Way-Too-Early College Football Week Two Preview: Virginia Tech Vs Marshall

The first game at Lane Stadium in 2024 should be a good one. In the second game of their home-and-home series, Virginia Tech will invite Marshall into Lane Stadium. The first game in this series didn’t go as expected for the Hokies, dropping a 24-17 game in regulation. This win helped propel Marshall to a bowl-eligible year, finishing their season with six wins and seven losses, after a loss to UTSA in the Frisco Bowl.

This Marshall team will be much different than the team that Virginia Tech faced last season. Starting quarterback Cam Fancher has transferred to FAU, star running back Rasheen Ali was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens, and leading tackler Elias Neal signed an off-season deal with the Los Angeles Rams.

The Hokies are looking to beat the new-look Marshall team, and maintain dominance over the all-time series against Marshall. Virginia Tech holds an 11-3 win-loss record versus Marshall. Notably, Virginia Tech won nine games in a row, winning every game from 1951 to 2018. Marshall’s only wins in the series have come in 2023, 1940, and 1939.

Virginia Tech Offense vs Marshall Defense

Virginia Tech’s offense struggled against the Marshall defense last year, especially in the second half. Virginia Tech started off the half punting on four consecutive drives, combining for only 37 yards of offense during those four drives. Virginia Tech is looking to flip the script against one of the Sun Belt’s most intriguing defenses. Second-year Marshall defensive coordinator Jason Semore has had to rebuild the defense from the ground up, which could offer Virginia Tech opportunities to pounce on the Marshall defense.

Virginia Tech’s returning production on offense is one of the main storylines heading into the season. The Hokies return most of their starters, losing starting tight end Dae’Quan Wright in the process. Notably, Virginia Tech returns starters Kyron Drones at quarterback, Bhayshul Tuten at running back, and all of the week one starters at wide receiver and offensive line.

Not everything was perfect for this Virginia Tech offense however. There are definitely areas for improvement, especially when it comes to closing out games. Virginia Tech ranked 88th in FBS in points per fourth quarter, averaging just 6.2 in the quarter. This makes sense due to the nature of the Tech offense, which obviously is not fully focused on the passing side of the ball, which can cause problems late in games when the Hokies are trailing.

Before Kyron Drones fully took over for Grant Wells at quarterback, Virginia Tech’s offense was in even more of a stalemate. Averaging 3.0 4th quarter points through two games. Since Kyron Drones has taken over, it’s felt like a breath of fresh air. In 13 games (11 starts), Drones passed for 2,085 yards on 17 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions. Arguably Drones biggest impact was his rushing ability. Drones rushed for 818 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground.

Marshall’s defense is going to look much different than last year. Defensive coordinator Jason Semore has been quoted as saying, “You can replace players, but I’m not sure you can replace the leadership of guys like Owen Porter, Eli Neal and Micah Abraham. We want to find who will be ready and dependable and earn the job in the spring. This spring is about true competition as we try to find ways to build the scheme for next year.”

As mentioned above, Marshall lost some key pieces on the defensive side. Defensive back Micah Abraham was drafted in the sixth round by the Colts, and defensive end Owen Porter (Vikings) and linebacker Elias Neal (Rams) signed UDFA deals following the 2023 season.

Marshall made some noise in the transfer portal as well, signing six transfers on the defensive end, some of which were from major programs. Isaiah Johnson (Arizona State), Monroe Beard III (Tennessee State), Deeve Harris (Colorado), Ashton Heflin (Georgia Tech), Jason Shuford (East Carolina), and Jason Harris (Arizona) round out Marshall’s transfer class on defense.

Marshall’s defensive unit was very solid in 2023, especially on third-down, allowing only a 32.4% conversion rate on third-down, the best rate in the Sun Belt.

However, knowing how inexperienced the 2024 Marshall defensive unit will be, it’s hard to place any confidence on the defense. Marshall’s defense could easily hand Virginia Tech this game and may have to make some big changes before playing the Hokies.

Marshall Offense vs Virginia Tech Defense

Like the defense for Marshall, the offense is missing a lot of key pieces from the 2023 offense. Marshall lost their two biggest pieces in the offseason. They lost quarterback Cam Fancher to the transfer portal, and highly impactful running back Rasheen Ali to the NFL Draft.

Marshall’s 2023 season started with an offensive explosion, averaging 30.3 points/game in the first six games of the season, going 4-2 in that span. Marshall wasn’t playing bad defenses either, Marshall put up 41 points on NC State, a defense which was top 25 in opponent points/game.

Games seven through nine could not have been more different than the first six games for the Marshall offense. Marshall went three straight games in a row without reaching double-digits. Game seven versus James Madison was possibly the worst of them all. All nine points scored by Marshall in that game were not by the offense. Marshall’s defense forced a safety in the third quarter, then Marshall kick returner Jayden Harrison took a 94-yard kickoff return to the house. The offense was abysmal, rushing for a total of negative-four yards, and passing for 174 yards on one interception.

Games eight and nine were the same story. In game eight, Marshall scored their lone points in the second quarter off of two Rece Verhoff field goals, 23 yards and 44 yards respectively. Marshall also suffered five turnovers during this game, including four interceptions. Game nine wasn’t much better. Cam Fancher threw three interceptions against App State, and only passed for 144 yards throughout the game. Marshall put up nine points in this game, three from a red-zone field goal, and six from a red-zone touchdown which was followed by an unsuccessful two-point conversion attempt.

This stretch of games was the main reason why former Marshall offensive coordinator Clint Trickett was dismissed from the staff after the 2023 season. New offensive coordinator Seth Doege has a tall task, returning the Marshall offense back to relevancy.

One of the biggest tasks for this Marshall offense will be the quarterback position. Marshall brought in two veteran quarterbacks, Braylon Braxton from Tulsa, and Mitch Griffis from Wake Forest. Griffis has appeared in games for Wake Forest for four consecutive seasons. His biggest impact for the Demon Deacons though was his 2023 campaign. Griffis started in nine games for Wake Forest, and finished the season with 1,553 yards through the air, and 128 yards on the ground.

Braxton, the quarterback from Tulsa, made an impact on his squad too. Braxton appeared in six games in 2023, and nine in 2022. Braxton’s 2023 season was riddled with injury, and he only made eight career starts at Tulsa (five in 2023, three in 2022), but still wanted to make his impact known. Braxton showed a 56.4% completion percentage in 2022, while holding a 132.6 passer rating. His final statistics in 2022 included five rushing touchdowns, over a thousand passing yards, and a 10-2 touchdown-interception ratio. Due to his injury at the beginning of the 2023 season, the 2023 stats were not on par with his previous numbers. In 2023, Braxton held a 68.8 passer rating, a 2-6 touchdown-interception ratio, but had 4.3 yards per carry on the ground.

Neither of these quarterbacks are even the favorite to start at quarterback, although Marshall will definitely find ways to use them on offense. Chad Pennington’s son, Cole Pennington, is likely to be the day-one starter for Marshall. Pennington struggled during his action during the 2023 season, throwing six interceptions and no passing touchdowns. Pennington doesn’t really bring much to the rushing game either, finishing last season with negative-sixty nine rushing yards.

It could be a realistic prediction to say Marshall might experiment at quarterback, similar to what Michigan did with Cade McNamara and JJ McCarthy. I wouldn’t be shocked if Pennington is set to learn under a veteran like Braxton or Griffis at the quarterback position, but Pennington will likely have the reigns to the franchise in the near future.

Virginia Tech will have to navigate this rocky road of Marshall offense, and might suffer some surprises on the defensive end.

This Virginia Tech defense is no weak unit though. Virginia Tech’s defense ranked 15th in the nation in opponent yards per game and has only added on to their already stellar defense. Most notably, Duke transfer Aeneas Peebles could make a humongous impact in this game. Peebles is a 290-pound All-ACC defensive tackle who led Duke in TFLs last season.

Dorian Strong and Mansoor Delane are set to be two of the best cornerbacks in the ACC as well, anchoring a Virginia Tech defense that only allowed 168.8 passing yards per game last season, good enough to rank fourth in the nation.

It seems like Virginia Tech filled any possible holes on their defense too. After last season, there were questions about the Virginia Tech interior defensive line and the Hokies’ linebacker group. The Hokies added the previously mentioned Aeneas Peebles on the defensive line, but also added Kemari Copeland, a JUCO project, and Kevlin Gilliam, the six-foot-three lineman from Oklahoma. Tech answered the questions at linebacker too, adding Middle Tennessee transfer Sam Brumfield, who led his team with 81 tackles in the 2023 season.

Barring a breakout game from Marshall quarterback Cole Pennington, Virginia Tech should be able to limit the Marshall offense, especially in the air.

Final Thoughts

This Marshall team is definitely not the same team that Virginia Tech lost to last year, and this is definitely not the same Hokies team that Marshall took down this season. If Virginia Tech can limit mistakes, and take advantage of some unpracticed units for Marshall, Virginia Tech should have no problem flipping the script from last season. Virginia Tech will probably be a favorite heading into this game, and should be able to take care of business in Lane Stadium in front of the best fans on Earth.