All things come to an end, good or bad. Virginia Tech’s 15-year domination of Virginia has ended, thanks to a 39-30 defeat on Black Friday in Charlottesville.
The 2017 season was my first as a professional beat writer covering Virginia Tech. I was a young reporter with minimal experience, but some of the Tech coaches and staff remembered me from my tenure with the Collegiate Times. Still, I was the new kid on the block.
That moniker comes with its own stigma, especially when it comes time to ask questions. During one of the weekly press conferences that season, Bud Foster was speaking and was being peppered with questions about his defense. I tried to get a question in, but the conference was cut short in order to get the players up to the podium before returning to their schedule.
Folks, I’m excited to bring back Monday Mail this week. It’s been an eventful season of Virginia Tech football and with Tech basketball now underway, there’s no shortage of things to discuss.
Without further delay, it’s time to get into your questions. Thank you for the submissions.
Inclement weather for football games often levels the playing field for both sides. Wet, rainy and cold conditions can often be an equalizer between two unevenly matched opponents.
But in these conditions, there was nothing even about Virginia Tech’s win over Pittsburgh on Saturday. In fact, the game was anything but equal. The Hokies owned Pittsburgh and pitched their second-straight shutout, winning 28-0.
Virginia Tech officially arrived on Saturday, routing a bad Georgia Tech team 45-0 in Atlanta. Simply winning this game wasn’t enough — Tech needed to walk into Bobby Dodd Stadium and whip the Yellow Jackets. The Hokies did exactly that.
At no point was the game competitive. After going three-and-out on the opening drive, the Hokies scored on five of their next six possessions. Virginia Tech led by 31 at halftime and Quincy Patterson was scoring points by the third quarter. The Hokies thoroughly dismantled a bad team on Saturday, which is what good teams are supposed to do. And Virginia Tech is a good team.
That statement is hard to fathom, considering where the team was earlier in the season. But here we are, with Virginia Tech staring down a two-game gauntlet with an ACC Championship Game appearance on the line.
As each game passes, Virginia Tech looks better and better. The defense, which struggled in more ways than one earlier this season, has found their way. Tech has allowed just 37 in their last three contests.
As the defense has grown, the offense has become more consistent. In games that Hendon Hooker has started, the Hokies have averaged a cool 40 points per contest. Hooker’s steady play has been the catalyst, as the first-year starter has averaged 10 yards per attempt, is completing 60 percent of his passes and has totaled 12 touchdowns. Between the two units, the Hokies are becoming a complete team.
Virginia Tech’s late-season push has vaulted them into the driver’s seat. Not only did the Hokies clinch a bowl appearance for the 27th-straight season, Tech retained control over their Coastal division destiny. If Virginia Tech wins their final two games against Pittsburgh and Virginia, the Hokies will be making the coveted trip to Charlotte.
The Hokies aren’t making the College Football Playoff this season. If Tech wins the Coastal Division, they’d likely lose to Clemson in a multi-score defeat. But it wouldn’t matter because of where the Hokies were at as a program coming into the season.
Most people who follow the Virginia Tech program closely projected the Hokies to win eight games this season, with a chance to reach the nine-win mark. Even if Virginia Tech drops one of their final two games, the Hokies would fall right at eight wins. If Tech wins the damn thing, they’d exceed any reasonable expectations they faced coming into 2019.
There will be plenty of time to talk about the future of the program when the season is over. But for now, there’s a divisional title on the line and Virginia Tech faces an amazing opportunity to cap off an incredible season.
Who would have thought that changing quarterbacks would evolve Virginia Tech’s offense into one of the best in the ACC?
That’s exactly what has happened this season. After the offense reached a new low of 10 points vs. Duke in the now infamous blowout on Sep. 27, Virginia Tech finally pulled the ripcord. Hendon Hooker was inserted into the starting lineup and since he became the starter, Tech is 4-0 in games he has started.
Hooker isn’t the sole reason Virginia Tech’s offense has gotten on track, but it’s a greater emphasis on the running game and the impact of having a quarterback capable of making plays with their legs.
What if I told you that despite suffering one of the program’s worst losses just a few weeks ago, and despite underwhelming in consecutive weeks vs. very inferior opponents, that Virginia Tech would approach the stretch run of their schedule as the possible favorite to win the ACC Coastal?
The Coastal Division of the ACC is the worst division in Power 5 football this season. None of the seven Coastal teams are ranked and whoever emerges from this collection of mediocrity will have at least two conference losses, likely more.
Despite this division’s deplorable on-field performance, it’s put Virginia Tech in an advantageous position. The Hokies, who still have a negative point differential vs. ACC opponents, control their own fate. If Virginia Tech wins out, the Hokies will travel to Charlotte as Coastal Division champions.
As a unit, Virginia Tech’s defense is inadequate. The Hokies rank 84th in scoring defense, 68th in total defense, 89th in third down defense and 90th in plays of 20 yards or more allowed. Tech has allowed an average of 39 points per game against their four ACC opponents this season.
But for all of the negativity surrounding this unit, linebacker Rayshard Ashby has been a strong and steady player in the middle of the unit. Ashby received some recognition on Monday, earning yet another ACC Linebacker of the Week award and maybe, Ashby is finally being seen as what he is — one of the best linebackers in the country.
Not all wins are created equal. They might count the same in the standings, but some victories ring hollow and meaningless. Other wins are joyful, while a rare few are so consequential that they have the ability to flip the narrative and turn a team’s fortune.
Virginia Tech’s six-overtime thriller vs. Mack Brown’s North Carolina Tar Heels is one of those wins. Saturday’s victory for the Hokies did more than just pull the Hokies back to .500 in the ACC — it might have galvanized a strained locker room and reversed the negative course that the Hokies have been on for over a year.
The Hokies are a flawed team and everyone knows it. You can go almost position by position and find something to criticize. Tech’s recent lack of competitiveness in the abysmal ACC Coastal Division and inability to fight adversity painted a scary picture — a program on the verge of bottoming out.
But Saturday’s win showed that Justin Fuente’s Hokies indeed have some grit, which has been a desired trait since Fuente arrived in Blacksburg.
“You can see by watching us play that we’re not perfect by any means,” Fuente said after the game. “But it would be hard to question our kids’ grit and toughness.”
Fuente is right. Virginia Tech had every reason to pack it in vs. North Carolina. The Hokies ran through three quarterbacks, losing rising star Hendon Hooker to injury and benching former starter Ryan Willis. Tech settled on redshirt freshman and hopeful prodigy Quincy Patterson. Tech’s best cornerback, Caleb Farley, left with an injury and never returned. The Hokies had several blunders, some of which came in overtime.
Instead of packing it in, the Hokies stuck it in and won on a two-point conversion attempt, the first game in history to end based on the new overtime rules.
Patterson’s game-winning keeper was the culmination of toughness and resiliency that we’ve not seen in quite some time. Tech rebounded from an early 10-0 deficit. Virginia Tech trailed by seven in the final period, tying the game on a 53-yard touchdown run by Patterson. Brian Johnson missed two field goals to win the game in overtime. And still, the Hokies prevailed.
Saturday’s historic win does not ensure the Hokies are headed in the right direction, nor does it guarantee this team will be in the thick of the Coastal race for the rest of the season. But it does show something Virginia Tech hasn’t shown — heart.
The Hokies haven’t quit yet. Even as pundits, bloggers, fans and more question Fuente’s ability to lead this program to the promised land, even as those who observe the team doubt the team’s skills and talents, these players haven’t quit yet. That stands for something.
I don’t know how the rest of the season is going to shake out. Virginia Tech has several important games remaining on the schedule, including their toughest test of the season vs. Notre Dame on Nov. 2. The Hokies need just two wins to secure another season of bowling and a date with destiny awaits vs. Virginia, who once again looks like the better team on paper.
What I do know is this — Fuente deserves praise for keeping this team together. The embattled coach has dealt with all sorts of criticism over the last year-and-a-half and much of that criticism is warranted. But with their backs against the wall, Fuente and his group of Hokies displayed resolve that few thought this team had. That alone makes this win bigger than any in recent memory.