Things to watch, as Tech takes on Oklahoma State in Camping World Bowl

ORLANDO – In only a few short hours, Virginia Tech will play its final game of the 2017 season when it squares off against Oklahoma State in the Camping World Bowl at Camping World Stadium here in downtown Orlando.

The Hokies will be making their 25th straight bowl appearance. Of more importance, the Hokies will be seeking a fourth straight bowl win – which would be a first in program history. Tech, 9-3 on the season and ranked No. 22 in the College Football Playoff rankings, enters the game as an underdog against a Cowboys team that enters the game at 9-3 as well and ranked No. 19 in the CFP standings.

The Hokies face some big odds. Oklahoma State features arguably the nation’s best offense and maybe the nation’s best quarterback and two best receivers. Plus, Tech comes in without its leading rusher (Travon McMillian, transfer) and leading receiver (Camp Phillips, injury) and missing two starters on defense because of injuries (Terrell Edmunds and Vinny Mihota).

For the Hokies to win, they need to do what most winning teams do – take care of the football, run the ball, don’t give up big plays and don’t mess up on special teams. It sounds simple and yet is so difficult to accomplish, but for the most part, they have done that this season.

That said, let’s get into a little more specificity. Thus, here are some things to watch, as Tech seeks to make history:

Tech’s running game – It seems like sort of a cliché to analyze a football game and start with the rushing attack, but in the Hokies’ case, it makes perfect sense to do so, especially in light of the season-ending injury to Phillips. Tech simply lacks a receiver with his proven capabilities.

But the Hokies can make up for that lost production by running the football – something they actually do reasonably well (167.2 ypg). Tech has rushed for at least 150 yards in seven games this season and went 7-0 in those games. The Hokies are 17-2 when rushing for at least 150 yards in head coach Justin Fuente’s tenure.

Oklahoma State ranks a respectable 27th nationally against the run (131.8), but in the Cowboys’ three losses – to TCU, Oklahoma and Kansas State – they gave up an average of 214 yards rushing per game. So Fuente’s game plan probably features a heavy dose of Steven Peoples and Jalen Holston, with some Deshawn McClease mixed in.

Peoples especially possesses that downhill running style that works well for a strategy like this, which worked quite well in wins over Pittsburgh and Virginia to end the regular season. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if the Hokies didn’t try to run it 50-plus times in this one – and Tech is 7-0 under Fuente when it runs the ball at least 50 times in a game.

Time of possession – Along those same lines, a good running game means the Hokies are holding onto the ball, and the Hokies need to possess the ball in this one. A first down in this game is actually playing great defense because it keeps Oklahoma State’s offense off the field. Plus, Tech plays this game well, too, as it ranks 18th nationally in time of possession (32 minutes per game).

Also, consider this: in Oklahoma State’s three losses, all three of its opponents accumulated more than 35 minutes of possession time. In fact, TCU held the ball for nearly 40 minutes.

Oklahoma State isn’t going to win the time of possession statistic very often because of the way it plays – it plays up tempo and wants to score as quickly as possible. But keeping the ball limits the Cowboys’ opportunities. Keeping the Cowboys at around 12 possessions in this game would be fantastic for Tech.

The Texas model – Oklahoma State’s lowest scoring output of the season came in a 13-10 overtime win at Texas in mid-October. So what did the Longhorns do that enabled them to stay in the game?

Well, nothing overly fancy. They only forced one turnover, though it was a big one, as it came in the red zone and thwarted a Cowboys’ scoring opportunity. But for the most part, the Longhorns just played good solid defense.

Texas choked off the Oklahoma State running game, holding the Cowboys to 2.9 yards per carry. Thus, the Longhorns made the Cowboys one dimensional and played well in their coverages. The Longhorns also held Oklahoma State to 5 of 18 on third down and forced nine punts.

Perhaps most importantly, Texas limited the big play. The Longhorns allowed just five plays of more than 20 yards and only one of more than 30 yards. None of those plays went for touchdowns.

The Hokies’ defense is just as good as Texas’, and maybe better. Tech ranks 11th in total defense (305.3 ypg) and 15th in rushing defense (118.1 ypg), and the Hokies are quite stingy in the red zone, allowing opponents to score just 66.7 percent of the time – third-best nationally.

Tech’s defense will be facing its toughest test and probably will need to play its best game– but the Hokies have been great on that side of the ball all fall and certainly have the ability of playing even better.

Winning on special teams – This is an area where the Hokies have enjoyed an advantage over their opponents all season. Everyone knows that Greg Stroman ranks as one of the more dangerous punt returners in the nation – he’s returned two for touchdowns this season – and punter Oscar Bradburn has averaged 42.5 yard per punt. Joey Slye has placed 51 of his 59 kickoffs in the end zone. Plus, Tech’s punt team has allowed just 42 yards worth of return yardage all season.

The Hokies need to continue to do a great job of flipping the field to give themselves the best chance of winning.

Texas also did this quite well against that 13-10 overtime loss Cowboys, as Oklahoma State had lousy field position for nearly all of the game. Primarily because Texas punter Michael Dickson – maybe the nation’s best punter – averaged 50.9 yards per punt and placed six inside the 20, the Cowboys only started one drive out of 13 outside of their own 25. So the Longhorns forced the Cowboys to drive the field each time, which is tough for even the best of offenses.

So in addition to limiting the big plays, Tech needs to make Oklahoma State drive the length of the field. Of course, that means taking care of the ball, but it also – and especially – means winning the field position battle.

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