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Ground Game Gives Hokies Fighting Chance

By Dave Holcomb
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Dave Holcomb on Virginia Tech's running game versus Clemson.

Clemson and Virginia Tech will square off this weekend for the first time since 2017. As cross-divisional foes, normally they go twice as long between regular-season matchups, but it’s 2020 after all.

Really, that means the weirdness only begins there.

Because of the unusual scheduling this fall, each of these ACC teams played Pitt in their last games. Those contests went quite differently for both schools -- Clemson beating Pitt 52-17 and Virginia Tech falling to Pitt 47-14.

Therefore, are the Tigers due to win 99-31? Well, no (that was a joke) -- football, of course, doesn’t work that way. Even with a below .500 record, Virginia Tech poses a threat to mighty Clemson, who still hasn’t lost to a pre-pandemic ACC opponent since, well, 13 days after the Tigers and Hokies last played.

It’s usually hard for a non-ranked team to find a path to victory against Clemson, but for Virginia Tech, it’s actually quite simple -- run, run and run some more.

The Hokies lead the ACC in rushing, and it’s not even close. Virginia Tech averages 251 rushing yards per game and 5.9 yards per carry, both of which are No. 1 in the conference. The next best in each category is Notre Dame with 230 rushing yards per contest, and North Carolina with 5.36 yards per rushing attempt.

Clemson is still good at stopping the run, but the Tigers aren’t elite like they were when they had several future NFL first-round draft picks on the defensive line two years ago. This season, they are third in the ACC in run defense.

At the beginning of November, the Fighting Irish took advantage of the “weaker” Clemson front. Notre Dame rushed for 208 yards, including 5.2 yards per carry, and three touchdowns. With that kind of rushing performance for Virginia Tech, the Hokies could control the time of possession, keep Trevor Lawrence on the sidelines and stay within an arm’s reach of the Tigers.

Then again, Virginia Tech could need even more out of its ground game than that. Quarterback Ian Book and Notre Dame made plenty of other plays against Clemson and still needed double overtime to beat the Tigers. The Hokies counting on their defense or passing attack beating Clemson is not wise.

Virginia Tech has rushed for 200 yards and lost three times this season, and none of those defeats came at the hands of a team anywhere nearly as talented as Clemson. In fact, the Hokies have not won a game this year where they didn’t rush for at least 283 yards.

That’s what makes the path to victory for Virginia Tech so clear -- anything less than the most rushing yards Clemson has allowed since 2016 when it yielded 273 yards on the ground to Lamar Jackson and Louisville, and it’s hard seeing the Hokies upsetting the Tigers.

Even so, it’s difficult to like Virginia Tech’s chances. The Hokies rushing attack has been trending in the wrong direction lately, setting season lows in rushing yards in the last two games.

During their current three-game losing streak, Virginia Tech has averaged 172.3 rushing yards per game. Prior to November, the Hokies were recording 290.2 rushing yards each contest.

Contributing to the decline in the Virginia Tech rushing attack has been a hamstring injury to the team’s leading rusher Khalil Herbert. He only has 17 carries over the last three games, one of which he missed entirely due to injury. Without him at full strength, the Hokies have been rushing for fewer yards per attempt and running it less often during the losing streak.

Herbert is averaging almost 103 yards per game and 8.2 yards per carry this season. Virginia Tech needs him to be his best Saturday in order to have a chance against Clemson.