Game Balls and Challenge Flags: Hooker Elevates Hokies to Win at Miami

The Hokies won their first conference game on Saturday, defeating the Miami Hurricanes inside Hard Rock Stadium. Saturday’s affair was so frenetic that viewers on ESPN didn’t even get to see the final play, as referees added a second to the clock after the game seemingly ended. ESPN had already switched games, showing Georgia vs. Tennessee.

The game wasn’t pretty, but the Hokies are now back on the right side of .500. Tech entered the game as 14-point underdogs yet found a way to pick up a win and improve the program’s chances of extending the 26-year bowl streak.

Let’s run through Tech’s best performers, as well as some Hokies who need to shape up.

Game Balls

Hendon Hooker

Whenever you toss three scores, run for another, avoid turning over the football and win your first career start, you’re undoubtedly getting a game ball.

Hooker was not perfect on Saturday by any means. He completed just half of his pass attempts and missed some open receivers by a mile. But still, Hendon stayed within the confines of the offense and hit on key throws when needed. He hit enough open receivers, especially in the red zone, to keep the offense moving.

Hooker showed some decisiveness in the pocket that Virginia Tech fans haven’t seen this season from Ryan Willis. Hooker looked like he was taking each progression in stride and when things weren’t there, he didn’t hesitate to take off and use his legs to make plays. Hooker is clearly the better athlete and this offense seems to operate better when the quarterback is a legitimate threat to run the football.

Future opponents will adapt to this new-look offense and Hooker will be forced to make changes and be more accurate. But for now, he gives this otherwise anemic offense hope that things will get better down the road.

James Mitchell and Dalton Keene

This dynamic unit, which calls itself T-Unit, finished with a combined eight catches for 148 yards and three touchdowns. Keene caught all three touchdown passes thrown by Hooker, while Mitchell registered a 67-yard reception that was just a few yards short of being a touchdown. This is the kind of production Tech fans dreamed of at the start of the season.

Mitchell and Keene are two very different players and it’s refreshing to see offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen find ways to get both of them involved. Keene is perfectly capable of being an underneath receiver while Mitchell is a mismatch downfield against smaller defensive backs. Virginia Tech needs to find ways to get these guys more involved.

Rayshard Ashby and Chamarri Conner

Virginia Tech’s two best defenders put up big numbers on Saturday. Ashby led the team in tackles yet again, registering 11 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack. Conner also recorded a sack and was credited with three pass breakups. Ashby and Conner were Tech’s two most consistent defenders on Saturday, and they are both growing into stout defenders. Honorable mentions go to Caleb Farley and Jermaine Waller, who each picked off two passes.

Challenge Flags

Bud Foster

Virginia Tech might have forced five turnovers on Saturday, but the Hokies defense also allowed 563 yards of offense and 35 points. The Hokies defense collapsed for most of the fourth quarter, allowing three scores in that period alone. Foster would be hearing even more criticism if his unit hadn’t gotten a stop to finish the game.

This is the second week in a row in which Foster’s unit has tanked for a significant portion of the game. Starting with Miami’s first possession of the second half, the Hurricanes scored touchdowns on five of their next six possessions. Even on Miami’s final possession, which fell short in the red zone as time expired, Miami gained 65 yards on 10 plays.

We are seeing glimpses of a competitive defense. Farley has turned into a productive cornerback, Ashby is a leader in the middle of the defense and the defense more than doubled their season sack total, adding six against the ‘Canes. But the total product is not there, and Tech’s defense needs to get it together. Their struggles fall on Foster, who’s in his final season as a coach.

Brad Cornelsen

Cornelsen deserves credit for his gameplay on Saturday, adding more designed quarterback runs and utilizing play action to get Hooker comfortable throwing opportunities. Even though the offense turtled up for most of the second half, Cornelsen was able to get his offense to produce more than they have this entire season.

Hooker is now on film for the rest of Virginia Tech’s opponents to see, and you can guarantee that defenses will be prepared for Tech’s new quarterback. It’s very unlikely Tech will be able to fool a defense as much as they fooled Miami, but it’s up to Cornelsen to adapt and find ways to keep Hooker and his offense running smoothly. Cornelsen has rightfully earned the criticism he’s received this season, but he can wipe much of that clean if he can keep Hooker going for the rest of this year.

Jarrod Hewitt

Virginia Tech’s most experienced defensive lineman hasn’t been productive this season. Hewitt has made just 13 tackles in five games, totaling one tackle for loss and half of a sack. He’s also in the middle of a rush defense that is 87th in the country.

Hewitt simply has to be better. By all accounts, his battery mate DaShawn Crawford has been more than adequate. Crawford only has two tackles for loss and one sack, but he’s impressed with his ability to chase down defenders and fill gaps. Hewitt should be the leader of this group and he hasn’t done enough this season to warrant that role. He took a fifth interception off the board in the third quarter, negating a turnover in a third-and-20 situation with a roughing the passer penalty.

Tech’s defense needs more production from their experienced veterans and that includes Hewitt. There’s still time for him to put together an impressive season but the clock is ticking.

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