Welcome back, folks. The latest episode of the Hokie Hangover Podcast is live, available on all popular streaming platforms.
We’ve yet to flip the calendar into October, and yet Virginia Tech finds themselves in a must-win game vs. Duke on Friday night.
The showdown vs. the Blue Devils, which is slated for a 7 p.m. kickoff on ESPN, presents Tech with a simple proposition — win or all but end your chances of winning the ACC Coastal Division.
Virginia Tech doesn’t have a game to worry about this weekend, but the team still has several things needing to be addressed during the open date.
In this week’s episode of the Hokie Hangover, Andrew Alix and Mike McDaniel join me to evaluate Virginia Tech’s standing through the first three games of the season, how the team can get better and our expectations for the remainder of the year.
You can listen to the podcast on any app you use to listen to other podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Play. Or, you can listen to the episode below.
Virginia Tech’s lackluster start to the 2019 season has lit a fire under Hokies Twitter, pushing me to run an impromptu Monday Mail for this week.
Thank you to all of those who submitted questions. Let’s dive in.
For roughly 55 minutes or so, Furman had a real and legitimate chance of beating Virginia Tech inside Lane Stadium on Saturday.
If that statement shocked you, you wouldn’t be alone.
Sure, it was reasonable for Virginia Tech to stumble their way to a two or three-score victory over their FCS opponent. But even Tech’s biggest skeptics wouldn’t have guessed that the Hokies would be trailing 14-3 at halftime and be a questionable penalty away from Furman having a chance to tie the game at 24 in the waning minutes.
Virginia Tech won the game 24-17 on Saturday, but there are few positives to draw from the victory. Ryan Willis played uninspiring football, throwing an awful interception and failing to recognize multiple blitzes that resulted in four sacks. The offensive line got manhandled for the entire first half and Tech’s only productive running back, Keshawn King, looked battered and bruised in the second half.
On the defensive side, Tech held their own but looked far from the dominant defense that one would expect vs. an FCS team. The Hokies allowed 17 points, most of which came off Tech turnovers.
Virginia Tech finds themselves at a crossroads, not just for the 2019 season but for Justin Fuente’s tenure. His team is young and inexperienced, but it’s still his roster and we aren’t seeing enough improvement that is going to result in the team winning more games.
The silver lining? Virginia Tech now has an open date on the schedule. No game prep should allow Virginia Tech to take an honest look at themselves and start making serious improvements. It also affords more time to a litany of injured players, including King, Zacariah Hoyt and Damon Hazelton.
Virginia Tech’s best wide receiver dazzled again on Saturday, catching a touchdown pass and rushing for another. Turner put a ball on the ground in the first half but did more than enough to make up for it. It was encouraging to see the Hokies get their best offensive weapon involved in multiple ways. The Hokies’ offense was abysmal for most of the day, but Turner was one of the few bright spots.
King was the other, rushing for 119 yards and adding another 16 through the air. It was the first time since Old Dominion in 2018 that a Tech running back has eclipsed the century mark.
King’s elusiveness and ability to break tackles was the most encouraging aspect of his performance. The Hokies have been searching for an explosive back for a few seasons now, and the freshman has shown flashes of breakaway ability. Virginia Tech needs to find a middle ground with King, milking all the production they can get out of him without getting him hurt. King came out of Saturday’s multiple times and his injury status is unclear. Tech needs him to be healthy for the remainder of the season.
Conner was Tech’s most active defender, finish with seven solo tackles and a sack. Conner found himself around the ball for most of the afternoon and gave Tech some production from the whip linebacker position that the team has been missing since 2017. Conner needs to stop tackling with his arms crossed, but the guy was Tech’s most productive defender vs. Furman.
Virginia Tech’s best defensive tackle isn’t the one with the most experience in the system, but rather a JUCO transfer still learning his way around campus. Crawford is a disruptor in the middle and showed the ability to draw and absorb double-teams inside. He had one of Tech’s four sacks today and looked far superior to his battery mate, Jarrod Hewitt.
The entire offensive line
Virginia Tech finished the day with their best rushing performance of the season, but the offensive line’s inconsistency created plenty of problems for the offense. The unit struggled to pick up blitzes and often got beat in one-on-one matchups.
I understand that this unit is young, but Silas Dzansi has plenty of game experience under his belt and should be performing better against FCS-level players. Vance Vice has rightfully earned a lot of praise for his successes on the recruiting trail, but he also needs to get his unit playing at a higher level. They didn’t meet that level of expectations today.
Willis redeemed himself with a two-touchdown, zero-turnover performance vs. Old Dominion last week, but failed to improve upon that vs. Furman. He finished 17-of-21 with just 123 yards, throwing a touchdown and an interception. Willis did an awful job of recognizing Furman’s blitz packages and along with the offensive line, shares a portion of the blame for the four sacks Tech allowed.
More importantly, Willis failed to spark his team when needed. Trailing 14-3 late in the first half, Willis worked the offensive slowly into Furman territory before getting sacked and missing Kaleb Smith on a third-and-15 play. The drive resulted in a missed 50-yard field goal attempt.
When the Hokies’ offense found their rhythm in the third quarter, Willis didn’t play a role. The offense ran the ball six straight plays, giving carries to King, Turner and ultimately James Mitchell, who scored on a three-yard run. Willis was completely taken out of the gameplan for that drive, and the Hokies moved the ball quickly downfield.
I don’t know what Willis’ role on the team should be anymore. He’s played average-to-poor in Tech’s first three games to start his season and things are only going to be more difficult from this point on. Tech needs Willis to be at his best and it’s hard to know how often that’s going to happen.
I’ve been vocal in my support of Fuente and his long-term direction. I think he’s done the dirty work of weeding out negative influences within the program and he’s still dealing with the aftereffects of poor recruiting before his arrival. That said, the roster is comprised almost entirely of his players and the team is showing few signs of improvement.
Fuente did an excellent job of turning an older roster accustomed to mediocrity into a winning team in 2016 and even in 2017. But there aren’t many upperclassmen on the roster right now and the Hokies are struggling to play to their potential. The quarterback is playing like a freshman and not a fifth-year senior, the defense is undisciplined and lacks fundamentals and the special teams units aren’t making impact plays to flip the field or swing momentum.
Virginia Tech fans can be mildly encouraged about Tech not losing to Furman, but they also have every right to question the direction of the program. Perhaps I’m naïve, but I’m sticking to my belief in Fuente in his ability to build a winner. However, I’m running out of evidence to cite. Fuente is in serious danger of losing the fan base and while that doesn’t directly affect wins and losses, it affects everything else in and outside of the program.
Tech has a bye week and I expect Fuente to take full advantage of it. Fuente is an honest man and internally, he’ll go line-by-line and start making adjustments. I believe Fuente will get this team prepared for their Sept. 27 matchup vs. Duke, I just question how much better this team is going to get this season.
Virginia Tech won on Saturday vs. lowly Old Dominon, but the game showed that the Hokies are still not the team that the fan base would like them to be.
The Hokies’ 31-17 victory was marked by two more turnovers, another sub-par rushing performance and a defense that allowed 202 rushing yards and almost five yards per carry against a program that nearly lost to an FCS team last weekend.
Despite knocking off the Monarchs, Saturday’s game did little to settling nerves of Virginia Tech football fans, who are growing increasingly worried about the team’s short-term potential and long-term direction. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Tech fan who thinks the Hokies can realistically win more than eight games this season, with many fans wondering just how close the Hokies will come to extending their 26-year-long bowl streak. Don’t even mention Virginia.
The encouraging thing is that the Hokies at least know the problems. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster and wide receiver Hezekiah Grimsley both publicly lamented different problems that plagued the Hokies today. The team isn’t in denial, but the team is struggling to find solutions in the running game and on defense as a whole.
Virginia Tech’s receivers
With Damon Hazelton still nursing a hamstring injury, the entire Tech receiving corps stepped up and produced. Four different receivers finished the day with 40 or more receiving yards, while Hezekiah Grimsley and Phil Patterson both caught touchdowns. The unit as a whole stepped up and made big catch after big catch, helping Ryan Willis find his rhythm.
When Hazelton comes back, this unit may be the best on Tech’s side of the ACC. Heck, it may already be the best in the Coastal Division. There’s a lethal combination of top-end talent and reliable depth, giving Justin Fuente the option of spreading the field more and adopting more Air Raid concepts if desired. This would actually be a prudent decision, given Tech’s consistent struggles to run the football. An offense predicated on short, quick throws that get the ball in the hands of Tech’s receivers seems like a more efficient option than running up the middle for two-to-three yards.
Ashby has become one of the better linebackers in the ACC. He’s a thumping tackler in the middle and does enough in coverage to stay on the field all three downs. His 10 tackles vs. Old Dominion were a team-high, though Ashby failed to register a tackle for loss. He’s a reliable and consistent player and is going to get even better throughout the season.
It’s pretty incredible how one play can shift the momentum. Virginia Tech allowed a touchdown early in the fourth quarter that cut the Hokies’ lead to just seven points, leaving the crowd inside Lane Stadium stunned. The Monarchs held all the momentum and if Tech couldn’t move the ball on their next drive, Old Dominion had a shot to tie the game and send the contest into full-blown chaos.
Enter Terius Wheatley, a redshirt sophomore running back who’s struggled to earn playing time. Wheatley took the ensuing kickoff 71 yards, finally going down at the Old Dominion 17-yard-line. Wheatley’s kick return kickstarted Tech’s failing heart, setting up the Hokies for a score just four plays later.
Virginia Tech is going to need more of this moving forward. The offense and defense have both been uneven through the Hokies’ first two games, and some impactful special teams plays would certainly boost the Hokies’ chances each and every week. Wheatley needs to take over the role and start putting fear in opposing special teams coordinators.
Virginia Tech’s running backs
Deshawn McClease and Keshawn King combined for an underwhelming 87 rushing yards on 26 attempts. For those not counting at home, that’s a 3.34 yards per rush clip, which isn’t ideal against a C-USA opponent.
Both McClease and King has good runs. McClease showed off some elusiveness and single-handedly converted a key third down by breaking multiple tackles. King scored his first career touchdown. But more often than not, the two backs struggled to move the ball on the ground efficiently.
These are the only two backs that the Hokies feel comfortable with right now. With Jalen Holston out for the foreseeable future and Terius Wheatley, Caleb Steward and Cole Beck seemingly far from breaking into the rotation, one of these two backs need to emerge as a back who can keep Tech ahead of the chains and impact the game positively. Neither McClease nor King have done enough through two.
Virginia Tech’s offensive line
The entire unit gets a challenge flag because through two games, the Hokies are averaging 2.8 yards per rushing attempt. Even though there are injuries popping up along the line — mainly Zacariah Hoyt and TJ Jackson — this unit has enough talent to put up better performances that what we’ve seen thus far.
To be fair, Tech’s running backs haven’t done much to help the cause. But there are far too many times when the Hokies simply can’t generate any push in the trenches. Old Dominion is one of the teams you’re supposed to push around, and the offensive line did nothing of the sort.
Furman is also one of those teams that you’re supposed to push around. They’ve allowed 389 rushing yards vs. Tennessee and Georgia State and are capable of being manhandled in the trenches. It’s time for Vance Vice’s unit to get it done.
Virginia Tech’s secondary
The defensive backfield didn’t play poorly vs. Old Dominion, but the unit wasn’t great either. Jermaine Waller and Caleb Farley both showed significant improvements, but the unit still made too many mistakes in coverage vs. the Monarchs. Waller has the Hokies’ only interception through two games, and neither of the passing attacks Tech has faced to this point are very good.
This unit needs to improve once again next week vs. Furman. The Paladins are one of the better FCS teams in the country (ranked 11th in the Coaches’ Poll coming into Week 2) and are coming off a close defeat to Georgia State. Virginia Tech should win this game, but they certainly can’t take Furman and their offense lightly.
Foster’s unit may have looked better on the backend on Saturday, but his front seven still allowed two C-notes on the ground. Ashby looks like the answer at mike linebacker, but Dax Hollifield has been underwhelming and the rest of the front seven has struggled to slow the run. Tech’s defense began to break in the fourth, allowing 144 rushing yards alone in that period. Foster has one more week to get his unit cleaned up before the ACC schedule arrives.
The Hokie Hangover podcast is back, as Mike McDaniel, Andrew Alix and myself do our best to recap Virginia Tech’s season-opening defeat at the hands of Boston College. We also take a look forward at Old Dominion and whether or not the Hokies can avoid embarrassment.
Virginia Tech’s season-opening loss to Boston College was frustrating for Hokies fans from start to finish. The Hokies missed out on several scoring opportunities, committed five turnovers and allowed a late third-and-long conversion on the ground that put Tech’s comeback hopes to bed.
There’s plenty of blame to go around. No one player shoulders all of the blame for Tech’s defeat, but some hold more of the fault than others.
This season, I’ll be highlighting the positives and negatives from each of Virginia Tech’s games, handing out game balls and throwing challenge flags. Let’s start out with the game balls.
In the second episode of our new Hokie Hangover podcast, I addressed the situation of Virginia Tech offensive lineman Brock Hoffman, who had his waiver to be eligible immediately denied by the NCAA on Wednesday. I talked about how I saw the view of both sides and how the NCAA really needs to clean up the mess that is the transfer process.
Now, I feel the need to retract the first part of what I said and restate my view.
Welcome back, Hokies. The second episode of The Hokie Hangover Podcast is now live! Mike McDaniel, Andrew Alix and myself discuss Brock Hoffman’s transfer waiver being denied, Virginia Tech’s first depth chart and the Hokies’ first opponent — Boston College.