For the first time in seventeen years, Virginia Tech will play a home game in December. If the Hokies want to beat Marshall on Saturday and extend the bowl streak to 26 years, they should focus on these three matchups.
Ricky Walker vs. Marshall Running Backs
Ricky Walker is one of the few seniors on an otherwise inexperienced defense. The coaches talked about how they challenged him to take on a leadership role this year. He has done the best he can, but he has not been 100% health wise, and that makes it difficult to lead.
That is, until last week. Against Virginia, Walker finally looked like the dominant tackle that we expected him to be this year. Walker had 7 total tackles and 2 tackles for loss against the Hoos, but that was not the only thing that stuck out about his play.
Walker played with some serious emotion last Saturday. He definitely had a chip on his shoulder, as you can see in this video of him making all kinds of signals towards the UVA sideline after he laid a monster hit on Tavares Kelly.
This week, Walker and the Hokies will play an offense that has not been as successful this year. Marshall ranks 110th in overall S&P+ offense this year, and they have only averaged 148.9 yards per game on the ground against mostly Group of 5 opponents.
While the Thundering Herd have four running backs who have gotten fifty or more carries, the most successful of those, Tyler King, has not played since October 20th. King has 655 yards on 108 carries this year, and he leads the team despite missing four games.
If he plays, he will certainly be a threat to the Hokies. Even if he is out, though, Brenden Knox has stepped up the pass couple of games. After struggling during the first couple games that he played in, Knox has tallied 165 yards on 34 carries in the past two games, including 109 against Florida International last week.
No matter who the running back is, the Hokies need to play with the intensity that Walker showed last week in order to keep Marshall in check on the ground.
Tre Turner vs. Marshall Secondary
As uninspiring as Marshall's offense has been, their defense has been one of the best in the country. In overall defensive S&P+, the Thundering Herd ranks seventh. However, their passing defense has shown more openings than their rushing defense.
The Herd have allowed 224.4 pass yards per game, which is only good for 60th in the country. That means the Hokies need to take advantage through the air.
While Damon Hazelton has been Virginia Tech's number one receiver this season, he was limited last game. In fact, Hazelton did not play a single snap at receiver. His only playing time came as a punt returner.
It is unclear whether or not Hazelton will play this week. While it is certainly a plus for the Hokies if he can go, they proved last week that they have some other emerging receivers. The most impressive of those is Tre Turner.
In the first half, Turner basically accounted for all of the Hokies points. First, he made an incredible one handed catch for the opening score of the game, which was the number one play on SportsCenter the next day. The fact that he made that catch against First Team All-ACC corner Bryce Hall makes it all the more impressive.
After that, he burst through the line to block a punt. The ball tumbled into the endzone, where the Hokies recovered it to take a 14-0 lead. Considering that the Hokies went on to have their usual third quarter slump, these points proved to be very important.
Overall, Turner tallied four catches for 69 yards against UVA. He also busted off a 43 yard run to give him 112 all purpose yards along with the blocked punt. Because of this success (particularly on special teams), he earned the #25 jersey this week.
Turner will need to continue his success this week against Marshall. If Hazelton plays, they could be a dynamic duo that can pose a major threat. If not, Turner will need to continue to fill in the number one receiver role.
Cornell Brown, J.C. Price, and (Marshall's Defensive Staff) vs. Brad Cornelsen
This will be a very interesting coaching matchup for many reasons, not the least of which is that they both have "Cornel" in their name. In all seriousness, there are multiple storylines that fans should keep an eye on here.
First of all, as many Hokie fans know, Cornell Brown and J.C. Price played for the Hokies in 1993 when the bowl streak began. Now, they will be on the other side trying to end that very same streak as Brown is Marshall's DEs coach and Price is Marshall's DTs coach.
"Those are guys that started the (bowl) streak," said defensive coordinator Bud Foster at Tuesday's press conference. "I hope they don't want to end the streak."
Unfortunately for Virginia Tech, they will want to end it. Marshall knows exactly what Tech is playing for, and they would love to play spoiler in Lane Stadium. They are certainly going to be fired up.
Going beyond the intangibles and the motivation factor, Brown has been a very good coach this year. Marshall has 36 sacks and 81 tackles for loss this year. According to Chris Coleman of TechSideline, those rank 10th and 34th in the country, respectively.
At the same time, the Hokies offense has been streaky at best. While Virginia Tech has been pretty successful to begin the game on offense, they have really struggled in the second half. Against FBS opponents this season, they have been outscored by 74 points in the third quarter alone.
While the defense has not been stellar, much of the blame for falls on Cornelsen's unit for failing to score after the break. Many fans blame the play calling, but still others argue that it is just an issue of youth and inexperience.
Whatever the reason for the struggles is, the fact of the matter is that the Hokies will need to be better offensively on Saturday, particularly in the second half. Cornell Brown, J.C. Price, and Marshall's defensive staff have definitely watched the tape, and their players will be ready for the jet sweeps and swing passes. Cornelsen's offense needs to show some variaton tomorrow in order to have a greater likelihood of success.
Virginia Tech is basically in "playoff mode" at this point. For the second week in a row, it's win or go home for the Hokies.
These players certainly do not want to be remembered as the ones who ended the prestigious bowl steak. To avoid that fate, they need to be ready to play on Saturday.
First, the Hokies need to stop the run and make Marshall one-dimensional. As the leader of the defense, it will be largely up to senior DT Ricky Walker to help Virginia Tech achieve this feat. He needs to play with the same energy that he brought against UVA.
Next, Virginia Tech needs to take advantage of the weaker part of Marshall's defense. Chances are that the Hokies will struggle on the ground against a stout Marshall run defense, so it will be up to the passing game to move the ball. With Damon Hazelton less than 100%, look for Tre Turner to step up once again.
Finally, Brad Cornelsen needs to add some offenisve variations that will put the Hokies in a position to succeed throughout the game. Virginia Tech has been far from impressive in the second half this year, and they will be facing some coaches in Cornell Brown and J.C. Price that won't be holding anything back even if they helped build VT's bowl streak. Tech cannot afford to have another bad third quarter against a respectable Marshall team.
If the Hokies can get the most out of these matchups, they will have a very good chance to beat the Thundering Herd. If not, the bowl streak could be in serious danger.
Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
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