A weak finish to the 2016 season has left a bad taste in fans’ mouths. Grumbling about the program is the highest its been since the three-game losing streak in September 2015.
However, winning cures all ills, and the Belk Bowl provides a chance to knock off a quality opponent and recapture momentum heading into the offseason.
Virginia Tech (9-4, 6-2 ACC) is a pretty good team in Justin Fuente’s first season. The former Memphis coach took over for Frank Beamer but retained star defensive coordinator Bud Foster. As is standard at Virginia Tech, the Hokies boast a good defense and questionable offense.
- Excellent pass defense
- Offense is surprisingly good in must-pass situations
- Very balanced all-around with few notable weaknesses
- Offense is turnover-prone
- Almost no production from running backs
- Secondary occasionally gets beat deep
When Arkansas has the ball
It’s strength-on-strength when the Hogs take the field. Bud Foster’s defense is fundamentally sound, disruptive up front, and among the nation’s best in third-down defense.
- Woody Baron, DT, 43.5 tackles, 17.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks
- Vinny Mihota, DE, 31.5 tackles, 7.0 TFLs, 2.0 sacks
- Ken Ekanem, DE, 27.0 tackles, 9.0 TFLs, 6.5 sacks
- Nigel Williams, DT, 12.5 tackles, 4.0 TFLs, 0.5 sacks
Arkansas has struggled against active defensive lines all season (Texas A&M and LSU come to mind). That doesn’t bode well for this matchup against a very aggressive and talented front four. They don’t actually generate a ton of pressure in the passing game, but they are very active against the run and can beat blocks.
- Andrew Motuapuaka, MLB, 77.5 tackles, 5.0 TFLs, 2.0 sacks
- Tremaine Edmunds, WLB, 76.0 tackles, 17.0 TFLs, 4.5 sacks
- Mook Reynolds, SLB, 45.0 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 0 sacks
Tech likes to blitz, and Edmunds has had a big season when it comes to disrutpion. Motuapuaka is a more fundamental middle linebacker. Reynolds is basically a defensive back, since Tech has to play a lot of nickel defense.
- Chuck Clark, FS, 66.0 tackles, 2 PBUs, 0 interceptions
- Terrell Edmunds, SS, 64.5 tackles, 3 PBUs, 3 interceptions
- Adonis Alexander, CB, 35.5 tackles, 7 PBUs, 2 interceptions
- Brandon Facyson, CB, 31.5 tackles, 11 PBUs, 0 interceptions
The secondary is very good against the pass and swats a lot of balls. This game will provide a major challenge for Drew Morgan and Keon Hatcher as they’ll have some tough one-on-one matchups.
Overall, I think part of Virginia Tech’s quality numbers is due to soft-ish schedule, but I don’t expect the Hog offense to move the ball a whole lot. I think the Razorbacks will be able to run it a little bit, and if they can protect Austin Allen, the pass game opportunities will be there. My guess is that 24 points might constitute a “good” game for this offense.
When Virginia Tech has the ball
The weakness-on-weakness matchup favors the Hokies more markedly. Still, they don’t hit enough big plays or finish enough drives with touchdowns to take advantage of Arkansas’ major weaknesses in those areas.
Schematically, the Hokies run a spread offense: all shotgun with 3 or 4 receivers on just about every play. They don’t do a lot of hurry-up, but they will do some. They are extremely quarterback-centric: nearly everything they do that doesn’t involved Jerod Evans running or throwing ends up unsuccessful.
In this personnel report from the ACC championship game against Clemson, we see the Hokies’ two favorite personnel groupings: “10” and “20”, as they’re called in football lingo. As you can see, they rarely use a tight end. The two-back look was used often, but it’s a little deceptive. On most half of those plays, the second back — H-back Sam Rogers — aligned as a wide receiver. On several, he motioned into the backfield, but several times he stayed out wide, allowing Tech to present a four-wide look with three receivers.
Note the run rates as well. Unless both backs are in the game, Tech very rarely runs the ball. That could be a “give” for the Arkansas defense.
Tech will use a lot of motion to try and create matchups for its ineffective run game. Receivers carry the ball on speed sweeps several times per game.
- Jerod Evans, 63.5% completions, 3,309 yards, 7.6 yards per attempt, 154 rushes, 903 yards, 5.9 yards per carry
- Travon McMillian, RB, 136 rushes, 637 yards, 4.7 yards per carry
- Sam Rogers, FB, 65 rushes, 279 yards, 4.3 yards per carry
McMillian, a more traditional spread running back, has been ineffective, largely due to a weak offensive line.
Rogers acts as a fullback, slot receiver, H-back, and is also the running back when they go four-wides on third down. He’s on the field on about 90 percent of plays, compared to only about 60 percent for McMillian. Rogers gets about 8 to 10 touches per game, split evenly between carries and short receptions, but his main role is blocking, both on runs and screen passes.
Because of a lack of production from the backs, Tech has to run the ball with the quarterback frequently. Evans lacks breakaway speed, but is a physical runner. I’d put him somewhere between Tyrone Swoopes and Dak Prescott as a running quarterback, both in terms of style and talent.
Tech will also use a lot of motion. Rogers often starts as a slot receiver and motions into the backfield. Jet motion is common as well, and receivers carry the ball on speed sweeps quite a bit.
- Isaiah Ford, 132 targets, 1,038 yards, 7.9 yards per target
- Cam Phillips, 90 targets, 868 yards, 9.6 yards per target
- Bucky Hodges, 70 targets, 640 yards, 9.1 yards per target
Tech loves three-receiver personnel groupings, and these are the three. Ford is an all-around reliable target down the field. Phillips is the speedy slot man who is the generally fed the ball behind the line of scrimmage via screens or sweeps. At 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds, Hodges is a matchup nightmare. His hands aren’t great, but he’s scary to cover. He occasionally lines up as a tight end, but is generally split out.
In the passing game, Evans often struggles if his first option doesn’t come open. He’s been sacked 28 times this season (almost as much as Allen, actually), usually after he has to come off his first option and he tries to scramble instead of going through his progression. Taking away his first option is a great way to throw off the Tech offense.
Keys to the game
- Stop the quarterback run game. Tech’s offense has a tendency to “go to sleep” for long periods of time, and this often coincides with Evans not being able to find running room. Arkansas has been burned by every quarterback with legs this season, so this is obviously a tall order.
- Hit some home runs in the run game. Tech doesn’t give up much by way of big plays, but against this defensive line, I’m not sure how much Arkansas can drive the ball. More big runs from Rawleigh Williams III and Devwah Whaley could play a big role.
- Flip the field. Neither team hits many big plays, so winning field position will be important. Toby Baker needs to have another good game, while Arkansas either needs to use turnovers or returns to set up some quality field position for the offense, while denying the Hokies good field position as well.