The Black Diamond Trophy rivalry returns for part one of a home-and-home series over the next two seasons as #15 Virginia Tech heads on the road into a hostile environment in Morgantown against West Virginia. This is undoubtedly a litmus test for the #15 Hokies to see if they are a one-game fluke or if this team is much better than preseason expectations predicted.
So with that said, here are my three things to watch for the Hokies against the Mountaineers.
1. Can VT Stretch the Field?
West Virginia may not load the box with their 3-3-5 defense on paper, but there's no doubt that they'll be ready to put a couple DBs in to the box if the Hokies try to focus on interior runs. With that in mind, Tech will have to be able to stretch the field in some sort of way even if Braxton Burmeister can't stretch it that much in the passing game.
This is where Tech's jet sweeps and screen game will be valuable in unloading the box, creating space up the middle, pushing WVU's defense to their toes, and neutralizing the defensive line strength for WVU.
The jet sweeps may be maligned, but for no good reason as Tech has one of the most effective jet sweeps in the country with the VT-UNC broadcast team mentioning that the Hokies were in the top 10 nationally in yards per jet sweep. Not only does Tech have an effective jet sweep rush due to having talented playmakers in Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson, but they also have the outside blocking to get the job done as well.
However, what makes the jet sweep a key piece to the puzzle is the threat that it creates for defenses and the motion that forces defenses to react to it and can create space up the middle for more traditional read options.
If you watch the tape of the second half of the VT-UNC game, you can see that Tech's offense improved form the third to the fourth quarter especially on the ground because of not only the jet sweep but the pre-play motion. That motion forced the UNC defense to recognize an additional threat and make them be ready to move laterally rather than downhill even in a pistol formation where it was likely that Tech wasn't going to run an external jet sweep or option but go up the gut.
Tech's screens provide that same effect even if you don't have all of the motion that comes with it. When Tech can get their best playmakers in space on the outside, they have the talent to win one-on-one matchups forcing defenses to compensate more to the edge and opening up space for Burmeister, Raheem Blackshear, and Jalen Holston to take advantage.
If Tech is going to have a strong offensive day that could open this game up, the Hokies have to stretch the field at least horizontally with the jet sweeps and screens, and then use motion to open up more interior space on read options. Ideally, Tech can find some vertical passing opportunities that Burmeister has shown growth in but has limitations but even if not, they must stretch the field via the jet sweep and screen to have the effective rushing attack that has given defenses issues when embraced in the playcalling.
2. Press Man Coverage For The Win
Virginia Tech did some experimenting last weekend against Middle Tennessee with some different coverages, but the Hokies' defense was at their best when they were in man especially when they were in a press man that took away the underneath routes for MTSU.
There's no doubt that the Hokies have the cornerbacks to do this at a high level with Jermaine Waller looking like a serious All-ACC First Team contender, and Armani Chatman and Dorian Strong. Additionally, press man is the Hokies' bread and butter which is perfect against a traditional pocket passer in Jarrett Doege who is basically the definition of a non-mobile QB.
WVU does have a strong receiving corps which may mean we see some dime packages with all three of Tech's top cornerbacks on the field and Alan Tisdale being the lone linebacker. Tech trotted this package out some in the second half against Middle Tennessee in what seemed like a live game test run for putting it into practice against Doege and the WVU passing attack this week given that WVU has 3 WRs with at least 50 receptions during their careers in Morgantown to date.
While it wouldn't be surprising to see Justin Hamilton try to rotate a couple different looks, the lack of a mobile QB makes this a game where Hamilton would be wise to simply let his cornerbacks do what they do best until WVU shows they can beat them at it and then adjust from there.
If Tech goes more with zone than the press man that is the strength of this pass defense, it could be a challenging day for the Hokies' defense in Morgantown. If they go more with the press man coverage that helped turn the tide in Q3 against MTSU, expect another strong defensive performance against a P5 opponent.
3. How Will VT Handle a Potentially Dangerous Road Environment?
The Black Diamond Trophy rivalry has some deep history that isn't pretty for Virginia Tech in regards to the treatment they've received on the road in Morgantown. Growing up, I had former Hokies' kicker Chris Kinzer as a middle school gym teacher and remember hearing him talk about how he had tobacco spit on him when the Hokies played West Virginia in Morgantown.
When Tech left for the Big East, the rivalry went on a somewhat intentional pause in part because of how bad tensions had gotten including player treatment. The 2017 game at FedEx Field provided a slow wading back in to a rivalry that has some of the deepest tension and even hatred of any in college sports if not American sports.
The hope was that this would lower tempers and create a hostile but more decent rivalry for the return on campus in 2021 and 2022. So far, signs aren't so great with rumors about Tech's road hotel being a shameful mess on social media and message boards. West Virginia putting out three PSAs encouraging fans to treat Tech players and fans respectfully also hasn't been exactly reassuring.
While Tech players will undoubtedly be in a loud environment, this may be a legitimately hostile environment like they have never faced before in their collegiate careers and may never face again. Of course, that hopefully won't be the case but this will be a test to see how Tech can respond in their first full, road environment since the 2019 season.
Looking at the schedule, it's easy to predict that this will be the toughest environment Tech plays in all season so this game will say a lot about the composure and maturity of this Virginia Tech team that has thrown themselves right into the forefront of the ACC Coastal battle.
Whatever the result may be, Tech's penalties and mistakes or lack thereof will tell us a lot about the mental side of this Tech team and whether they have the maturity that it will take to stay right in the national picture throughout this season.