The Virginia Tech Hokies and West Virginia Mountaineers are making their final preparations for Sunday's Black Diamond Trophy rivalry showdown. Both teams know that a win will allow them to make a big jump in the top 25 while the loser will be unranked next week.
More than that, this is a rivalry showdown that both teams, and especially both fan bases, desperately want to win. With that said, here are our keys to the game for the Hokies.
Establish the Run
The 3-3-5 defense isn't set up well to stop the run with only 6 total linebackers and defensive linemen on the field. While WVU will likely use their nickel in the box at times, this defense presents opportunity for opponents to establish an effective run game to draw in that nickel defender and create space for the passing game.
Last season, West Virginia was 66th in rushing yards allowed per game, and only have 2 returning starters. WVU is also missing LB David Long who is expected to be an important part of the Mountaineers' defense when he returns. With that level of inexperience on WVU's defense, it presents the Hokies with a great opportunity.
Virginia Tech will need to find an identity on the ground with Jerod Evans and Sam Rogers both gone. While Josh Jackson has the skills to have some success running the football, the Hokies will need their tailbacks to step up including veteran Travon McMillian.
McMillian was disappointing in his sophomore season and lost his starting job this offseason. However, this game presents a great opportunity for McMillian to regain some confidence. McMillian showed flashes last season with big games against Tennessee (127 yards on 14 carries, 1 TD), and Miami (131 yards on 18 carries). If the McMillian that played well in big games shows up Sunday night, he can win this game for the Hokies.
However, McMillian's struggles have opened the door for guys like Steven Peoples, Jalen Holston, and Deshawn McClease. You can expect to see the Hokies use all four guys looking for one to get the hot hand and take advantage of WVU's defense. If one of these tailbacks gets going early, you can expect to see them lead the way for the rest of the game.
This game presents a big opportunity for the Hokies' running backs against a 3-3-5 defense not designed well for defending the run. If Virginia Tech's running backs struggle, it will give Josh Jackson a much bigger challenge.
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Young Receivers Must Step Up
West Virginia DC Tony Gibson knows that the Hokies have lots of inexperience at wide receiver as shown by how Cam Phillips has 165 of the 192 career receptions by eligible Virginia Tech wide receivers. Gibson will look to double team Cam Phillips as much as possible and force other Virginia Tech WRs to beat them.
While Phillips will inevitably get some one-on-one matchups, it will be critical for the Hokies' other receivers to force that to happen.
This starts with a guy like CJ Carroll who came on towards the end of last season. Carroll showed that he has the talent to be productive and earned the trust of Justin Fuente to receive regular playing time in the slot. Now as the featured slot guy, it will be critical for Carroll to step up and be that speedy, quick pass guy who can get separation quickly and be consistent over the middle.
The Hokies will also need younger receivers like sophomore Eric Kumah, and freshmen Sean Savoy and Hezekiah Grimsley to step up. Kumah, in particular, will be someone the Hokies need to step up as a big, physical receiver that can give the Hokies a bigger target on the outside who can go up and win 50-50 balls. Savoy and Grimsley are both young, but they both have great speed and lots of big play potential that the Hokies will look to find.
The Hokies will also need tight ends Dalton Keene and Chris Cunningham to make some plays. You can expect to see the Hokies use both of these tight ends in the slot a fair amount in this game with Cunningham being a somewhat proven receiver and Keene impressing the coaches so much to beat out Cunningham for the starting job.
The Hokies will need a diverse group of receivers to step up and produce in this matchup to force Tony Gibson to put Cam Phillips in one-on-one coverage more than he would like especially with WVU's inexperienced cornerbacks. If these receivers step up, West Virginia's defense will have a rough night.
Do Your Job
Virginia Tech has a talented defense full of playmakers, but if the Hokies are going to slow down Will Grier and Justin Crawford, they must focus on doing their job and not trying to be the hero.
West Virginia's offense is designed to spread a defense out and leave only five or six players in the box. This makes it important for each defensive player to focus simply on winning the one-on-one matchup they have rather than trying to make the big play. Obviously, there will be a few players on each play who will be the most responsible for that but if each player doesn't simply do their job, it'll create space for Will Grier and Justin Crawford to make some big plays.
This starts on the defensive line and having linemen focus on filling their gaps and limiting the space Justin Crawford has to make a play. Next, it goes to having linebackers putting themselves in the holes they know will come about and being there to make the tackle.
This involves having cornerbacks contain a run on the outside or stay on their assignment in zone or man coverage trusting a QB contain or spy to keep Will Grier from making plays with his legs when he could still make a big play through the air. Safeties will need to be ready to provide help over the top and make sure Crawford doesn't break through or if he does, focus on preventing a big run from becoming a touchdown.
Will Grier and Justin Crawford are two of the best offensive players in the Big 12 and in order for the Hokies to slow them down, they'll need to be disciplined in their roles. The good news is that the Hokies have lots of experienced players that should help ensure that isn't a problem. However, even experienced players can look to be the star, especially on a big stage, and make the mistake that costs them the game.
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