Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
Yes, Virginia Tech is about to take the football field for an actual game in 2020 with the Hokies ready for their opener against N.C. State even if it's two weeks later than it was originally planned.
This is a fascinating matchup with a Wolfpack team that has some momentum after beating Wake Forest last week and a Tech team with plenty of unknowns about simply who will be able to play. The encouraging news is that I'm hearing most of the depth chart should be available but there's a difference between being available and being in 100% game shape.
So with that said, here are our keys to the game for Virginia Tech against N.C. State.
Stop the Run
N.C. State has had lots of talent at quarterback and wide receiver in the past but this year, the Wolfpack are built around their talented running backs, especially Ricky Person Jr. and Zonovan Knight.
One of the most important things for the Hokies will be to contain the edge and force N.C. State to run between the tackles especially after part of their success was built on their ability to get the run play on the outside.
Given the run emphasis of N.C. State, expect Dax Hollifield to receive an overwhelming majority of the snaps at backer with Alan Tisdale working in as the third guy given how Hollifield is a better run stopper. Tech will need him and Preseason All-ACC LB Rayshard Ashby to be on their game in filling holes and making plays along with a defensive line that does well both with closing the edges and limiting the holes, feeding N.C. State's running backs to Ashby and Hollifield.
Now N.C. State QB Bailey Hockman had a solid debut with the Wolfpack, but he also didn't really have to push the ball with the running game the Wolfpack had going. Given how Hockman hasn't proven he can be someone who can go win a game, it's clear that the Hokies' defensive focus has to be built around stopping the run.
If Virginia Tech can contain the N.C. State rushing attack, the Hokies may be poised for a dominant season-opening performance.
Contain Payton Wilson
Payton Wilson may only be a redshirt sophomore, but there are likely some NFL teams hopeful that he chooses to leave for the pros after this season especially with the playmaker he proved to be in the Wolfpack's season opener.
After a solid 2019 season, Wilson showed he may be one of the ACC's top breakout players with 10 tackles including 4 for loss, one of which being a sack. Again and again, Wilson was all over the field and seemed to always be right there wherever the play was. Of course, he did have some missed tackles as well but the 6'4'', 240-pound linebacker proved to be a dynamic playmaker.
Tech is going to have to keep an eye on Wilson especially as a run defender where he has clearly proven to thrive the most. His athleticism could also make him a challenge for Tech's stretch runs and jet sweeps that they like to implement to open up the field and create space up the middle. Of course, Wilson's athleticism also can allow N.C. State to be a little more aggressive in stacking the box, making that approach harder to implement successfully.
Tech's offense has largely been built around trying to establish the run early and with their best backfield yet under Justin Fuente, there's no reason why that shouldn't be the case this year. If that is going to work though, the Hokies have to find ways to keep Payton Wilson from being a factor. If not, Wilson may be poised for another big game that has NFL scouts looking at him as a first round talent next spring.
Special Teams Must Step Up
One area where Virginia Tech should have an advantage against almost anyone this season is special teams. From one of America's best punters in Oscar Bradburn to an elite punt returner in Tayvion Robinson and a veteran kicker in Brian Johnson, Tech's special teams units are built to be a major x-factor.
Tech's special teams play is also going to be more important than normal in some ways in this matchup.
While Tech is the more talented team, they also are the rustier team with a four-day pause of practice within the past two weeks and the lack of an actual game compared to N.C. State facing Wake Forest last week. When rust is a factor to hold you back on offense and defense, you need your special teams to step up especially given how much more simplified and individualized those things are.
Bradburn and Robinson are specifically big special teams x-factors as Bradburn is considered one of the top punters in America after an impressive 2019 season. Meanwhile, Robinson averaged 14.2 yards per punt return on 13 returned punts last season and came close to having a few touchdowns last season.
Going into this season, Bradburn is already considered a potential All-American contender while Robinson has shown the talent to have multiple touchdowns on punt returns and earn an All-American spot in his own right.
If Tech is going to avoid being upset by N.C. State, they are going to need their special teams to step up and be the x-factor that they can be for the Hokies throughout this season.