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Preview: Q&A with Virginia Tech Beat Writer Andy Bitter –

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — If you happened to be in the Greenland Drive parking lot right around 5:00 in the afternoon this past week, you might’ve heard a Metallica guitar riff bouncing off the light poles of the Blue Raiders’ practice field beside Dean E. Hayes Track & Soccer Stadium. 
Sure, the Virginia Tech fight song or Hells Bells might’ve been mixed in at the right moment, but most of Middle Tennessee’s players will “sleep with one eye open” until they’re “off to never-never land,” which this week also known as Lane Stadium.
“Not only do they play (Enter Sandman) out here, the past couple of days they’ve been playing that in the weight room as well,” wide receiver CJ Windham said. “They just desensitize us to what they’re going to be doing on Saturday.”
Middle Tennessee will take on No. 19 Virginia Tech this Saturday in Blacksburg, where the Hokies run out into Lane Stadium with the pulse of Metallica’s best known hit blasting off the stone laid bleachers in the Appalachian mountains. It’ll be the Blue Raiders 21st game against a Top 25 opponent (the Hokies entered the Top 25 in both the AP and the Coaches’ poll after knocking off then-No. 10 UNC last Friday). MT is 0-20 all time when playing a ranked opponent.
“I would imagine they’ll probably try to bully us some, because they’re a lot bigger than us up front,” defensive line coach Tommy West said. “And that’s fine, we’ll play with our pads down and play with great technique.”
It will be the first ever matchup between Middle Tennessee and Virginia Tech. The two teams were originally scheduled to play in Murfreesboro in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic forced schedule changes for both schools. And while the Blue Raiders have yet to knock off a top 25 team since moving up to the FBS, they have fared better against ACC opponents, holding a 4-11 overall record, most recently knocking off Syracuse on the road in 2017.
“​​They do everything well,” offensive line coach Mike Polly said. “They’re a top 25 team for a reason, they beat a top ten team for a reason. They’re a really really good football team, we give them all the credit. But we give every opponent all the credit.”
Ahead of Saturday’s 1 p.m. central time kickoff (2 p.m. in Blacksburg), staff writer Sam Doughton exchanged emails with The Athletic’s Andy Bitter to give Blue Raider fans a closer look at this week’s opponent.
1) Getting a win against a top 10 is a huge boost to any program, but particularly one coming off a losing season where fans and stakeholders were starting to ask questions of the coach, as was the case in Blacksburg last year. What has been the mood around the program this week coming off of a high level result against UNC?
I’d say cautious optimism by the fans and a desire for more from the players. You can understand why Hokies fans are wary after a big win like that. Since 2013, they’re 3-5 the immediate week after a Top 25 win. And the last time they beat a top-10 team, at No. 8 Ohio State in 2014, they came out the next week and fell behind East Carolina 21-0 in an eventual seven-point home loss.
This team had nothing to do with that, though some of Justin Fuente’s first few teams at Virginia Tech couldn’t always handle success. That 2016 team laid an egg at Syracuse after a big win at North Carolina, and the 2018 team that handled Florida State in the opener saw its season go south very quick at Old Dominion before September was over. So you can understand why fans are a little skittish to completely buy into this being a Top 25 team after one big win.
That said, I’ve not gotten any indication from coaches and players that they’re taking this game lightly or that they’re reveling too much in the UNC win. Everything we heard earlier this week was about turning the page and getting ready for Middle Tennessee. Of course, that could all be lip service. Who really knows what practice will be like this week or what the mentality of a bunch of 20-year-olds will be after a little success. But everyone seems to be saying the right things so far.
2) Both Middle Tennessee and Virginia Tech will likely start quarterbacks on Saturday who didn’t begin their collegiate careers at each school. What has Braxton Burmeister’s journey to the starting job been like at Virginia Tech, and what does he bring to the table as a signal caller other teams have to look out for?
He’s had an interesting path, originally going to Oregon to play for Willie Taggart and leaving after Taggart left and Mario Cristobal was promoted. He got to Tech and had to sit out in 2019, working on the scout team. When he was finally going to get his chance to show what he could do in the 2020 offseason, COVID-19 hit, wiping out a spring and summer’s worth of workouts. He started last year when Hendon Hooker was dealing with a medical issue, though Burmeister was coming off a bout of COVID-19 himself, having lost about 10 pounds. He went 2-1 as a starter early in the year, showing some skills, but you could tell he didn’t quite look comfortable in the offense.
Hooker came back and took his starting spot, right when Burmeister had three toes broken at practice when an offensive lineman stepped on them. He missed several games before coming back at the end of the year. He stepped in against Clemson and started against UVa and looked like a far more efficient passer than earlier in the year. He said the broken toes were a blessing in disguise, allowing him to step back and learn the offense. Hooker transferred to Tennessee last winter, making the job Burmeister’s.
He’s an athletic dude, one of the fastest players on the team and shifty as all get-out. And though Burmeister doesn’t have a long history of success throwing the ball, Fuente has sounded encouraged about him as a passer. He showed signs of it in the opener, going 12-for-19 for 169 yards and a touchdown, but he left some throws on the field. More game reps night bring that around, but with his athleticism, he’ll be a handful for opposing defenses this year.
3) Virginia Tech’s offense was able to dominate the time of possession last week, winning the overall battle by more than 10 minutes after holding a more than 2-to-1 advantage at halftime. Is this a gameplan that you expect Fuente’s staff will replicate against the Blue Raiders? Or will the offense have a different wrinkle up their sleeve when competing against a team that likes to go with an up-tempo attack if they can, like Middle Tennessee?
I wouldn’t expect it to be that one-sided this time around. Tech’s brought out that strategy when facing extremely high-powered offenses that it knew it had to keep off the field (Clemson last year, UNC this year) but typically won’t be that deliberate in its operation and probably will push the tempo on occasion if it can get in a rhythm. The Hokies have shown an ability to do that before.
Above all else, I’d expect this offense to try to get the run game going. It looked good early against UNC last week but struggled in the second half, as did the entire offense. The Hokies had a stud running back last year in Khalil Herbert and are still trying to sort out carries among a trio of replacements this year, Jalen Holston, Raheem Blackshear and Keshawn King, but at their core, I think Tech wants to run the ball first and foremost. Its passing game is based off that play-action, and getting things cranked up on the ground will make going to the air that much more effective, not to mention help establish an identity again.
4) Both Rick Stockstill and Amir Rasul highlighted in this week’s press conference the interior pressure generated by Virginia Tech’s defensive line that, along with a secondary that denied the Tar Heels’ receivers much separation, played a big part in slowing UNC down and forcing Sam Howell into three interceptions. Who are some of the key cogs in the Hokies’ defense that have helped the team perform well early this season?
They’re right on both fronts. Tech’s D-line got pressure and its defensive backs didn’t give up much through the air, with the exception of UNC’s screen game. Up front, defensive end Amare Barno, at 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, is a beast, a player who led the ACC last year in tackles for a loss, despite being a part-time player early in the year. Tech doesn’t typically have defensive ends with that kind of athleticism. He’s not alone either, with TyJuan Garbutt (2 sacks) at the other end and a four-headed tackle rotation headlined by Mario Kendricks, Norell Pollard and Clemson transfer Jordan Williams on the interior. That group had 4.5 of the Hokies’ six sacks in the opener and did so without Tech sending all sorts of blitzes to pressure. It was mostly just D-linemen beating blocks.
The secondary was buoyed by the return of cornerback Jermaine Waller, an All-ACC honorable mention in 2019 who missed almost all of last year with various injuries. He had a pick in the opener where he wrestled the ball away from a UNC receiver. Dorian Strong and Armani Chatman offer depth at cornerback that was lacking last year. And in the slot, the Hokies have Chamarri Conner, who earned ACC Defensive Back of the Week honors in the opener with eight tackles and the game-sealing interception. Overall, it’s a secondary with a much better outlook than the one that gave up a school-worst 266 passing yards per game last season.
5) As you highlighted this week, Virginia Tech has had a bad habit of posting poor results after big wins in recent seasons, going 2-6 since 2013 in their next game against FBS competition following a top 25 win. Have there been any recurring weaknesses in those losses that Middle Tennessee might be able to exploit, and the Hokies will have to watch out for, even as the Blue Raiders are heavy underdogs on the road this Saturday?
I think the big thing is just emotion. It’s tough to come out with that from week to week. And while there should be a decent crowd in Lane Stadium on Saturday, it’s going to pale in comparison to last Friday, which was a sellout, the first game back after an almost empty stadium in 2020 due to COVID-19 protocols, against a disliked rival that was ranked in the top 10 and at night. Inevitably, the atmosphere will not be as electric this weekend, and the Hokes can’t afford to be influenced by that.
The hope from Tech’s coaches is that this is a more mature team and able to handle the ebbs and flows of a season better. That 2014 team that beat Ohio State and followed up with a loss to East Carolina was young at a lot of spots. That 2018 team that beat Florida State and lost to Old Dominion weeks later was rudderless in a lot of leadership positions. (I honestly can’t explain the 2016 team’s ups and downs, since that was a veteran squad and probably shouldn’t have been prone to those swings, other than to just say the newness of it being Fuente’s first year at Tech probably contributed.) This team doesn’t feel like that but you never know until someone hits you in the mouth and you have to respond.

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