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Rivalry Aside, West Virginia Is Looking For National Respect Against Virginia Tech

The Black Diamond Trophy, season expectations, national respect for the Big 12, and rivalry bragging rights for the next three years, there’s a lot on the line as the Mountaineers prepare to face the Hokies on Sunday.

Getty Images - George Gojkovich

For the first time since 2005, the West Virginia Mountaineers are set to do battle with the Virginia Tech Hokies, and Mountaineer fans could not be more excited. Not only is it the return of a rivalry game, but they finally get to see Will Grier throw a football.

Conference re-alignment, beginning with the ACC’s raid of the Big East, temporarily ended great rivalries like this one. When Oliver Luck and the Mountaineers looked west for a brighter future, familiar foes, backyard brawls, and drivable road games became faint memories of years gone by. But on a crisp September evening in the nation’s capital, these memories give way to reality when the old gold and blue once again collide with the boys from Blacksburg with the Black Diamond Trophy on the line.

Virginia Tech enters the matchup the favored team in head coach Justin Fuente’s second year. The Hokie’s offense improved in Fuente’s first season, but like WVU, they don’t have a lot of proven playmakers coming back on offense. Against the Mountaineers they will be breaking in a new quarterback and looking for some other guys to step up as they don’t have a lot of depth at the skill positions.

Without a doubt, the defense will lead the show for VT. Teams will struggle to find much space as the Hokies return depth at every level. Four proven linemen return to the defense in Vinny Mihota, Trevon hill, Ricky Walker and Tim Settle. Behind the line, there’s even more experience and depth. Tremaine Edmunds returns at linebacker and Terrell Edmonds and Mook Reynolds return at safety.

It’s safe to say that Will Grier, and his decision-making, will be tested in his first game out for the Mountaineers.

LOCATION: FedEx Field (Landover, MD)
FORECAST: Mostly Sunny, Slight Breeze, 79 degrees

The Mountaineers enter 2017 with enough returning talent to feel good about themselves, but enough new faces to temper that enthusiasm just a bit. The most notable newcomer is Florida transfer Will Grier. Grier showed flashes of brilliance in the spring game, and Mountaineer fans expect him to pick up where he left off at the University of Florida.

The Mountaineers feel most comfortable with their backfield, which is among the deepest in the country. Justin Crawford, Kennedy McKoy, Martell Pettaway, and Tevin Bush are all expected to get touches in various situations. Pettaway is a bruiser, Bush is a speedster, McKoy is ridiculously versatile, and Crawford will be the go-to guy. Some questions remain at receiver with the loss of the speedy Shelton Gibson and the steady Dakiel Shorts, but Dana Holgorsen never seems to run out of quality wideouts. David Sills, Ka’Raun White, and Gary Jennings represent a bigger, stronger receiving corps that Coach Holgorsen thinks will help the Mountaineers finish in the red zone. However, Marcus Simms, who is expected to be a primary target, is suspended for the season opener. They also lost their all-world center, Tyler Orlosky, but return talented guys like Kyle Bosch, Grant Lingafelter, and a healthy Yodny Cajuste. The O-line may not be particularly deep, but it should get the job done.

The Mountaineers have some key losses on defense as well, but rumors are swirling that this is their most athletic defense in recent memory. Most significantly, the Mountaineers get a healthy Dravon Askew-Henry to play along-side Kyzir White in what will be a hard-hitting secondary. The coaches seem impressed with CB Hakeem Bailey, and some new cornerbacks look to make an immediate impact. Al-Rasheed Benton looks to once again lead the linebacker corps, and a healthy Brandon Ferns (a recruit WVU snagged from Ohio State) finally makes his debut. The D-line will feature some new faces without Noble Nwachukwu, and there will be plenty of opportunities for some of these guys to make an immediate impact.

Keys To The Game For WVU

Establish the run – I guess this could be a key for every team, but it’s especially true for a team who uses the run as effectively as WVU. Dana Holgorsen loves to joke that he’s been excommunicated from the exclusive air raid brotherhood. If the Mountaineers can run the ball effectively, things will open up for Will Grier, and new OC Jake Spavital (who has been given the play-calling reins) will have some fun.

Finish – Last year, the Mountaineers really struggled in the red zone. When playing a defense as good as the Hokies, West Virginia cannot leave points on the table. Look for Martell Pettaway to get more touches, and big receivers like Ka’Raun White and David Sills to get more targets when the Mountaineers are inside the 20.

Cause Chaos – The Hokies are breaking in a new quarterback and a new set of receivers. DC Tony Gibson will undoubtedly unleash the DAWGS in multiple blitz packages, and the 3-3-5 defense could cause the young quarterback some discomfort. If there are any deficiencies in skill and/or experience on the Mountaineer defense, they need to be covered up by strength, speed, and effort. Virginia Tech will struggle if they can’t find a rhythm.

Game Prediction

Vegas is not high on the Mountaineers, but I think they have a slight upper hand in this one. Justin Fuente undoubtedly has the program headed in the right direction, and this Bud Foster led defense will probably be the best West Virginia faces all season. If the Tech defense has a weakness, it’s on the defensive line, and I expect West Virginia to exploit that weakness early and often. Virginia Tech will also try to establish a ground game, and if successful, the Mountaineer defense may struggle. It seems that the Hokies do not have many proven weapons on offense, freeing Tony Gibson up to take some risks and put his players in positions to make some plays.

Thankfully, Virginia Tech has already spent some practice time rehearsing “Country Roads.” Perhaps they’ll sing along when the final whistle blows and Will Grier hoists the Black Diamond Trophy. The Mountaineers pick up a big win for the Big 12.

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