Things to watch as Tech readies to kick off against WVU

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By Jimmy Robertson

LANDOVER, Md. – In several hours, the Virginia Tech football program will open the 2017 season against West Virginia at the Washington Redskins’ FedExField, renewing a border rivalry that has been dormant since 2005.

Tech opens the season ranked No. 21 in The Associated Press poll, while the Mountaineers come in at No. 22. The Hokies last opened a season as a ranked team in 2011 when they coincidentally also opened the season at FedExField. That year, they took on then-No. 3 Boise State and fell 33-30.

The Hokies have won seven of the past 10 meetings in the series with West Virginia and look to continue that success.

Here are some things to watch once the game kicks off:

Jackson’s debut – Tech quarterback Josh Jackson will be making his collegiate debut. The Hokies’ staff feels that Jackson is ready and that the lights won’t be too bright for him, but one never knows with freshmen. Jackson spoke confidently about Tech’s offense in the weeks leading up to the game and insists he won’t get caught up in the moment.

“I kind of just take a couple deep breaths, relax, get ready to go play because, usually once everybody runs out, everybody is going crazy and everything like that and I just got to stay calm, cool and collected,” he said in describing his pregame thoughts. “Everything like that and get ready to execute.”

Offense’s game plan – It bears watching to see what plays Tech offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen calls throughout this game. Does he play it a little safer considering the inexperience at quarterback and wide receiver? Do the Hokies try to run more and establish a dominant physical presence? Or does Cornelsen go bold? West Virginia runs a unique type of defense, so that enters into the equation as well. All that makes for a compelling plotline.

Keep an eye on special teams – Watch Saturday’s games? There were two blocked field goals in the Texas-Maryland game, and a blocked field goal and a fumble on a kickoff return really changed the momentum in the Alabama-Florida State game. Numerous teams played sloppily in this part of the game on opening day.

The Hokies feature a strong return game, led by Greg Stroman, and a good kicker in Joey Slye. But keep in mind that the Hokies are breaking in a new punter in Oscar Bradburn and a new holder for Slye. Tech needs to play cleanly on special teams to enhance its chances of winning.

Tech ‘D’ faces the unknown – The Hokies return seven starters on defense and a quality starting group with lofty expectations this season. They face spread offenses in the ACC each year, and a year ago – outside of Syracuse – handled them successfully. Tech’s defense now faces a spread offense in West Virginia with a new coordinator (Jake Spavital) and a new quarterback (Will Grier), who played at Florida a couple of seasons ago. The Mountaineers, by most accounts, are a little thin at receiver, but possess a bevy of running backs.

So what will Tech’s defense see?

“So what role will those running backs be?” Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “Will they be what we call ‘20 personnel,’ where there’s two backs and no tight end, but with that, will they be into four wide receivers and bring them in motion and run those types of things?

“Those are all things that our offense does. Those are all things that we’ve prepared for and seen. It’s just we’ve got to see that and plan for what their plan of attack is going to be and how they use those guys.”

Crowd advantage at FedExField – Tech figures to have a huge advantage in terms of crowd size, with its rather large alumni contingent in the D.C.-Northern Virginia area. It may be a 70-30 split.

But that isn’t necessarily a precursor to success. Tech lost to Southern Cal (2004), Boise State (2010) and Cincinnati (2012) in its past three games at FedExField – with the losses to the latter two opponents coming in the waning moments. Can the crowd provide enough of a lift to carry the Hokies to elusive success at this venue this particular time?

Tech fans will get answers to all these questions in just a few hours. The Hokies and Mountaineers kick off at 7:30, and for those unable to make the trip, they can watch on ABC.

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