For the third time since 2009, Virginia Tech will clash with Cincinnati in a bowl game. If the Hokies want to repeat the success they had in the previous two contests, they need to focus on these matchups.
Virginia Tech Defensive Line vs. Cincinnati Backfield
The Bearcats have averaged 238.1 rushing yards per game this season, which puts them 16th in the nation in that category. Their lead back, Michael Warren II, has already reached the thousand yard mark this season. The sophomore has 1,163 yards and 17 touchdowns on 224 carries this year.
Even with these impressive numbers, Warren II is far from Cincinnati’s only option. The Bearcats have 3 other players who have rushed for 480 yards or more this season, including quarterback Desmond Ridder. He is second on the team with 574 yards and 5 TDs on the ground.
Lastly, running backs Tavion Thomas (490 yards) and Charles McClelland (483 yards) round out the rushing attack. In short, the Bearcats get production from a lot of different players on the ground, which certainly presents a challenge for defenses.
Meanwhile, Virginia Tech’s rushing defense has struggled this season. The Hokies have given up over 200 yards on the ground five teams this season. Most notably, they surrendered 465 yards on the ground to Georgia Tech and 492 rushing yards against Pittsburgh.
In addition, Bud Foster’s defenses have a history of struggling against mobile quarterbacks, and that has not changed this season. Georgia Tech’s Tobias Oliver and UVA’s Bryce Perkins were probably the best running quarterbacks that the Hokies faced this season, and they each eclipsed 100 rushing yards against the Hokies.
A lot of Virginia Tech’s problems on defense come down to giving up explosive plays. Think about Cam Akers 90 something yard touchdown run in the first week. The Hokies had held the Seminoles to almost 0 rushing yards before that play. The same was true with Notre Dame RB Dexter Williams who was contained until he broke out for a 97-yard touchdown early in the second half against VT.
Unfortunately, that was not a one time thing for Virginia Tech. There have been countless instances where the Hokies gave up chunk yardage this season, usually on the ground. Many times, these big plays led to more success for the opponent.
So, the Hokies need to focus on limiting the big play against the Bearcats. Luckily for them, Cincinnati is ranked 100th in the country in IsoPPP+ (an S&P+ advanced statistic that measures explosiveness). In other words, Cincinnati is not known for breaking off big chunks of yardage.
If Virginia Tech can eliminate the huge plays given up, they have a chance of containing Cincinnati. If not, it could be a long day for the defense.
Virginia Tech Secondary vs. Desmond Ridder
It’s the last key matchups breakdown of the year, so it only makes sense that the secondary would be on it. After all, they’ve been the focus in probably 75% of these matchups.
In all seriousness, the Hokies’ pass defense has improved in the past couple of games. In their final five games of the regular season, Virginia Tech only allowed an average of 197.8 passing yards per game. That does not include the Georgia Tech game, so the average is not skewed.
In addition, the least passing yards that the Hokies gave up against any of their first six opponents was 232 against William and Mary in Week 2. Against their last six opponents, they gave up more than 232 yards only once.
That is exactly the kind of growth that you hope to see from a young unit. The Hokies’ secondary is still not perfect by any means, but they are improving, and that is all you can really ask for.
With that said, they will face a huge test on Monday. Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder is only a freshman, but he has put up some pretty impressive numbers. Ridder has 62.5% of his passes for 2,359 yards, 19 TDs, and only 5 INTs this season.
Ridder has also gone 4 games without an interception. His last one came on October 27 against SMU, so it seems like he has certainly hit his stride as the season has progressed.
The Hokies will have to continue to improve against the pass in order to beat a very talented Cincinnati team. In addition, Cincinnati has the ability to run the ball in multiple ways, which will spread the field. Tech’s secondary will need to stay engaged and not be too focused on either facet of the offense.
Steven Peoples vs. Cincinnati Defensive Line
This will be the last game for Steven Peoples in a Hokie uniform. He has become somewhat of a fan favorite given his story as a former walk-on who has now become the Hokies’ most reliable back. The fans surely want to see him go out on a high note, and that’s exactly what needs to happen for Virginia Tech to compete in this game.
The Bearcats defense has been very solid this season, and there are plenty of numbers to prove it. They are number 19 overall in S&P+ defense. Even more impressive is their rush defense, which is ranked 3rd nationally in S&P+.
The Bearcats have given up just 101.8 rushing yards per game this season, and they have surrendered just 7 TDs all year on the ground. Only one opponent exceeded 150 rushing yards in a game against Cincinnati this year, and the Bearcats have held their opponents under 100 yards 7 different times.
The Hokies have not been great on the ground this year, especially against the better defenses they have faced. Virginia Tech averaged 170.2 rushing yards per game, but even that stat is inflated by good performances against William and Mary and Old Dominion.
In conference play, the only two games in which Virginia Tech rushed for more than 154 yards were against Pittsburgh (192) and Virginia (254). The good news is that both of those came in the second half of the conference schedule, so the Hokies seem to be moving in the right direction.
One player in particular has improved throughout the season. In the last two games, Peoples had 96 and 78 rushing yards by himself. He also averaged 4 or more yards per carry in 5 of the last 6 games this season.
In order to move the ball against Cincinnati, the Hokies are going to need to establish some sort of run game and avoid becoming one-dimensional. Steven Peoples seems like the best candidate to achieve that goal.
There’s no way around it: the Hokies are going to have their hands full on New Year’s Eve. Cincinnati is dominant on the ground, and Desmond Ridder can throw too. On defense, the Bearcats have had no trouble stuffing opposing running backs, and their pass defense is above average, too.
In all likelihood, the Hokies are not going to be able to rip off very many huge plays in this game. The formula for Virginia Tech to win this game will be to 1) limit Cincinnati to short gains rather than chunk plays, and 2) methodically move the ball for 5-6 yards a play to avoid getting behind the sticks.
If the Hokies can do that, they will be able to stay in this game. If they cannot, there’s a chance that the score could become lopsided.