Virginia Tech Football: 5 Keys to the Game vs. Duke

Bryan Manning@bdmanning4Featured ColumnistOctober 12, 2012

Virginia Tech Football: 5 Keys to the Game vs. Duke

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    For years, the joke around the ACC was to schedule Duke for your Homecoming game. Well, Virginia Tech listened and this Saturday they play host to the Blue Devils at Lane Stadium.

    However, the Hokies could have never predicted they would enter the second weekend in October with a worse record than Duke. The Blue Devils (5-1, 2-0), will actually head into this game as the favorite in some people's minds. 

    At 3-3, the Hokies are coming off consecutive losses and have struggled in all three phases of the game.

    The struggles of the defense have been well chronicled, but it was the special teams that also let the Hokies down last week at North Carolina. While freshman Demitri Knowles took a kickoff back 93 yards for a touchdown, the Hokies gave up their first return touchdown in 19 years. 

    While Duke does have the better record, it would still be considered an upset if they can come into Lane Stadium on Saturday and defeat the Hokies.

    The Hokies have defeated the Blue Devils every year since entering the ACC, three of the last four meetings have been decided by 11 points or less. 

    Here are five keys to victory for the Hokies this weekend. 

Get Demitri Knowles Involved

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    The freshman wide receiver entered last week's game against North Carolina when senior Dyrell Roberts was injured. Things couldn't have gone much better for Knowles in his most extensive playing time of the season.

    Everyone got a glimpse of Knowles in the season-opener against Georgia Tech when he caught a 42-yard touchdown pass from Logan Thomas. His playing time was sporadic in following weeks, however.

    Knowles made his biggest impact in the return game, returning a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown. It was the Hokies longest kickoff return this season by 59 yards. 

    Knowles was no slouch in the passing game, finishing with six receptions for 83 yards.

    His blazing speed is an asset and he needs to be on the field, even if Roberts plays as expected. 

Be Aggressive on Offense Early

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    For the first time this season, the Hokies scored on their first possession last week. It was an efficient drive where the Hokies mixed the run with the pass.

    Duke doesn't particularly have a stout defense. Overall, they are ranked 50th in total defense in the country. In particular, they struggle against the pass, ranking 76th nationally. 

    The Hokies have talent at the wide receiver position. Along with Knowles and Roberts, the Hokies have seniors Marcus Davis and Corey Fuller. Davis is a mismatch for any defensive back, but he just needs to catch the ball consistently. 

    When you are struggling running the football, it is essential to attack the defense with what you do well. If the run is not working, attack Duke with a quick passing game. 

    Getting J.C. Coleman involved in the passing game would create a mismatch for the Hokies, too. 

Get Logan Thomas Comfortable

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    Logan Thomas had his best game of the year last week against North Carolina. For the Hokies to continue to improve on offense, they need to build on the things Thomas does well and not force a specific play or plays on him and the offense. 

    Thomas looked especially good throwing the deep ball. Ideally, the Hokies will call a short passing game, getting each of the wide receivers involved early. By doing that, you draw the defenders closer to the line of scrimmage opening up some deep pass attempts later in the game.

    Over the course of this season, it is clear the Hokies haven't called games to suit Thomas. Being that the season is now entering the second half, offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring and play caller Mike O'Cain should have a better idea in how to call a game around Thomas' strengths. 

Where's the Pass Rush?

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    Through six games, the Hokies have eight quarterback sacks. There have been times in recent years where the Hokies could threaten that number in one game. 

    Much was made of Virginia Tech's defensive line depth entering the season. The starting defensive ends, James Gayle and J.R. Collins, both juniors, were coming off strong performances in 2011. In 2012, the two have combined for two sacks, both by Gayle.

    The low number of sacks is even more remarkable considering the Hokies have faced the likes of Austin Peay and Bowling Green. Not to mention, defensive coordinator Bud Foster likes to bring pressure from all 11 defensive players.

    So, with a talented pair of pass rushers and an aggressive defensive coordinator, why haven't the Hokies gotten to the quarterback consistently?

    Against Duke, Foster must be patient. They have a precision passing attack led by senior Sean Renfree and if the Hokies blitz too much, he will take advantage of them.

    It is vital for the Hokies that they get pressure from their defensive line this week instead of having to blitz often. 

Be Mindful of the Run

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    Sure, Duke isn't necessarily a powerhouse when it comes to running the football. But, when you field a run defense that is currently 98th in the nation, teams will be aggressive in trying to exploit those weaknesses.

    The Hokies need to focus on Duke's passing offense first, however, they have to be mindful that the Blue Devils will look to take advantage of the Hokies when they have nickel personnel on the field. 

    Duke has to be entering this game feeling like they can get their sluggish rushing attack going. Duke is averaging under four yards per carry through six games. 

    Blue Devils' coach David Cutcliffe is one of the smarter offensive coaches in the country. He will not be stubborn and isn't afraid to take what the defense gives him.