Things to watch, as No. 13 Tech squares off against Duke

BLACKSBURG – Virginia Tech returns to action today to play the last of its October games – a home affair against a struggling Duke squad that has lost four consecutive games.

The Hokies, fresh off a 59-7 annihilation of North Carolina, enter the contest with a 6-1 record and ranked No. 13 nationally. Tech head coach Justin Fuente will be looking to move to 15-2 against unranked opponents as the head man of the Hokies. Duke comes in at 4-4 and just 1-4 in ACC play.

But Tech needs to be careful with this game. The Blue Devils have won two straight against the Hokies at Lane Stadium, and they play Tech tough – five of the past six meetings have been decided by four points or less.

Perhaps more importantly, the Blue Devils know how to pull an upset. They have beaten a ranked foe in each of the past four seasons and actually have won five games over ranked teams as an unranked squad since 2013.

So the Hokies should not be looking ahead to the following Saturday’s Coastal Division showdown with Miami. They will have their hands plenty full with the Blue Devils.

That said, here are some things to watch:

Finding consistency on offense – The Hokies put points on the board against North Carolina, but it didn’t necessarily feel as though they played consistently well on offense. Fuente hinted as much on Tech Talk LIVE! on Monday.

“There’s a level of toughness and intensity we expect on a daily basis,” Fuente said. “Whether you’re scoring points or getting yards … I mean, I know that’s the object, but there’s a way of playing I guess is what I’m saying.

“In my estimation, we fell short in living up to that. So no, I was not happy with that aspect of it. I know there was points and that sort of stuff, but those are the things we have to get fixed.”

That may not be easy against Duke, though. The Blue Devils enter the game ranked in the top 30 nationally (27th) in total defense.

Jackson in the passing game – By nearly every account, Tech quarterback Josh Jackson has enjoyed a fine season as a redshirt freshman. He ranks second in the ACC with 16 touchdown passes compared to just four interceptions in seven games. He’s completing 59 percent of his passes on throws of 10-plus yards down the field, with 11 touchdowns, no interceptions and a 226.9 passer rating. All those numbers lead Power 5 quarterbacks.

Yet Jackson needs to be careful with the ball against Duke. The Blue Devils are tied for the ACC lead with 12 interceptions and rank tied for fourth nationally – and four of those 12 have been returned for touchdowns. They get those interceptions primarily because they put pressure on the quarterback. They are second in the ACC with 23 sacks.

Doing it with defense – This has the potential to be a low-scoring game, and that actually favors the Hokies even with Duke’s impressive play on defense. Tech knows how to win these types of games, and the Hokies have been quite stingy in their wins, allowing less than 10 points per game in six wins. They rank fifth nationally in scoring defense (12.7 ppg).

Duke has struggled on offense during its four-game losing streak. In two of those games, it scored just one touchdown, and it hasn’t scored more than 21 points in any of those four losses. It also hasn’t recorded more than 360 yards in those four losses.

Hopefully, that trend continues.

Stay special on special teams – It’s hard to convey just how good the Hokies have been on special teams this season. They rank in the top 15 nationally in net punting with a freshman punter. They rank second in the nation in touchbacks. Greg Stroman has returned two punts for touchdowns. They own a huge advantage in hidden yardage.

Duke plays solid on special teams, too. The Blue Devils haven’t returned a score for a touchdown this season, but they don’t give up big returns. That stands as a sign of a well-coached team.

This game could come down to the kicking game, which means a matchup between Tech’s Joey Slye and Duke’s Austin Parker. Both have missed some short field goals, but both also possess the ability to make one from long range.

Still, Tech possesses the edge on special teams based on its performance so far. Nothing needs to change in this area tonight.

A tired Duke team – Without question, the Hokies looked and played against North Carolina like a team refreshed following a week off. Tech’s starters also got some additional rest last week when Fuente only played most of them about 2.5 quarters in the blowout of the Tar Heels.

In contrast, Duke has played eight straight games and tonight will mark its ninth straight. The Blue Devils’ bye week comes next week, so they may be tired and a little beat up heading into tonight’s game. Obviously, that favors the Hokies.

The game kicks at 7:20. The road team has won four straight in this series. Hopefully for Tech fans, that changes this evening.

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