For the 14th straight year, the Commonwealth Cup is Virginia Tech’s as the Hokies beat Virginia 10-0 in a dominant defensive performance. With that said, here are our takeaways from Virginia Tech’s 14th-straight win over UVA.
1. Deshawn McClease is VT’s Best Running Back
After leading Virginia Tech in rushing against Pittsburgh, Deshawn McClease had another impressive performance that may have been his best game of the season. McClease had 71 yards on 13 carries with a very good average of 5.5 yards per carry. Steven Peoples led Virginia Tech in carries with 22 but despite having nine more carries, Peoples had the same number of yards as McClease.
Peoples and Jalen Holston both give Virginia Tech quality power backs, but Deshawn McClease has shown over the past two weeks that he is VT’s best running backs. Going forward, McClease should be the lead back with Peoples supplementing him as the power back in the bowl game (and Holston doing so as well when he is healthy).
First and foremost, McClease brings great speed and quickness to go with patience and vision that no other VT running back offers. McClease’s vision has proved beneficial time and time again, and while that may cost him a yard at times, it’s usually more beneficial than not. McClease has also gotten better at knowing when to be patient and when to put his head down to get any yards he can get.
Four times this season, McClease has had a double-digit number of carries and all four times, McClease has averaged at least 5 yards per carry. That’s a great sign of how McClease can be productive with a higher volume of carries. McClease has also now had at least 70 rushing yards in three of his past five games with one down game against Miami and one game against Georgia Tech where he was sparingly used.
McClease’s role was inconsistent early on in the season, but McClease has shown over the past two games that he is VT’s best RB and backed up his strong early performances against West Virginia and ECU. Going forward, McClease should be leading the Hokies’ backfield and enter the spring as Virginia Tech’s top running back.
2. VT’s Backups Stepped Up On Defense.
Virginia Tech was without three starters on defense (and four during the first quarter), making life more difficult on-paper for VT. Instead, the Hokies’ defense stepped up and put together one of their best performances of he year in part due to these backups.
Houshun Gaines led those backups as Gaines was able to consistently put pressure on Kurt Benkert and either get a hit on him or force him to throw the ball away. Gaines finished the game with 4 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack, and a fumble recovery that set VT up with great field position for their only touchdown drive of the game. Gaines was a force throughout the game and may be able to push Vinny Mihota for regular playing time next season as he started to before Mihota was injured this year.
Houshun Gaines wasn’t the only player who played well as Khalil Ladler and Deon Newsome were both effective in their first career defensive starts.
Newsome had 4 tackles including an important open-field that prevented a huge gain if not a touchdown while Ladler was also effective with 4 tackles. Newsome wasn’t perfect in coverage but he was competent with a quality performance in his first career defensive start.
Ladler filled in well at free safety in a secondary that has been injury-riddled. Virginia Tech’s safety depth is proving to be arguably the best in the nation with plenty of quality options including the former four-star CB Ladler whose move from CB to free safety paid off.
While depth has been a question mark at a couple spots, this game showed that the Hokies’ defense has some very good backups like Gaines, Ladler, and Newsome who can all be relied on to step up when VT needs them to.
3. The Battle at Left Tackle Behind Yosuah Nijman
Parker Osterloh has had his fair share of struggles filling in for Yosuah Nijman but for the past couple weeks, Virginia Tech stuck with Osterloh. However, that changed some against Virginia.
The Hokies rotated between Osterloh and D’Andre Plantin at left tackle against UVA with Plantin doing much better according to data from Pro Football Focus via VT Scoop. Plantin received a “very good” grade of 81.9 from Pro Football Focus’s evaluation while Osterloh received the lowest grade (45.0) of any Hokie who played at least 25 snaps.
If Nijman doesn’t play in the bowl game (which may be a smart move given his importance to this offensive line), Plantin would be the best choice to start, especially after his solid performance compared to Osterloh’s struggles. The bowl game would be a great opportunity for Plantin to gain some more experience against power 5 competition and likely help his development.
Now I’ll be honest, offensive line evaluation isn’t my strong suit at all, but Pro Football Focus is usually very accurate with their analysis, making the stark grade difference is significant. Looking ahead to next year, Plantin will have a strong case to start on the offensive line next year, possibly at right tackle even if Kyle Chung returns given Chung’s versatility to play anywhere and the opening at left guard with Wyatt Teller’s departure.
In the short term, it’s hard to argue against Plantin starting at left tackle in the bowl game if Nijman doesn’t play.