BLACKSBURG, Va. — Hoping to even its record and maintain possession of the Black Diamond Trophy, West Virginia takes on Virginia Tech at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. A sellout crowd will be on hand at Lane Stadium, and the 54th matchup between the two rivals will be shown nationally on ESPN.
It’s the first trip to Blacksburg for the Mountaineers (1-2) since 2004 in what marks their fourth meeting with the Hokies (2-1) since then.
West Virginia has already played a road game in a loud environment when it opened its season three weeks ago with a 38-31 loss to Pitt at Acrisure Stadium. While the outcome wasn’t what the Mountaineers had hoped for that night, fourth-year West Virginia head coach Neal Brown is hopeful that experience proves beneficial.
“At Pitt, credit to them, they did an absolutely incredible job from a game management standpoint with music, videos and it was super loud,” Brown said. “I haven’t been to Blacksburg. My assumption is it’s going to be every bit as loud or louder. Our guys have performed at least one time. We’re going to Austin. We have some loud games coming up. We’ll do some things in practice to prepare for it. I know it’s going to be loud. It’s going to be a fun atmosphere, especially on a Thursday night.”
A season ago, West Virginia held off Virginia Tech for a 27-21 victory in Morgantown that snapped a three-game skid in the series.
Much has changed in regards to both teams, including a new coach for Virginia Tech in Brent Pry.
“They’re like-minded institutions in a lot of ways — the football programs, the schools,” Pry said of the Hokies and Mountaineers. “It’s kind of like what I hear all the time with Penn State — we’re in close enough proximity that you have a brother that went to West Virginia and a sister that goes to Tech or a mom went to West Virginia and a son goes to Tech. There’s a lot of relationships that cross over, so it makes for an interesting matchup for sure.”
Both teams have a new starting quarterback via the NCAA Transfer Portal, with JT Daniels running the show at West Virginia and Grant Wells, a Charleston native who began his career at Marshall, behind center for the Hokies.
Daniels has gotten off to a strong start and given West Virginia steady play and a presence at the position. He’s thrown for 753 yards and six touchdowns with two interceptions, while completing better than 64 percent of his passes.
Bryce Ford-Wheaton’s 24 receptions, including a Power 5 Conference best eight that have been contested, are a team-high, as are his four touchdowns and 296 receiving yards.
Wideouts Sam James and Kaden Prather have both hauled in one touchdown from Daniels, and that duo has combined for 25 receptions and 345 yards.
Tony Mathis has been WVU’s primary ball-carrier and the tailback has 234 yards on 49 attempts. True freshman CJ Donaldson is the Mountaineers’ leading rusher with 274 yards on 29 rushes, six of which have been touchdowns for the bruising back.
“We’ve played relatively clean,” Daniels said. “We can be a lot cleaner, but in general, we have great talent offensively and each week we execute better and better. We keep going on this pace, we’ll be a really good offense.”
WVU’s skill position players and experienced offensive line face a tough challenge a Hokies’ defense that has held each of its first three opponents to 20 or fewer points. In the team’s only loss to Old Dominion, the Monarchs scored on a fumble recovery from a botched Hokies’ field goal attempt, while Wells threw four interceptions.
Brown sang the praises of Hokies’ linebacker Dax Hollifield, whose likely to be around the ball often and leads the team with 23 tackles, three tackles for loss and two fumble recoveries.
“He is one of the most improved football players I’ve seen this year compared to last year,” Brown said. “You can tell he’s spent a lot of time studying. He has really good ball get-off. He’s playing off running backs and tight ends and making a lot of plays.”
Hollifield also has a sack, one of nine for the Hokies, who are led by defensive linemen C.J. McCray and Cole Nelson with two apiece in that category.
Safety Nasir Peoples (14 tackles, 1.5 TFLs) is also a player the Mountaineers are aware of.
“He is one of the better tacklers we’ll face all year,” Brown said. “He’s really good in the run and pass game.”
Offensively, the Hokies are a run-oriented attack that would like nothing more than to control the line of scrimmage. Tailback Keshawn King’s status is up in the air after he missed last Saturday’s 27-7 win over Wofford and was limited to four carries in a win over Boston College the previous week, when he suffered an injury but managed a 65-yard touchdown run.
If King cannot play, and last year’s leading returning rusher Malachi Thomas doesn’t make his season debut after suffering a foot injury in preseason camp, Jalen Houston and Chance Black are the focal points of VT’s rushing attack.
“They want to find ways to run the football,” Brown said. “That’s who they want to be. They’re physical, well-coached and do a really nice job in the run game. Multiple tight ends and running backs are going to play. The running backs are a really nice stable and it kind of reminds me of the Kansas room with three or four guys that can play.”
Wells has been more accurate each of the last two weeks after the tough start. For the season, he’s completed 63-of-96 passes for 651 yards with four touchdowns and the four interceptions at ODU.
“It’s about them being focused, thinking about the right things and having their feet in the right place,” Pry said. “They’re 18 to 22-year-olds and they get caught up in the moment.”
West Virginia hopes a strong defensive effort against an overmatched Towson team is the start of better play after the unit struggled mightily in a Week 2 overtime loss to Kansas.
The Mountaineers made several personnel tweaks last week. There was nothing to suggest they didn’t work, but West Virginia will continue to be without top cornerback Charles Woods and has yet to intercept a pass. A pair of fumble recoveries mark the two turnovers the team has forced, which is only one fewer than the Hokies despite their defensive prowess throughout September.
Defensive lineman Dante Stills has a team-best 2.5 sacks. Bandit Jared Bartlett missed last week’s win over Towson, but should he return, the Hokies will undoubtedly pay him plenty of attention after Bartlett recorded three sacks, a forced fumble and fumble recovery in last season’s meeting.
“You go back and look at it just to look at matchups, but schematically, under a new staff, all three phases are different,” Brown said.
Virginia Tech has been known for its strong special teams play through the years and that again appears to be the case this season.
Kicker William Ross had made all five of his field-goal attempts, including four from 40-plus yards. Kickoff specialist Kyle Lowe has booted 10 touchbacks on 16 kickoffs, while punter Peter Moore averages 43 yards on 17 attempts, with eight punts inside the opposing team’s 20-yard line and four of at least 50 yards.
“We won’t face a better punter,” Brown said.
Thursday’s matchup wraps up the non-conference portion of each team’s schedule. West Virginia, one of two teams facing 11 Power 5 Conference opponents, is also one of two playing a pair of non-league road games against FBS schools.
“It’s very important to our fan base. Guys that played the game last year felt that here in our stadium,” Brown said. “It’s going to be a great atmosphere in Blacksburg without a doubt. It’s one of the best places to play in college football. Looking forward to experiencing that for the first time. Several of our coaches have played there and they’ve done a good job talking about it.
“This is the only game in our regular season where we play for a trophy. The Black Diamond Trophy makes it even more special.”