The bye week has come and gone with Virginia Tech set to kick off the closing stretch of the Brent Pry era with a road trip to a #24 N.C. State team looking to rebuild some momentum after losing 2 of their past 3 along with losing star QB Devin Leary for the season.
So with that said, here are my three things to watch for the Hokies as they take on the Wolfpack in Raleigh.
1. How Different Will The Offense Look?
After Virginia Tech's loss to Miami, Brent Pry had some rather poignant comments about wanting some offensive changes that played more to the Hokies' "strengths" on offense. Pry followed that up over the past week plus since that game mentioning a desire to not be as "vanilla" on the offensive side of the ball.
One of the specific things that was mentioned was the possibility of some two-back sets to get Malachi Thomas and Keshawn King both on the field at the same time. King spent some time at WR during fall camp and has the speed to give you some versatility in the slot with Thomas in the backfield or even some true two-back shotgun sets.
Additionally, personnel was a topic as a whole which you would hope may mean we see more of talented freshman TE Dae'Quan Wright who has looked like Tech's second most dangerous WR/TE after only Kaleb Smith over the past few weeks.
On the vanilla front, Pry mentioned wanting to see some more play action which makes common sense given the commitment Tech has had to the run even when it hasn't been going great. The Wolfpack also are allowing 4.4 yards per carry and have been somewhat boom or bust at times in their run defense making a good play action attack potentially a way to open things up against a stingy Wolfpack defense.
Let's be honest, this matchup is going to be extremely tough for this VT offense. However, if we see some creativity in playcalling plus more ways to get Tech's best playmakers on the field all at once even if it may require some 21 personnel, that'll be an encouraging sign especially with the challenges of making adjustments in season even with a bye week.
2. Defense Must Lead The Way For Upset Hopes
While N.C. State's defense has been very good, their offense has taken a step back that started prior to Devin Leary's season-ending injury.
The Wolfpack lost three key pieces to graduation this past year in RBs Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person Jr plus #1 WR Emeka Emezie which has seen N.C. State go from 28th to 75th in points per game. The skill position stepback has been similar to what happened at UNC from 2020 to 2021 except unlike the Tar Heels, the Wolfpack have taken the second hit of losing their star QB in Devin Leary for the season.
The Wolfpack were fortunate in some ways to have a highly experienced backup in Jack Chambers who walked on after being a multi-year starter at Charleston Southern. However, Chambers has been dealt a difficult hand in large part due to a rushing attack that is averaging only 3.8 yards per carry and is a big reason for their offensive issues.
The Wolfpack do have some solid receivers led by veteran Thayer Thomas, but this the matchup gives the Tech defense a chance to send a message that they are a good unit despite some of their rough performances against UNC and Pittsburgh.
Given what we've seen from Tech's offense, the VT defense is going to need to be on their top form to pull off the upset. That's going to have to start with a run defense that looks much more like what we saw against Miami and less of what we saw against WVU and especially Pittsburgh. The return of TyJuan Garbutt and the addition of Alan Tisdale seemed to pay some dividends in the box for the Hokies and that experience could be valuable in trying to force the FCS-experienced but P5-inexperienced Chambers to beat them.
With Dorian Strong likely out, Tech will need freshman Mansoor Delane and somewhat banged up veteran Armani Chatman to step up and make some plays. Additionally, Tech will need to make some big plays and win the turnover battle to give themselves a more realistic chance to pull off this upset against the significantly more talented Wolfpack.
In some ways, Tech may need their defense to play a little like what Iowa has done in making big plays and driving the ship on trying to win games given the matchup. That may seem like a lot but the opportunity is there against a rushing attack averaging 3.8 yards per carry and a passing attack with loads of question now that Devin Leary is out for the season.
3. Staying Composed In a Hostile Environment
Virginia Tech has played in front of some sold out crowds this year on the road (and almost always in Blacksburg), but the environment in Raleigh will be the toughest they've faced by far to date and likely will be the toughest they play in all year (though Liberty may have a chance given the genuine belief that Liberty fans likely will have and the magnitude of that game for the Liberty football program).
Regardless, this environment will test the Hokies' composure and ability to handle adversity which has been suspect at times. That's shown particularly in Tech's penalty issues where they've had some very positive moments including at UNC earlier this season but also had some big issues at ODU and in a very emotionally charged environment against WVU.
Additionally, we've seen Tech have issues at times responding to mistakes and adversity with Brent Pry even mentioning that his team has room to grow in their responses in the immediate aftermath. However, Tech has shown growth in the overall sense of a game as we saw with their fourth quarter charge against Miami.
Tech will need their veteran leaders who have played in plenty of tough environments like Dax Hollifield, Chamarri Conner, and Silas Dzansi to step up and set the tone for the Hokies. The offensive line specifically will be tested by a playmaking N.C. State defense and will need to avoid the type of procedural mistakes that can put a team behind the chains and stall out drives.
Tech can't afford to give a more talented N.C. State team free yards that either put them behind the chains or hand the Wolfpack extra first downs. If they have issues again with penalties and their immediate responses to adversity, it will be a very long night in Raleigh for the Hokies.