MORGANTOWN — Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa used his mobility to extend plays.
Virginia Tech quarterback Braxton Burmeister simply looks to make them.
Burmeister is likely the biggest key for West Virginia’s defense as the old rivals finally collide at noon on Saturday at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown.
According to Virginia Tech’s game notes, Burmeister posted a top speed of 22.53 miles per hour during summer workouts, tops on the Hokies roster. He’s posted a 142.8 passer rating in Tech’s last three games dating back to last season, all wins, and he’s rushed for 130 yards and a score during that time.
Combined with a deep stable of running backs — primarily juniors Jalen Holston (18 carries, 80 yards, one touchdown) and Raheem Blackshear (21 rushes, 69 yards, two touchdowns) — there’s little mystery as to what the Hokies’ intentions are on offense. It’s up to WVU head coach Neal Brown, defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley and the Mountaineer players to counter that.
“Offensively they want to run the ball, I don’t think they’re trying to hide that,” Brown said during a media conference on Tuesday. “They want to run the football, they want to hit big plays. Burmeister is a dual threat. He’s really fast, that sticks out on film. He’s running away from people and you don’t see that a whole lot at quarterback. He’s running away from people, he’s got really good top-end speed, he’s got a big arm ... he’s making a lot of throws to the field that you don’t see.”
A mobile quarterback, especially one with the speed of Burmeister, certainly adds another dynamic in terms of the preparation of Lesley and the defense this week. On Tuesday, Lesley said that it didn’t necessarily change his team’s scheme, just what his players have to be cognizant of within it.
“You have to play your underneath coverage a little bit different and you have to expect it underneath,” Lesley said. “Whether it’s linebackers or you have safeties down as far as having their eyes where they need to be when he does [run], and number two, your secondary, the guys that are back have to expect it. Whether it’s zone or man coverage, they have to know how to play that, how to play tighter once the initial route combination breaks down. And then, obviously, your front guys have to know where the escape routes are.
“It doesn’t necessarily change your scheme; just changes how you teach that scheme that week based on what the quarterback likes to do.”
Obviously, chasing around a stable of running backs and a speedy quarterback — in addition to what No. 15 Tech (2-0) does in the passing game — could put a strain on the Mountaineers in terms of conditioning. While it’s difficult to know what to take away from WVU’s 66-0 romp over Long Island last week, one thing that did seem to get cleared up is how defensive rotations, particularly in the secondary and on the defensive line, will go.
That’s something Brown pointed to as an area that needed to be addressed after the season-opening 30-24 loss at Maryland, and he said he feels much better about how substitutions will go after last week’s win over the Sharks.
“I think there’s been confidence gained by some of those twos for sure,” Brown said. “We’re going to continue with that rotation we have. Basically, you’ve got [safeties] Scottie Young, Jackie Matthews, Alonzo Addae and then Sean Mahone that can play those three positions — cat, free and spear — and there’s flexibility there, so we’ll continue that, which keeps all those guys fresh. They played almost every snap versus Maryland, so we’ve got that figured out.
“Defensive line we’ve got a good rotation. Sean Martin and Taijh Alston, we’ve played Jordan Jefferson more, Hammond Russell showed he’s capable of playing at this level and then Akheem [Mesidor], Jalen Thornton and obviously with Dante [Stills], we feel we can go two deep, and they’ve earned confidence through practice and through their performance through the first two weeks.”
The Virginia Tech offense was dealt a blow this week as it was announced that tight end James Mitchell would miss the rest of the year after suffering a knee injury in the team’s 35-14 win over Middle Tennessee last week. Blackshear leads the Hokies in receiving with four grabs four 71 yards, with junior receiver Tre’ Turner just behind at 67 yards on four catches. Sophomore wideout Tayvion Robinson has five receptions, tied for the team lead with Mitchell.
The Hokies are also imposing up front, led by sophomore left tackle Luke Tenuta, who measures 6-foot-9 and weighs 322 pounds.
The challenge is certainly there for Lesley and company, but while the game plan may mold a bit to what Virginia Tech is expected to do, the focus of the defense is still internal.
“We’ve got to play better, we’ve got to play cleaner, we’ve got to play better fundamental football,” Lesley said. “I think we’re doing some good things, but we’ve got to be better fundamentally.”