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.