Last Friday the Hokies lost to the Cavaliers several times until they didn't. I'm generally not superstitious (outside of the proven fact that Virginia Tech's performance is definitively tied to whether I am sitting or standing, whether I have shoes on, and whether I am consuming alcohol), but after the Commonwealth Cup it is hard to believe there aren't outside forces conspiring to ensure it the streak never ends.
The win was huge, not only because it gives the Hokies hope of a continued bowl streak, but because it at least temporarily halts any narrative that the Hoos are on the way up and the Hokies on the way down. Any recruit considering a commitment to UVA has to now question what they were sold on. The Cavaliers obsessed over beating Virginia Tech all season, and openly so. Putting your sole ambition out there publicly is like squeezing toothpaste from the tube — it's easy to get it out but you can't ever put it back in. The state, region, and conference knew the goal and saw the team fail spectacularly at it in what may have been their best shot for years.
The Hokies still need one more win for bowl eligibility. On one hand, Whit Babcock came through with a 12th game that makes sense regionally (and may even result in and early exit of the ECU series). On the other, Marshall is a pretty good team, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The Thundering Herd is 8-3, but one of those losses was to Southern Miss in a game in which they outgained the Golden Eagles by a full yard per play, but turned the ball over two additional times and scored 2.83 points per scoring opportunity to the opponent's 5. Marshall has five games this season with a defensive performance above the 90th percentile for all games in FBS football this season. They only have two games not in the top half of overall performances all season.
In other words, now isn't the time to start looking at bowl projections.
Where the Season Stands
Virginia Tech is currently 5-6. The actual and predicted score difference and odds of winning each game are:
The odds of each possible regular season win total are now:
More on the (grossly overstated in my opinion) odds of beating Marshall in a moment...
Virginia Tech Leads the Nation In...
Consecutive Commonwealth Cup victories and bowl appearances, b****.
Rankings and Computer Predictions
The computer rankings and predictions for each team:
While the Thundering Herd is generally considered the better team by computer rankings, home field advantage is outweighing the rating difference for most computers. However, the margin is quite thin, and this game is anything but a certainty. Also, the Hokies are 4-7 against the spread this season. The odds of a 4.5-point favorite winning is 63.2%.
Next is a look at any overall offensive or defensive advantages:
For better or worse, the Hokies are roughly evenly split on offensive and defensive ability. The Thundering Herd, on the other hand, are the third most imbalanced team in the country with one of the weakest offenses and strongest defenses. Can Virginia Tech take advantage of the weak offense while defeating the stout defense?
When Virginia Tech Has the Ball
Who has the advantage in the passing and rushing game when the Tech offense has the ball?
The Hokies offense can generally be described as "meh" running, passing, on standard downs, and on passing downs. The Herd defense however is very good, with the only weakness coming on passing downs. This may present an opportunity for the Hokies to keep the chains moving.
What style offense do the Hokies use and what style will they face?
The highlight of the Marshall defense is havoc rates, especially on the defensive line.
Offensive and defensive line performance are compared using Football Outsiders' metrics:
The Virginia Tech offense is closest in personality to:
The Marshall defense is closest in personality to:
- Penn State
When Marshall Has the Ball
Again, examine pass-run comparisons first:
The Thundering Herd offense isn't anything special, but then again it is much better rated than the Hokies defense it will face. Can Bud Foster's unit avoid getting embarrassed by a weak offense?
What style offense do the Thundering Herd use and what style will they face in the Hokies defense?
You may not be aware, but Virginia Tech really, really sucks at preventing big plays. The team has given up 8 (!) plays of 70+ yards this season, more than any other team in the country.
Offensive and defensive line performance are again compared using Football Outsiders' metrics:
The Virginia Tech defense is closest in personality to:
- Air Force
- Oklahoma State
The Marshall offense is closest in personality to:
- Bowling Green
- Louisiana Tech
- Eastern Michigan
First we look at the Hokies kicking units:
Virginia Tech special teams have really fallen back to the pack as the season has progressed, capped by a stretch of six straight missed field goals extending from the Notre Dame game through Virginia.
When the Herd kick:
The Herd's kickoff and punt games are quite good, although the Hokies generally avoid any impact of a good kick returner by kicking 90+% of kickoffs for touchbacks.
Who To Watch Out For
I could only find one player from Marshall that stood out in any way statistically...the defensive success is less a function of individual stars than a solid team:
- DB Chris Jackson (No. 3, JR, 6-0, 188) is 10th nationally with 1.36 passes defensed per game.
Statistical Key to the Game
If the Hokies lose, I think it is much more likely because the defense failed to shut down a weak offense, than it is that the offense couldn't get enough points against this stout defense. As is the running theme this season, giving up easy points on big gains is my biggest fear, and since the offense isn't likely to put up big points the team can't afford to give the easy points.
Keep the Herd to 3 or less plays of 20+ yards and Virginia Tech goes bowling.
Don't get fooled into any narrative around Virginia Tech being the more motivated team because of the bowl streak. Marshall is a good team and knows it, and will relish the chance to show it against a Power Five opponent on a day with limited games to compete against (albeit a much less important game nationally). The Hokies won't win this on inspiration or wanting it more, but rather will need to go out and win it on performance. The d-line has been coming along and helps keep the clamps on an unimpressive offense, while the offense is forced to let receivers make plays and they readily do so.
Virginia Tech 24, Marshall 20
As always a thanks to Football Outsiders, cfbstats.com, and Minitab Statistical Software.