BLACKSBURG – After its big bounce back win over Miami, Virginia Tech hosts Rhode Island, its second FCS opponent of the season, on Saturday.
The Hokies have struggled with lesser competition, playing surprisingly close games against Old Dominion and FCS Furman at home already this season. What will they do with the Rams?
Will Geoghegan has been the sports editor at the Independent in Southern Rhode Island since 2014. He covers University of Rhode Island football and basketball plus high school sports.
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Geoghegan took time out to answer four downs worth of questions about Rhode Island going into Saturday's game against Virginia Tech.
1) Everyone knows that FCS teams usually struggle with FBS competition. But Virginia Tech struggled with Furman this year and famously lost to James Madison in 2010. The Hokies also won ugly against Old Dominion, a non-Power 5 foe. Given all that, how do the Rams view their chances of an upset Saturday?
I think they're realistic about their chances - they know it would take an A-plus game by them and something less than that from Virginia Tech. If a few of the Rams' close losses had turned into wins, they'd likely be a Top 25 FCS team and would feel better about their odds. They're still trying to dig out from that hole, as opposed to thinking really big. And while they've held their own against FBS foes in the last few years, they haven't faced a Power 5 team in a big, college football atmosphere. All that said, they're a pretty competitive group that's been frustrated by this year's poor start, so they won't go quietly.
2) Give us a scouting report on URI quarterback Vito Priore. What does he do well and what does he struggle with? How much confidence will he and the offense take from their game-winning drive against rival Brown?
There were Rhode Island fans who assumed Priore wouldn't be the answer at quarterback this season, but he keeps proving himself capable of directing the offense. It was the same scenario last year, when he emerged out of fall camp as the surprise No. 2 on the depth chart. Pressed into duty by an injury, he helped the Rams stay afloat. This season, he had competition from a transfer and a freshman but held them off. He seems to have a very good feel for the offense and has a strong connection with talented wide receivers Aaron Parker and Isaiah Coulter. He throws a nice deep ball and puts the ball in the right spots consistently, so those two are having huge seasons as a result. On the downside, he's not very mobile. As far as confidence, the offense has actually delivered a number of crucial scoring drives late in games this year, only to see their opponents answer. They're probably relieved the latest one held up.
3) What's behind Rhode Island's terrible rushing numbers so far this season? The Rams are averaging just 75.6 rushing yards per game and has only run for four touchdowns. Obviously the offense is pass-heavy by design but does URI want more out of its ground game?
The passing game is definitely the priority and they're probably not too worried about the ratios. Last year, they got similar production from their lead running back Zoe Bryant, just with added yardage from a dual-threat quarterback and more help from second-stringer Naim Jones. Jones had been hurt until last week's game so that has hampered them. Bryant is a solid between-the-tackles guy but doesn't have a ton of explosiveness. They've tried to get creative, with receivers Parker and Ahmere Dorsey lined up in the backfield and taking direct snaps. It hasn't led to a big play yet. While I think they'd love some bigger chunks of yardage from the running game, the lack of it hasn't slowed down the air attack, so to some extent, they're fine with just running to keep defenses honest.
4) Defensively, Rhode Island ranks last in the CAA in scoring defense, giving up 34.2 points per game, and last in rushing defense, allowing 233 yards per game. For a unit that returned seven starters from last year, that's got to be disappointing. What's gone wrong defensively?
They're definitely disappointed in the defensive performance, although they knew they wouldn't be picking up where they left off. The four starters they lost included three of their top four tacklers and their leader in sacks. So they had to replace some real impact players. They've had a couple of key injuries along the way, too. The front seven is on the small side and I think that's a big reason why they've struggled so much against the run. They're not getting a lot of pressure on the quarterback, either. And maybe the thing that's hurt them the most is a susceptibility to big plays, both in the running game and the passing game.