Hendon Hooker #2 of the Virginia Tech Hokies . Streeter Lecka/Getty Images/AFP
Virginia Tech Hokies vs. North Carolina Tar Heels
Saturday, October 10, 2020 – 12:00 PM EDT at Kenan Memorial Stadium
North Carolina’s Opponents Thus Far
Who North Carolina has played thus far may yield a misleading impression in the respect that will be very crucial for Saturday’s game and for your College Football Picks. So far, UNC has allowed two YPC. Virginia Tech, in turn, relies heavily upon the run. So this game must seem to provide a propitious match-up for the Tar Heels?
But consider that they have played Boston College, which ran for all of 87 yards on 27 carries against Texas State. Syracuse, too, has suffered games where their quarterback was their leading rusher or where their top rusher failed to exceed 40 yards on the ground. Neither team challenged North Carolina with anything on the ground that Virginia Tech will bring.
Virginia Tech’s Ground Game
What’s interesting about Virginia Tech’s performance on the ground against Duke is that Duke knew what to expect, but still couldn’t stop it. Duke could load the box and focus on trying to stop Virginia Tech’s ground game because the Hokies started a quarterback who, especially in the first half, really struggled to throw downfield and to fit his passes into tight windows.
Despite Braxton Burmeister completing only nine of 25 pass attempts, the Hokies ran for 324 yards on 50 carries against the Blue Devils. This constellation, besides illustrating the potency of the Hokie ground game, also reflects its significance to its offense because it appears obvious what would have happened if Duke had only been able to stop the run.
Hokie Offensive Line and Running Backs
Partly Virginia Tech owes its success on the ground to its offensive line, which features many proven, returning maulers in the run game. At left tackle, Christian Darrisaw is exceeding the expectations posed to a preseason all-ACC left tackle.
Doug Nester, besides him, is another well-reputed run-blocker who came to Virginia Tech primarily because of his ability as a run-blocker. He had played for a high school which, offensively, was very much run-first. Including these two notable run-blockers, the Hokie offensive line is characterized by a good mix of speed, athletic upside at the least, and strength.
As such, Virginia Tech distinguishes itself especially from Syracuse, whose offensive line was notoriously poor last year and which is exhibiting continuity in poor run-blocking. Moreover, the Hokies distinguish themselves from both the Orange and Eagles who miss important running backs from last year. Boston College, especially, has a huge hole at the running back position, whose leading occupier is averaging all of 3.4 YPC.
Now consider Khalil Herbert, who’s averaging 12 YPC on 26 carries. Herbert’s YPC is insane especially when you consider that he’s lacking a bit when it comes to breakaway speed. He’s not slow, though. He excels at identifying, cutting back into, and otherwise attacking running lanes. When he gets going, he makes up for lack of breakaway speed by being physically difficult to bring down.
Of course, the huge holes that open up for him are conspicuous in highlight reels and they partly explain why he repeatedly accrues big gains.
Tar Heel Defensive Line
A significant reason why I believe in Herbert and his run-blocking crew is that I expect regression from the Tar Heels’ defensive line this year. They miss two crucial players in the unit who are sorely needed in order to confront Virginia Tech’s run-blocking.
Aaron Crawford is one key loss. Per PFF, he was the highest-graded Power Five defensive lineman in run defense. Jason Strowbridge, too, was a nationally highly-ranked defensive lineman per PFF. It seems unreasonable to expect relatively underwhelming returners or newcomers to fill in those shoes against tougher competition.
Sam Howell #7 of the North Carolina Tar Heels. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images/AFP
Sam Howell’s Importance
In order to justify being favored, the Tar Heels need to have a strong passing game. With Sam Howell at quarterback, they lack the same conviction and anyhow the same run-blocking ability to rely on their ground game the way that Virginia Tech does. Currently, they pass with 14 percent more frequency than the Hokies do.
Furthermore, the Tar Heel ground game is very much reliant on the speed with Michael Carter at the helm. If Saturday turns out to be rainy per the forecast, his speed advantage gets negated. People remain in love with Howell. Granted, he had a historically amazing freshman campaign in 2019. But an offseason happened. A film study happened. And defenses are figuring out how to stop him.
Last year, Howell was very much reliant on the deep ball, specifically on pass attempts of 20+ yards. 21 of his touchdowns — versus three interceptions — came on such attempts. But after two games, he’s completed zero of eight pass attempts of 20+ yards while throwing an interception.
Part of why UNC’s rate of sacks allowed is so high — the Tar Heels rank 115th in the category — is that Howell is waiting, waiting, waiting, and waiting to identify something developing downfield.
Pressuring Howell remains a surefire way to stop him. Last year, he only completed 42 percent of his passes when pressured. This year, he’s completed 30 percent of his passes in 23 pressured dropbacks. The Hokies rank second nationally in sack percentage. They are so effective in their pass rush because their defensive linemen are reliably winning battles in the trenches.
So they are just the team to limit Howell. Plus, they should be returning some cornerbacks, which will add sorely needed depth, depth that could have kept the Hokies from wearing down in the fourth quarter against Duke, and quality.
The Hokies have owed this series. They are on a 6-1 ATS run against UNC with the one non-cover coming in their down year in 2018. They will add on to this trend this year especially with their dominance in the trenches, concretely heir ground game, and pass rush.
Weather, returning players, and the return of drastically more efficient quarterback Hendon Hooker can only help their cause. Along with V Tech’s match-up advantages, these things aren’t being accounted for by the College Football Oddsmakers. For the above reasons, bet on the Hokies at the top-rated sportsbooks.
Best Bets: Hokies +5.5 at -115 with BetOnline (Visit our BetOnline Review)
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