Virginia Tech may have its biggest game of the season ahead of them this Saturday against No. 13 Louisville (3:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network). This game also has massive ACC Championship Game ramifications, with the winner being outright second in the conference.
But Brent Pry’s Hokies aren’t looking ahead at all. Instead, the team is focused on its weekly goal – going 1-0.
“Louisville is a really, really good football team,” Pry said in his Tuesday press conference. “Very impressed. Offense, defense kicking, game. I've known coach Brohm from being in the Big Ten and coaching against him. Got a ton of respect for him and his time at Purdue and the improvements they made there. So we got our hands full, big challenge. Talented tailback, really tough, stingy defense that just shut out a good Duke team. To be 1-0 this week we got to have a heck of a week of practice.”
Tech will need to stay focused on the task at hand if it wants to notch a massive road victory against a Cardinals team that just beat a ranked Duke squad 23-0 and subsequently clocked in at No. 13 in Tuesday night’s first College Football Playoff Rankings. Louisville – which boasts a 7-1 overall record and a 4-1 record in ACC play – has ridden a balanced offense spearheaded by running back Jawhar Jordan – the conference’s second-leading rusher with 824 yards and an ACC-leading 10 touchdowns – and an elite, physical defense all season long.
“[Jordan is] quick. He's fast. He's tough. He plays like a bigger back,” Pry said. “I mean, he breaks tackles, he runs through guys. I was surprised when I saw he was 185. I mean, he plays bigger than that. He's a confident guy. And I think with him back in their lineup, they play more confidently.”
Pry will be facing off against a familiar opponent in Louisville head coach Jeff Brohm, who was previously the head coach at Purdue for six seasons before taking this job in 2022. As such, Pry is well aware of the challenges that come with preparing for a Brohm offense.
“They do a great job with their passing attack. Sometimes you'll see folks [where] there's two or three concepts, and it's not hard to peg them and figure out what you want to run against it. But, I think [with] these guys, he really works at it. I think his playcalling is really creative right now with this group. Good mix of runs. They work the alleys. If you’ve got a couple of backs and do a nice job. I think they manage [Jack] Plummer very well, and they don't ask him to do too much. He's a very experienced quarterback. When we faced him at Penn State, he was a first or second-year player. But, you know, they're just well prepared. They're always challenging offensively in what they do and what they make you defend. I think he does a good job of studying the defense and then fitting some things to it that can expose some weaknesses," Pry said.
Although the Cardinals offense largely runs through Jordan, Plummer has also had a great season, ranking top-five in the ACC in completion percentage, passing touchdowns, and passing yards per game among qualified players. It helps when you add star receiver Jamari Thrash to the mix, who ranks third in the ACC in receptions (38), second in yards (712), and tied for second in touchdowns (6).
Aside from two poor outings against Georgia Tech and Pitt, Louisville’s defense has been nothing short of elite this season. They rank second in the ACC in points allowed (18.0), total yards allowed (303.4), and rushing yards allowed (91.4).
“I'll tell you, they've got a nice front,” Pry said. “Physical front, good size, I think they're sound, they run well on the perimeter which kind of takes you out of the run game. But they are physical. They're a problem up front.”
The Cardinals' defense has been particularly effective early in games – something Pry is taking into account.
“We've gotta have a good plan,” Pry said. “I think Coach [Tyler] Bowen has done a good job these last couple of weeks when we got to have a good plan to take advantage, to start the game [well]. They're a stingy defense in any quarter. They've done a good job there. I think they're [first] or [second] in the league in third down and run defense, total defense, scoring defense. I mean, they're doing a good job. We'll have our hands full for four quarters.”
Louisville has also forced 15 takeaways on the season – a figure that leads the ACC.
“It starts with their front,” Pry said. “They're so active, they're a problem up front and disruptive, and that creates problems down the field. We've got to be able to protect Kyron [Drones] and give him a chance to find an open receiver. I think again, it'll start with the run game and being able to establish the run and do some things there. But they're a stingy defense, they're aggressive.”
It certainly doesn’t help that the Hokies haven’t won on the road thus far in 2023, losing all three contests away from home. In fact, they’ve only won one road game under Pry – last year’s 23-22 victory over Liberty. Although the struggles have been apparent, Tech's head coach has made it clear that it is simply hard to win road games in college football, but the team may be turning a corner in that regard.
“Honestly, it's still about us trusting the process, being 1-0,” Pry said. “I don't think there's a magic wand we wave because we're on the road. We've been able to improve week by week. I think [in] some of those early losses, there were different things going on with our football team. You know, this is certainly challenging. If you look at Louisville, they've played very well at home."
"They won at North Carolina State, but it was a 13-10 game, and their defense played lights out. They go to Pitt in a sloppy rain-fest and don't look like themselves and lose the game. So, it's always a little bit more challenging on the road. For us, our crowd and our fanbase is advantageous. But, as we gain maturity as a team, and we continue to kind of grow and develop, I expect us to be able to handle road challenges better.”
For Tech to have a better shot at winning the game, they’ll need to shore up their redzone struggles, which were on full display against Syracuse. In six trips inside the 20, they stalled out and settled for a field goal four times. That figure needs to improve to pull off the road upset – a fact everyone in Merryman knows.
“I think it starts with the mindset when you're in the red zone,” Pry said. “You've gotta be hungrier to score touchdowns. You've gotta smell the goal line, you really do. And I think we've gotta have a good plan. Go back and look at what we're calling down there. How are people defending us? And where can we be better from what we got going into the game plan in the red zone? Because, against a group like this, we're certainly going to need touchdowns over field goals.”
Tech quarterback Kyron Drones echoed the same sentiments.
“We've just got to execute better,” Drones said. “We know with this Louisville team that we've got to score more touchdowns in the red zone. We can't sit on field goals, and that's a big emphasis this week. And we just got to go out there and do our stuff, not really let them dictate what we do and just go out there and execute."
While the winner of Saturday’s contest in the Derby City will have sole possession of second place in the ACC and control its destiny to reach Charlotte on the first Saturday night in December, Brent Pry was adamant that the most critical task was staying in the moment and honing in on winning the game at hand.
“We don't think about that,” Pry said. “I'd be disappointed if somebody was. I mean, we worked really hard on focusing on the next opponent. These guys understand and know that that's part of the key to our success and to us improving. Anytime you look ahead, you get your butt beat. So I hope we're not doing that. I'm not, [the] staff isn't, and we'll certainly continue to talk to our players about that.”