Last season, the Virginia Tech Hokies were able to make some big plays on defense and get tons of pressure on J.T. Barrett while Michael Brewer was productive and avoided making too many mistakes on the way to victory over the Buckeyes.
This year, the Buckeyes have a proven quarterback and one of the top offenses in the country, but the Hokies have one of the top defenses in college football in what is a huge matchup that should be very entertaining for any college football fan big or small. Now, let's take a look at our keys to the game for Virginia Tech ahead of the rematch in Blacksburg.
Win the Turnover Battle
This may seem like an obvious key for just about any game, but the Hokies have to avoid giving the Buckeyes extra opportunities along with giving the defense some rest against a physical Ohio State team.
Michael Brewer only threw four interceptions in the final seven games last season while also not throwing more than one interception in any of those seven games. Brewer will be challenged as Ohio State has some talented defensive backs with NFL futures led by cornerback Eli Apple and safety Vonn Bell.
Brewer needs to avoid making poor decisions and throws as he did in another big game last season against Georgia Tech. If Brewer can have another solid game like he did against the Buckeyes last season, the Hokies should have a good chance at pulling off the upset.
J.C. Coleman and the running backs also need to avoid fumbles. The Buckeyes are without Joey Bosa, which helps a lot but Darron Lee and the linebackers will be looking to force a turnover or two in this matchup.
Virginia Tech's secondary is one of the best in college football led by Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson who both will be looking to make some big plays in this showdown. However, that will depend a lot on our second key to the game.
Contain Ezekiel Elliott
Cardale Jones received a lot of attention in the final three games, but the player that really took off for the Buckeyes was running back Ezekiel Elliott with three-straight games of over 200 rushing yards (220 vs. Wisconsin, 230 vs. Alabama, 246 vs. Oregon) and eight rushing touchdowns.
Virginia Tech has the best defensive line in college football, but are facing an improved and significantly more experienced Ohio State offensive line in this matchup. The battle in the trenches will be decisive in this matchup and the Hokies know that winning this battle will help them a lot in containing Elliott.
However, the Hokies will need to make sure that Elliott can't get to the outside as while he is dangerous between the tackles, he is more dangerous on the outside. This means that either Virginia Tech will need Dadi Nicolas and Ken Ekanem in that role, or Virginia Tech will need linebackers Deon Clarke and Ronny Vandyke to be disciplined and protect the edge.
The first option seems more likely with Clarke having the potential to be an x-factor after having a great game last year in Columbus. Clarke is very dangerous on blitzes, and is a player that knows how to rise to the occasion in the biggest games.
Last year, the Hokies contained Elliott to 32 yards on 8 carries. This year, Elliott likely will get 30 to 40 carries in this game, and if the Hokies can contain him to no more than 115 to 130 rushing yards, Virginia Tech will put themselves in great position.
Containing Elliott will weaken Ohio State's play action pass game plan, and will make J.T. Barrett throw at a Virginia Tech secondary that has the best duo of starting cornerbacks in college football. Containing Elliott and the Ohio State running game is going to be critical, and Bud Foster will definitely have a game plan that can do it, but will the Hokies execute it well enough.
Fans, Players Feed Off Each Other
Lane Stadium is one of the toughest places to play in college football, and is even harder at night. However, the environment at Lane Stadium for the rematch may be louder than Lane has ever been, and that's saying something.
The excitement in Blacksburg has gone to insane levels over the course of this summer with classes being cancelled, Brad Paisley giving a free concert the night before, and an ESPN college football pregame special in the North End Zone before the game.
There will be tough stretches in this game and that is when the Hokie players will need to feed off a raucous crowd. Hokie Nation has always been one of the most supportive fan bases in all of college football, and keeping spirits high to limit Ohio State's run and shift momentum will be critical.
Getting off to a good start will also only make the environment more electric and bring an insane amount of energy in the building along with plenty of pressure on the Buckeyes. If Virginia Tech gets a multi-possession lead early, the Buckeyes will have a hard time coming back.
Ohio State has never been to Blacksburg and Urban Meyer has never coached against the Hokies in Lane Stadium. Replicating the scene of having to stare at the Virginia Tech crowd jumping and loosing their minds when Enter Sandman starts playing is impossible to do.
Ohio State is the #1 team in college football, but Lane Stadium has its way of putting opposing players and coaches in shock and awe, just ask Al Golden.
Taking advantage of a raucous crowd to build momentum and stop Ohio State momentum could be an x-factor that we won't know how big of an impact it has until the game happens.