Hokies’ defense figures to be formidable challenge for West Virginia

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Something has to give Thursday night when West Virginia faces Virginia Tech for the Black Diamond Trophy at Lane Stadium.

The Mountaineers’ offense, which has displayed no shortage of balance through three games, will have to negotiate one of the better defenses in all of college football to this point, as well as the hostile environment that awaits in Blacksburg.

Under first-year head coach Brent Pry, the Hokies have allowed a mere 37 points to rank 16th nationally in points per game surrendered. Much of Virginia Tech’s defensive success stems from its ability to get off the field, with the Hokies allowing the opposition to convert on only 7-of-41 third downs, good for No. 3 nationally in third down stop percentage.

“Coach Pry has a defensive background and you can see the team is kind of buying into his mentality and they’re playing really hard,” West Virginia head coach Neal Brown said.

Before taking over the Hokies, Pry spent the previous eight seasons at Penn State, the last six of which he was the Nittany Lions’ defensive coordinator.

Sep 10, 2022; Blacksburg, Virginia, USA; Virginia Tech Hokies head coach Brent Pry runs onto the field before the game against the Boston College Eagles at Lane Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Although Pry’s Virginia Tech tenure began with a 20-17 loss at Old Dominion, the defense was hardly at fault and allowed one touchdown, with the Monarchs recording their other TD on a fumble return off a botched field goal attempt.

Since then, the Hokies (2-1) have protected Lane Stadium in consecutive weeks with victories over Boston College and Wofford, while allowing a total of 17 points and one touchdown in both games.

“They had four turnovers versus Old Dominion,” Brown noted. “They out-gained them [333-249]. It was more about turnovers. Defensively, they played really well. They gave up a couple deep passes on 50-50 balls, but they shut down the run. They didn’t necessarily play bad football outside the turnovers.” 

West Virginia has proven it can effectively pass and run in every game thus far, but the Hokies’ have been dominant slowing opposing ground games and almost equally stingy defending the pass.

With better than 217 rushing yards and 295 passing yards on average, WVU ranks in the top 30 nationally in both categories, while its 513 yards per contest is 13th best in the country.

Virginia Tech, meanwhile, is No. 3 nationally in rush defense, surrendering 32 yards on average and 1.5 yards per carry. The Hokies’ pass defense ranks 15th, while they’re No. 5 in total defense, yielding a mere 201 yards per game.

“A lot of what they want to do is put you in third-and-long and they do a lot of good things on third-and-long,” WVU quarterback JT Daniels said.

As a result, it’ll be imperative for the Mountaineers to stay ahead of the chains and get in manageable third-down situations that don’t allow for predictable play calls.

“They’ve been very good on third down, and the best way for a defense to be good on third down is to put you in third-and-long, and the best way for an offense to be good on third down is to stay out of third-and-long,” Daniels said. “The national average on third-and-8-plus was 18 percent two years ago. That’s tough living, no matter who you are or how good your team is. If you’re in third-and-long, you’re not going to be very successful on third down. They do a good job putting you behind the chains and then they make it hard to convert.”

Brown expects WVU’s offense to face an even greater challenge considering the contest is in Blacksburg, which he believes brings out the best in the Hokies and their energy level.

“They play really well at home and that’s something they’ve done traditionally as a program,” Brown said. “Against Boston College, that was one of the more physical, highest level of strains that I’ve seen on tape. Credit to coach Pry and that staff. Those kids flew around. They had great energy and played really hard.”

On the flip side, Pry is well aware this will likely be the stiffest challenge the Hokies’ defense has faced. Old Dominion and Boston College are both outside the top 100 in scoring offense, and the Terriers of the FCS were shutout in their first two games, before notching their first points this season in the fourth quarter last Saturday.

“They have multiple threats,” Pry said of the Mountaineers. “They have a solid, veteran offensive line with good size. They have two talented backs, three talented receivers and a solid tight end. Now they have a quarterback that can run the show and make the throws. They’re very well-balanced and there’s really not a weakness.”

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