Welcome to a new feature on The LaBlue Review. I’ve enlisted two of my closest friends to help me with our new Hokie Roundtable, a discussion of timely topics surrounding Virginia Tech athletics.
Before we jump into today’s Monday Mail, let’s hit on a few housekeeping items.
First, Virginia Tech is ranked once again. The Hokies reentered the AP Top 25 after knocking off then-ranked No. 22 in Durham. The Hokies are now 24th in the country, fourth in the ACC behind No. 4 Clemson, No. 17 Miami and No. 23 NC State.
Also, Virginia Tech’s kickoff time vs. North Carolina has been announced. The Hokies’ road trip to Chapel Hill will start at 7 p.m. and will be televised on either ESPN2 or ESPNU.
The season is not over. In fact, we’re not even halfway yet.
After the Hokies’ loss to Old Dominion last week, it was hard to think that Tech could get this thing turned around. There was too much negativity around the program for this team to get things going and the Hokies destined to struggle for the rest of the season.
Good news is hard to come by in Blacksburg at the moment.
Virginia Tech just lost to Old Dominion, previously winless, and fell outside the AP Top 25. The Hokies starting quarterback, Josh Jackson, is out for the foreseeable future with a fractured fibula and Trevon Hill, Tech’s best defender, is no longer with the program.
It’s not quite rock bottom, but Virginia Tech is in a low place right now. However, there is one thing Virginia Tech can hang their hat on right now — an improved rushing attack.
When I planned on asking for questions for this week’s Monday Mail, I did not think we’d be talking about one of the worst losses in Virginia Tech history. And make no mistake about it, there aren’t enough negative adjectives to describe what happened on Saturday.
Awful. Appalling. Dreadful. All three apply.
If I asked you who the most important player on Virginia Tech’s defensive line was, there’s an 80 percent chance (roughly) that you’d select Ricky Walker. And you’d be right.
But who’s next on that list? Most would suggest Trevon Hill, but I’d posit that Houshun Gaines is just as important, if not more so.
Gaines, a redshirt junior defensive end, is coming into his own this season. The process began late in 2017, when Gaines filled in for the injured Vinny Mihota. Gaines started Tech’s last two games vs. Virginia and Oklahoma State and showed why he needed to be in the starting lineup. Gaines totaled four tackles for loss and two sacks in those two contests, displaying an explosiveness that Mihota simply didn’t have on the edge.
Monday Mail is back! With Virginia Tech’s game vs. East Carolina being canceled, there’s no postgame content to worry about, so let’s get to some questions. The goal is to make this a weekly feature once again, so thank you for submitting your questions. Let’s dive in.
What is the root cause of FSU problem? Bad coaching, entitled kids, coaching change? How does WT turn it around?
— John Maurer (@JohnMaurer6) September 16, 2018
Who’d have thought that I’d be starting this Monday Mail with a critique of Florida State?
Virginia Tech’s 62-17 win was somewhat boring. The Hokies handled the game from start to finish, despite allowing William and Mary to score two touchdowns. It was exactly what you’d expect to see when a ranked Power 5 team hosts an FCS program.
Because William and Mary simply is not good, we can only take so much away from this game. Here are my postgame observations from Saturday’s win.
The Hokies handled business
Virginia Tech had five days to prepare for the Tribe. Even though William and Mary is an FCS team that beat Bucknell by just seven points, that’s a really short turnaround for college kids.
The Hokies could have easily dealt with a hangover from their convincing win vs. Florida State. Instead, Virginia Tech did what they were supposed to do — easily defeat a lesser talented team in their own stadium. No overly impressive, but solid.
Wheatley isn’t going anywhere
Virginia Tech needs some explosive athleticism at running back. Terius Wheatley gives them that.
Wheatley’s one of the fastest players on the team and is probably the best athlete at the position. He’s not a back that needs to pound the rock between the tackles, but is best when allowed to break outside and get into open space. He’s done that so far, rushing for 80 yards on just nine carries.
He might not be Tech’s No. 1 option, but Wheatley can make an impact. But if the other backs remain inconsistent, maybe Wheatley’s usage will increase. Speaking of inconsistent running backs…
Hold on to the ball, McClease
Not only did Deshawn McClease fumble vs. William and Mary, he ran for just 35 yards on 10 carries. Yes, he scored, but so did several other players.
McClease looked like the clear-cut No. 1 running back after his performance at Florida State. Now, McClease looks like another guy in a crowded room of backs. He’s got time to rebound, but Saturday’s performance left a lot to be desired. He’s got a heck of a matchup this week against East Carolina, who is one of the worst teams in FBS.
The secondary will hold this defense back
Virginia Tech’s front seven has played very well through two games. The Hokies are third in the nation in tackles for loss (23) and tied for 28th in the nation in sacks (six). Despite two newcomers at linebacker, Tech’s has had little problems against the run.
The team’s secondary has been a different story. With two new starters at cornerback and an inexperienced free safety, the Hokies’ performance against the pass has been expectedly poor. Virginia Tech is 82nd in the country against the pass, allowing 232.5 passing yards per game.
Shon Mitchell, William and Mary’s freshman quarterback, played better than one would expect a freshman quarterback to play against a Bud Foster defense. Mitchell threw for 208 yards and a touchdown on Saturday, converting 10 first downs through the air.
Virginia Tech has already allowed seven pass plays for 20-plus yards. The Hokies can hold up against the run, but can they improve against the pass? They need to start this coming Saturday vs. East Carolina.
Kickers continue to impress
Replacing Joey Slye isn’t easy, but Tech’s doing a solid job so far.
Brian Johnson is 3-3 on field goals this season and he hit a career long of 45 yards on Saturday. He doesn’t have the strongest leg, but if Johnson can extend his range into the 45 or 50-yard range, that’s more than serviceable.
On kickoffs, Jordan Stout is getting the job done. After banging four of his five kickoffs against Florida State for touchbacks, Stout registered 11 touchbacks vs. William and Mary on 11 kickoffs. That’s exactly what Slye did while he was in Blacksburg and fans underestimate how important that is when trying to win the field position battle.
Virginia Tech’s game vs. William and Mary this Saturday is less about the result of the game, and more about the Hokies showing signs of improvement. Tech looked good vs. Florida State on Labor Day night but if the Hokies are to build off their surprising shutdown of the Seminoles, they need to get some things straight.
Here are five things I’m watching for this Saturday in Virginia Tech’s matchup vs. William and Mary.
Can quarterback Josh Jackson tighten things up in the passing game?
Josh Jackson’s stat line vs. Florida State was impressive — he completed 16-of-26 pass attempts for 207 yards and two touchdowns. Still, Jackson had too many missed opportunities vs. Florida State and should have been intercepted at least once.
Jackson must continue to avoid mistakes, but he must also make some plays. Virginia Tech’s defense provided Jackson and the offense fantastic field position several times on Monday night, yet the offense scored just 17 points.
Virginia Tech’s running game looked the part and if it continues to do so, Jackson will have plenty of chances to make plays with his arm. He needs to deliver on those consistently and build confidence before the Hokies enter a tougher part of their schedule.
Who will become Virginia Tech’s third running back?
Deshawn McClease and Steven Peoples seem to have solidified themselves as the first and second options for Virginia Tech at running back. McClease ran for 77 yards on just 13 carries vs. the ‘Noles, while Peoples ran for 44 yards on 13 carries. Terius Wheatley and Jalen Holston combined for just four rushing attempts.
The battle for the No. 3 role will be between Wheatley and Holston. Wheatley did more with his two rushes on Monday night, gaining 22 yards on two outside runs. Holston, a much different style of runner, gained eight yards on two carries.
Wheatley gives Virginia Tech a speedier option that can bolt outside and bust big plays. Holston is much more of a bruiser, someone who can wear down the defense. Wheatley somewhat mimics McClease, while Holston mimics Peoples.
Whoever is the most reliable will likely be Tech’s third back. The Hokies have long valued an explosive runner but Tech’s offense is also built on a heavy dose of running between the tackles. Over the next three games, Wheatley and Holston will have ample opportunities to show they are deserving of more carries.
Can Virginia Tech’s special teams build off their dominance vs. Florida State?
One of the reasons the Hokies beat the ‘Noles by 21 points, despite being outgained in yardage, was their exceptional special teams play. And their performance was more than Chris Cunningham’s blocked punt.
For starters, punter Oscar Bradburn downed four of his punts inside Florida State’s 20-yard-line. Virginia Tech’s punt team didn’t allow a single punt return, prohibiting the ‘Noles from flipping the field.
Even the kickers played well. Four of Jordan Stout’s five kickoffs went for touchbacks and Brian Johnson converted the Hokies only field goal attempt.
William and Mary is a well-coached team, and their special teams unit should be a challenge for Virginia Tech. If the Hokies are able to continue to be sound on special teams, it’ll go a long way to make up for a sluggish offense or a young defense that’s bound to make mistakes.
Can Tech’s defensive backs shore up the backend of the defense?
Virginia Tech picked off Deondre Francois three times on Monday night, but the Hokies still made some mistakes in the secondary. Francois completed 63 percent of his passes and hit on passes of 24, 30, 32 and 37 yards.
All things considered, Virginia Tech’s defensive backs played well. Redshirt freshman Caleb Farley picked off two passes on his way to being named the ACC Defensive Back of the Week. Bryce Watts held his own on the other end in his first career start.
William and Mary’s offense isn’t scary. The Tribe scored just 14 points against Bucknell in Week 1 and shouldn’t pose much of a threat vs. Virginia Tech on Saturday. This is a prime opportunity for the Hokies’ secondary to build confidence against a lesser opponent.
Is this the week Quincy Patterson makes his collegiate debut?
The NCAA’s new redshirt rules allow players to play in up to four games and still take a redshirt for that season. It would be criminal if coaches don’t use this new rule to their advantage.
For example, if Virginia Tech weren’t to play Quincy Patterson against William and Mary, it would be extremely disappointing and a missed opportunity. The chances of this game hanging in the balance in the fourth quarter are limited. The Hokies should win this game walking away.
If the result of the game is no longer in doubt, Patterson should see the field. He doesn’t even need to throw the ball. But getting him on the field and allowing him to start gaining experience will go a long way in his development. Patterson is destined to make mistakes, just like every other young quarterback. It would be best if he makes those mistakes now, so he has the chance to learn from them.
Hopefully we’ll get to see Patterson on the field this weekend. Yes, Ryan Willis and Hendon Hooker would also be worthy of playing time, but getting Patterson on the field now benefits the program in the long-term.
New cornerbacks. New linebackers. A thin defensive line.
Virginia Tech’s defense turned in a masterful performance on Monday night, pummeling Florida State’s offense en route to a 24-3 victory in Tallahassee. Monday night’s win may go a long way in positioning the Hokies for an ACC Coastal run, while Clemson might lock up the Atlantic Division by the end of October.
Here are my biggest observations from Virginia Tech’s win over the ‘Noles
Foster elevates his game
Nobody would have blamed defensive coordinator Bud Foster if his defense looked a little shaky on Monday night. He was breaking in eight new starters against a team full of athletes that he had little film on to work with. Foster had to piece together Willie Taggart’s film from Oregon and South Florida while taking into account Florida State’s film from last season.
The result was perhaps one of Foster’s best productions. He orchestrated a three-point effort, allowing just 94 yards rushing against one of the most talented backfields in the country. Outside of Cam Akers’ 85-yard scamper in the fourth quarter, Florida State ran for just 10 yards on 27 attempts.
Turnovers were a key part of the Hokies’ success. Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois threw three interceptions and the ‘Noles fumbled the ball twice, helping the Hokies win the field position battle.
Florida State actually finished with more offensive yardage than Virginia Tech, but the ‘Noles bungled every single red zone opportunity. Florida State’s red zone trips ended in these results — missed field goal, field goal, fumble. The ‘Noles went for it on fourth down on Virginia Tech’s 21-yard-line in second quarter, and they blew that too.
Foster deserves all the credit in the world, as do his players. Trevon Hill, who sat for much of the first quarter, totaled two sacks and three tackles for loss. Divine Deablo, Reggie Floyd and Rayshard Ashby each registered two tackles for loss. Caleb Farley, playing in his first collegiate game, intercepted two passes.
Virginia Tech’s defense won’t be this dominant all season. But after this performance, it’s hard to believe they won’t be one of the nation’s best units in 2018. For now, here’s another crazy stat from last night’s game.
Of Florida State’s 63 offensive plays tonight, 35 went for 0 or negative yards (55.5%).
That is the highest percentage of negative plays for the Seminoles since Nov, 25, 2006 against Florida. pic.twitter.com/qKWcOfgFlK
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 4, 2018
Running backs showing promise
The lack of a consistent and explosive running game has plagued Justin Fuente’s Hokies in each of his first two seasons. But on Monday night, Tech’s backs got the job done.
Deshawn McClease led the way with 77 yards on just 13 carries, while Steven Peoples and Terius Wheatley chipped in 44 and 22 yards, respectively. Wheatley’s 22 yards came on just two carries. Virginia Tech’s running backs averaged just over five yards per carry vs. Florida State, a number which towers over the Hokies’ 2017 game-by-game outputs.
Yes, Josh Jackson did nothing in the ground game. But maybe he doesn’t need to. If Virginia Tech can control the line of scrimmage like they did last night on a consistent basis, it opens things up tremendously for this offense. Still, an increased presence from Jackson would be helpful, which leads me to my next point.
Jackson must improve if Hokies are to win ACC
Josh Jackson held his own last night. He weathered consistent rain and a tenacious Florida State defensive line to finish 16-of-26 for 207 yards passing and two touchdowns.
As good as that stat line looks, Jackson still has areas he needs to improve on. He should have thrown an interception earlier that was missed by two Florida State defenders. He didn’t move very well either and was sacked three times.
Jackson had a good performance vs. Florida State, but if the Hokies are to take the next step and seriously contend for the ACC Championship, Jackson needs to be better. He needs to make more plays with his arm and find ways to be productive on the ground.
It’s time to handle business
Virginia Tech’s next three games should be over before they begin. The Hokies host William and Mary and East Carolina over the next two weeks before traveling to my part of the state for another clash with Old Dominion. Neither of these three games should be painful. William and Mary is an FCS program and both East Carolina and Old Dominion endured embarrassing losses to start the season.
The Hokies need to run over these next three opponents. It’s time to build confidence before Tech hits the next part of their schedule, which includes a tough road game at Duke and a (likely) primetime showdown with Notre Dame inside Lane Stadium.