The last time the Hokies traveled to Huntington, West Virginia to play the Marshall Thundering Herd, Logan Thomas was the quarterback. Now, an ailing Virginia Tech squad will most likely be led by Baylor transfer Kyron Drones with the injury status of previous starter Grant Wells still in question (and largely in doubt).
Which quarterback gives the Hokies the best chance to win is up to fans to debate throughout the week, because this offense that could potentially be without its two best wideouts (Ali Jennings who is out and Jaylin Lane who is questionable) will have their hands full with a Marshall defense that was among the best in the nation last season.
The Herd finished last year with a 9-4 overall including a record of 5-3 in their first season as members of the Sun Belt Conference. They are led by head coach Charles Huff who is in his 3rd year (16-10 W-L) at the helm. Their defense was one of the main reasons why.
The Herd finished 6th among FBS teams in points allowed (16.0), 4th in rushing yards allowed each game (93.0) and 6th in turnovers forced per game (2.2). This defense also took away the pass too, ranking 2nd in completion percentage (51.5%) and 27th in passing yards allowed (201.5 yds/game).
Their defense had two key returners this year, who just so happened to lead the group last year. Linebacker Eli Neal who led the team in total tackles in ‘22, and DL Owen Porter, who led the Sun Belt in tackles for a loss with 15, return to anchor this stout defense front.
Along with the returners on the defensive side, Marshall returns star running back Rasheen Ali who was hurt most of last season. He is running behind an offensive line this year that also helped running back Khalan Laborn lead their attack last year to be one of the best in the Sun Belt and the nation (17th in rushing yards a game with 205.9) though there have been some major questions about that unit so far this year based on some of the deeper analytical numbers.
On the Virginia Tech side, the Hokies will look to avoid their worst start to the season since 2010 when they went 0-2 to begin the season when Beamer and company lost to Boise State and JMU.
This Saturday, they will be missing the presence of Ali Jennings and Nasir Peoples again. Peoples will leave a void at the safety position and as a key tackler for Tech. His presence could have been used to stop some of the big runs by the Rutgers’ RBs last Saturday and will be missed against the Marshall running game.
For the offense, two of the three transfer wide receivers (Lane-questionable, Jennings-out) who were talked up quite a bit this offseason could be missing at this point, so Drones or Wells (questionable at best) could have a tough time Saturday afternoon.
Can the Hokies' run game get going? That could potentially be an X-factor in this game. The Hokies are one of the worst rushing offenses in the nation with only 249 rushing yards through three games (83.0/game) while averaging only 2.39 an attempt. An inexperienced offensive line for the Hokies has not helped that get going with not much of a push happening in the trenches. This will be a nice test for Drones as a runner and a passer if he starts to see if he can build off a solid first start.
But before we officially get into any of the keys to the game, let’s talk about an impact player to be on the lookout for on each team.
Marshall: RB Rasheen Ali
The junior from Cleveland, Ohio is undoubtedly the Herd’s best player. If not for injury last year, he may have ended up higher on the NFL Draft radar entering this season. At the conclusion to the 2021 season, during which his 23 touchdowns led the nation, he was All-Conference USA First Team and a freshman All-American.
An ankle injury derailed his 2022 season that had him listed on some big name awards watch lists, but he finished strong by playing in the last few games of the year. This included rushing for 273 yards and a touchdown against UCONN en route to being named Myrtle Beach Bowl MVP.
Heading into this season, the star back was named as one of ESPN’s top 100 players in college football (no. 57). Watch any highlight film of his running style and you will quickly see why. He is a threat to both run and catch the ball out of the backfield. Ali is quick and agile, always slashing through the offensive line and making quick cuts up the field when one on one with defenders in space. When he does meet defenders with contact, he keeps a strong upper half, and his feet are always moving.
Ali gets north and south in a hurry, and he will be a tough challenge for the Hokie defense to contain on Saturday.
Virginia Tech: WR Da’Quan Felton
When star receiver Ali Jennings went down with an ankle injury for Tech, the Hokies needed another pass catcher to step up. At first, that was Jaylin Lane (who played well against ODU as well), but now he is nursing a hamstring injury.
Next up: Da'Quan Felton who was a bright spot for the Hokies in their previous game against Rutgers (6 rec., 84 yards, 1 TD). The Portsmouth, VA native stands at 6’5”, representing a nice target for Drones or Wells to throw the ball to.
The Norfolk State transfer was a key player for his previous squad. He was part of an offseason offensive upgrade for the Hokies that has not quite gotten going yet this season. Felton represents one of only several physically talented receivers Tech has had in recent memory. He can win in jump ball situations as well as win at the line of scrimmage by being physical with his hands.
Felton is one the key guys who the Hokies will try to get the ball too early and often on Saturday.
Three Keys to the Game
Corral the Herd
Given how much Tech has been torn apart this season by the run, they cannot be expected to stop Rasheen Ali. Giving up big running plays have been a problem for this defense so that will be one thing they need to keep from happening. Ali will get his, but can they limit the damage?
Even more of a factor they should be interested in is keeping the Herd at respectable down and distances. This will force QB Cam Fancher to make throws towards the middle of the field in traffic. In the game against ECU, it was evident that Marshall’s receivers had a lot of problems holding onto the ball. With that being said, force Fancher to throw, because when he was outside of the pocket, he was making plays with his feet.
Marshall runs a lot of their plays out of the shotgun through RPOs and read option plays as well as HB draws and runs from the gun. The Hokie defense will need to stack the box against the run and have their line get some kind of push while setting the perimeter to reign in Fancher.
Throw Early and Often
After reviewing some of the Rutgers game, it was clear that the Hokies had success when they threw the ball early on in their drives on 1st down. Those were largely modest gains to get closer to moving the sticks and giving your defense a rest, which they will need. Whether it is to Felton, Gosnell, or Lofton, the Hokies have to let their receivers work in this game. Facing such a stout Marshall run defense will make the goal to establish the run that much harder.
With that said, the Hokies cannot be afraid to put the ball in the air early and often. Get the ball to your receivers on the edge or in the middle of the field and let them create. There is no sense in trying to establish something that has been and will continue to be a weakness for your team most of the season. Get Drones (or Wells) in a rhythm and let them play within the flow of the offense.
Keep the Drive Alive
This will continue to be an important must for this season’s team: The offense must help the defense. It can do so by staying on the field, building drives that last. Whether a quick 3-and-out or a short drive in general, not keeping the offense on the field can easily lead to the defense being worn down by the opposition.
This holds true for an offense like Marshall’s that loves to pound the rock. The more opportunities the Hokie defense gives the Herd offense to go to their ground game, the more those running holes will continue to open up as the game continues. This means being aggressively unpredictable too.
The offense has to move the ball down the field effectively for the Hokies to win this game, and that cannot happen if the Hokies remain conservative and settle for QB power runs on 3rd and long. Take shots down the field, mix in some QB runs for Drones, and you may just catch the defense sleeping.