Virginia Tech’s final nonconference test of the year should also provide its fans with a better sense of what this team is capable of this season. Many have wavered since the Hokies dropped out of the national rankings two weeks ago following a 35-17 loss at Pittsburgh, but a matchup against Cincinnati at FedEx Field could go a long way toward restoring the faith.
And this time, despite what is expected to be a less-than-capacity crowd, Virginia Tech won’t likely need any sort of extra pick-me-up for this one.
“They turn on the tape, they’re not gonna overlook Cincinnati. I promise you,” Coach Frank Beamer said this week. “It’s just the fact that they pounded Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh pounded us.”
Cincinnati enters Saturday with a 2-0 record, having scored an impressive 34-10 win over the Panthers and (strangely) two bye weeks already. Though this is technically a Cincinnati home game, Coach Butch Jones said he’s treating it like a road game given the Hokies’ large Washington area alumni base.
It should be noted, however, that Virginia Tech has lost its past four games at NFL stadiums, something players and coaches shrugged off as a “coincidence” this week. More important is whether the Hokies can emulate the performance they put on in a 37-0 win over Bowling Green last week against a much tougher opponent.
It starts with the offense, which finally got the running game going last week. The good news is that Virginia Tech will likely get left guard David Wang back in the lineup after he missed the Bowling Green game with an ankle sprain. The bad news is that running back Tony Gregory, last week’s leading rusher, will not make the trip to FedEx Field because of soreness in his surgically repaired left knee.
Quarterback Logan Thomas also proved effective running the ball against Bowling Green, picking up 65 yards on the ground. He still hasn’t gotten the passing game going yet, though.
Thomas went 11 for 26 last week and is now completing just 50.4 percent of his passes this year. But quarterbacks coach Mike O’Cain and Thomas both emphasize that his inaccuracy has been the result of many factors. Last week, for instance, he had several throwaways early on because of poor route running and inconsistent blocking.
It has become clear, though, that Thomas lacks a credible deep threat outside and his leading receiver, Marcus Davis, said this week he believes teams have been blitzing Virginia Tech more often because of its young running backs. No matter the reason, something has just been off in terms of the connection between the receivers and Thomas.
“There’s a few plays where I can see he’s more comfortable doing than some,” Davis said. “It’s gonna pick up. I know that for a fact. It’s a matter of when and how. We just got to gel.”
The Hokies need Thomas at his best against Cincinnati, a team Beamer called the most athletic Virginia Tech has faced this year. The Bearcats led the nation in tackles for loss and finished second in sacks last year. They’ve also got some unique weapons on offense.
Led by dual-threat quarterback Munchie Legaux and running backs George Winn and Ralph David Abernathy IV, the Bearcats often use run-pass option plays in which Legaux can either throw the ball or take off running. Winn is a bruising inside runner while Abernathy is a 5-foot-7 speedster who is a threat on screen plays.
Coming off the 26th shutout of defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s career, Virginia Tech’s defense appears to have regained its edge after a humbling experience at Pittsburgh. The Hokies also had success in the Sugar Bowl facing Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, who is similar in style to Legaux. A dominating performance by Virginia Tech’s defensive line, which hasn’t lived up to lofty preseason praise so far, would be a good start to replicating that showing.
Taking care of the ball could be the deciding factor in a tussle of teams that look evenly matched on paper. Legaux committed four turnovers (two interceptions, two fumbles) in Cincinnati’s win over Delaware State two weeks ago. The Hokies have five turnovers the past two weeks.
But I’m not as down on Virginia Tech as some. One loss hasn’t convinced me this team won’t win 10 games and head to another ACC championship game this year. That journey gets a jump-start Saturday in Landover.
My prediction: Virginia Tech 24, Cincinnati 21
But what do you think? Will Virginia Tech score a perception-altering win over Cincinnati? Or can the Bearcats avenge their loss to the Hokies in the 2009 Orange Bowl and hand Virginia Tech two nonconference losses for the second time in three years? Vote in the poll below and let me know how you think this game will play out in the comments section.