It’s going to be impossible to replicate the magic of last Friday’s game at Lane Stadium. With the first full house in well over a year and ACC Coastal Division favorite North Carolina as the opponent, the atmosphere was off the charts. Obviously, Virginia Tech fed off the excitement and came away with a 17-10 victory.
Week 2 against Middle Tennessee won’t elicit that amount of passion. But the Blue Raiders have been a consistent program that has given Power 5 teams trouble in the past and are coming off a 50-15 season-opening victory over a solid FCS team in Monmouth.
This will be the first-ever meeting between the two programs.
Middle Tennessee at Virginia Tech
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 11 at 2 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network Extra
Spread: Virginia Tech -20
When Middle Tennessee Has the Ball
The Blue Raiders had to replace their starting quarterback this season, but they still have a known commodity guiding the ship. Bailey Hockman was started for NC State starter for much of 2020, but with Devin Leary returning from injury for the Wolfpack, the left-hander saw the writing on the wall and looked for greener pastures. He was a star in the Monmouth game, completing 17 of 22 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns. While Jarrin Pierce is an all-conference contender at wide receiver, Hockman spread the ball around with eight different players catching passes.
Running the ball, however, is a problem for the Blue Raiders. They were 90th nationally in rushing offense last fall and only had 96 yards on 32 carries against Monmouth. Taking sacks out of the equation, MTSU did rush for four yards per carry, but that’s not enough against an FCS opponent. The offensive line has to get more push for running backs Frank Peasant and Chaton Mobley.
And that won’t be easy against this Virginia Tech front. The Hokies did allow North Carolina to pick up 146 yards on the ground, but they had nine tackles for lost yardage. Hockman should be on alert because six of those were sacks as Tech harassed UNC quarterback Sam Howell into plenty of mistakes. Defensive linemen Amaré Barno and TyJuan Garbutt lived in the backfield, combining for 5.5 tackles for lost yardage and 3.5 sacks.
When Virginia Tech Has the Ball
So it wasn’t an offensive explosion for the Hokies last Friday — it was the defense that carried the day. Big deal. The Hokies converted six of 13 third-down opportunities to UNC’s two of 10, and despite giving the ball away twice, they still won the turnover margin battle. In short, they did what they had to do and didn’t hamstring a defense that was on its game.
This week should look a little different. Backs Jalen Holston and Raheem Blackshear should have room to roam against a Middle Tennessee defense that was dreadful at stopping the rush in Conference USA play last year. Quarterback Braxton Burmeister was solid last week, but bigger explosive plays could be on the way. Tré Turner had four catches for 64 yards, but fellow receiver Tayvion Robinson had just one grab for two yards. The Hokies will look to attack downfield a bit more with those two wideouts and tight end James Mitchell.
That’s because MTSU was susceptible to giving up big plays in both the running game and passing game last year and Virginia Tech has weapons the Blue Raiders haven’t seen in at least a couple of seasons. The strength of the MTSU defense is at safety, where Reed Blankenship and Gregory Grate Jr. are the top returning tacklers. Also, DQ Thomas is a presence at outside linebacker. The senior has 15.5 career sacks and 38 tackles for lost yardage, two of which came versus Monmouth.
The talent disparity is extremely large. Virginia Tech showed last week that the Hokies have some elite athletes on defense, and while the offense didn’t put up huge numbers, the backs and receivers can make plays. On the surface, this game shouldn’t be close. But there could be a complacency issue for Virginia Tech this week. Coming down off the high of the North Carolina win will not be easy, especially with a trip to Morgantown looming next week. As a result, expect a bit of a sluggish start and for Hockman to hurt the Hokies early on. But as the game drags on, the Virginia Tech size and strength will wear down the Blue Raiders. It won’t generate the same buzz as the upset of Carolina, but the Hokies will move to 2-0.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 35, Middle Tennessee 21
Podcast: Week 2 Preview, Predictions and Picks Against the Spread
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.