For the second time in this young season, West Virginia will face an old foe that is now a member of the ACC when the Mountaineers go to Virginia Tech on Thursday night. It had been more than a decade since they last battled Pittsburgh in the Backyard Brawl, but the WVU rekindled the rivalry with the Hokies last season in Morgantown.
West Virginia (1-2) lost its season opener to Pitt and then fell at home to surprising Kansas in Week 2 before pounding FCS Towson State this past Saturday. Waiting for them in Blacksburg will be the 2-1 Hokies, who dispatched FCS Wofford in their most recent contest.
West Virginia leads the all-time series 29-23-1 and won last year's game 27-21.
West Virginia at Virginia Tech
When West Virginia Has the Ball
Scoring points has not been a problem for this year's Mountaineers. At 46 points per game, WVU is tied for 11th nationally in scoring offense. It is true that they hung 65 on FCS Towson, but the other two games were against quality Power 5 opponents (Pitt, Kansas).
Every program wants to establish offensive balance, and West Virginia has been successful in that department in 2022. Last fall, the Mountaineers finished 102nd nationally in rushing offense, but C.J. Donaldson and Tony Mathis both have more than 200 yards on the ground in the team's three games, and the pair has found the end zone eight times. Donaldson and Mathis have been helped along by a veteran offensive line that has shown improvement compared to last season.
When JT Daniels transferred to West Virginia from Georgia, the passing game added some much-needed energy. Daniels has developed a nice cohesion with his receiving group, especially Bryce Ford-Wheaton, who has become the Mountaineers' top target, ranking among the nation's leaders with 24 receptions. Pitt was able to take down Daniels three times, but the line has allowed only one sack since.
Pass protection will be key this week because Virginia Tech, under new head coach Brent Pry, likes to bring pressure. The Hokies' nine sacks so far put them just one behind Louisville for the ACC lead. That heat also has helped produce the conference's top passing defense and, thanks to veterans like linebacker Dax Hollifield and safety Chamarri Conner, Tech also is ranked third in FBS against the run. West Virginia will present problems that Old Dominion, Boston College, and Wofford could not, but this is a tough, gritty defensive unit.
When Virginia Tech Has the Ball
While the West Virginia offense against the Virginia Tech defense will be strength on strength, that will not be the case when the Hokies have possession. At 364 total yards per game, the Hokies rank 12th in the ACC and 93rd in the country. They made strides this past Saturday, but 475 yards against Wofford doesn't exactly excite the masses.
After a horrendous opener at Old Dominion, quarterback Grant Wells has been much more efficient in the past two games. Versus Boston College, the Marshall transfer was 16-of-25 with a touchdown, and against Wofford, he went 26-of-35 with two more scores. One of his supposed strengths was his accuracy on deep throws, but he is only averaging 6.8 yards per pass attempt so far this season.
The lack of explosiveness has been a restrictor, though Nick Gallo has proven to be a reliable possession pass catcher. Regardless, if the Hokies are going to take a step forward on offense, it will be on the back of the running game. Keshawn King had 111 rushing yards against Old Dominion and 64 on just four carries in the Boston College contest. With King out of action against Wofford, Jalen Holston ran for 66 yards. King is expected to return on Thursday night, giving Tech nice backfield depth.
West Virginia's defense has been up and down so far this season. The Mountaineers throttled Towson, but Pitt won by passing for more than 300 yards and Kansas went for 200-plus both through the air and on the ground. However, the Jayhawks did get 83 of their rushing yards from quarterback Jalon Daniels, a running threat that Wells will not pose. Led by Dante Stills and Davis Mallinger, WVU can get to the quarterback, but despite the pressure, the defense has yet to record an interception.
This could be a throwback game, one where defense reigns supreme. The Mountaineers can move the ball but will be facing a very strong Hokie defense that can create havoc while limiting big plays. On the other hand, the West Virginia defense can give up some yardage, but the Virginia Tech offense has not shown much potency all season, even against what has been a less-than-stellar schedule. The Hokies will have the home field, and Lane Stadium is always raucous on a Thursday night. But the combination of Daniels and Ford-Wheaton gives the Mountaineers a slight edge.
Prediction: West Virginia 20, Virginia Tech 17
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– Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, focusing on the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
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