have to do it really effectively to have success on Saturday”

Ultimately, this is a team that Duke should be able to impose its will against in Wallace Wade Stadium. The Blue Devils are better than the Hokies in almost every statistic, and they proved last week that one great receiver is not enough. However, anything can happen on any given weekend. Coming off a monumental win, it would be easy for the Blue Devils to let the Hokies sneak up behind them. Although the bowl trip has been secured, every game is still meaningful and could lead to a better situation in December for the Blue Devils.

“There's not a lot of teams in the month of November that have a lot to play for, you know, we're still playing for a nine-win season," Elko said. “We're still playing with an outside chance at the Coastal but certainly a legit chance at the second-place spot in it.”


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