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.
Instead, Virginia Tech went on the road and upset No. 22 Duke, thanks to some big passing plays and a stifling defense. Here are my observations from the Hokies’ 31-14 win over the Blue Devils.
Tech plays better when their backs are against the wall
Head coach Justin Fuente had a telling quote after Virginia Tech’s loss to Old Dominion last week, saying his team allowed positive press to inflate their egos and lead to poor practice habits. With their heads in the clouds, Virginia Tech fell flat on their face.
Facing the possibility of a lost season, the Hokies rebounded. Tech entered Saturday night’s game as 6.5-point underdogs and after their performance last week, the spread was somewhat justifiable. But the Hokies are better when people aren’t betting on them.
This last week of practice was probably one of the Hokies’ best weeks since Fuente was hired. There’s little doubt that with the team’s best defender, Trevon Hill, being dismissed and starting quarterback Josh Jackson sidelined, the Hokies came together around one another. And for the seventh time in the Fuente era, the Hokies rebounded from a loss with a win. That kind of resiliency is important for good teams to possess.
The defense isn’t dead yet
Everyone knows that Virginia Tech’s defensive performance vs. Old Dominion was abysmal. But on Saturday, the Hokies turned things around.
No. 22 Duke scored just two touchdowns on Saturday, failing to get into a rhythm in front of their home crowd. The Blue Devils amassed just 327 yards of total offense, 71 of which came on the ground. Duke averaged just two yards per carry vs. Tech on Saturday and 4.4 yards per play overall.
Virginia Tech did allow some scoring opportunities, mainly in the first half. But the Hokies tightened up after the break and the defense as a unit played spectacularly. The secondary kept a lid on Duke’s receivers and the defensive front, led by Houshun Gaines, harassed Daniel Jones on a regular basis. It was an impressive performance, especially after Old Dominion picked the Hokies apart just one week ago.
Saturday was more evidence that Virginia Tech’s young defense will have it’s ups and downs. There’s plenty of talent on that side of the ball, but they aren’t always going to get the job done. Inconsistency comes with youth and youth is plentiful on Bud Foster’s unit. But Saturday will go a long way in boosting the defense’s confidence.
Willis lifts offense’s ceiling
Duke’s defensive gameplan on Saturday was relatively simple — stack the box and force backup quarterback Ryan Willis and his band of young receivers to win one-on-one matchups on the outside. Unfortunately for Duke, that’s exactly what Willis and his receivers did.
Willis put together a stellar performance, throwing for 332 yards and three touchdowns. He connected on several big-time throws on the perimeter, finding Damon Hazelton, Eric Kumah, Tre Turner and Phil Patterson for critical completions. Willis didn’t have to carve up the Blue Devils’ defense, but he did need to put his receivers in good positions to win those one-on-one matchups. He did just that, displaying touch and accuracy the Hokies’ haven’t seen at the quarterback position in quite some time.
Willis has plenty of arm talent, but his penchant for throwing interceptions in practice placed him behind Josh Jackson in the starting quarterback race. Jackson knows the offense inside and out and takes care of the football, but there are things Willis can do that Jackson just can’t.
We all saw the good Willis on Saturday. Will he be able to take care of the ball for the rest of the season? If he can, his presence makes this Hokies’ offense more explosive. If he starts getting careless, things could go south in a hurry.
Receivers continuing to develop into impactful players
As good as Willis played on Saturday, his receivers played a big part in that. Tech’s pass catchers made big play after big play vs. Duke, especially on third down, helping the Hokies beat Duke’s box-heavy defense.
Hazelton caught his fourth touchdown in as many games. Kumah and Turner both made critical catches on third down in key situations. Patterson caught his first touchdown of the season. Tight end Dalton Keene, who hasn’t been a significant threat so far in his career, took a checkdown pass 67 yards to the house.
If the Hokies are going to keep this turnaround going, their receivers will have to keep making plays like this. A lot of Tech’s completions tonight came on 50-50 situations, and it’s hard to bet on Tech winning as many of those as they did tonight each and every week. But if guys like Hazelton and Kumah can keep winning on the outside, it opens up new doors for this offense.
A potential wake-up call looms
While we still don’t know just how good the Hokies are, it’s clear that Notre Dame is legit.
The Fighting Irish are 5-0 with wins over Michigan and Stanford, and a road win at Wake Forest. Their road trip to Blacksburg will be their biggest road test of the season, but Notre Dame looks more than capable of handling the challenge. The promotion of Ian Book to starter makes that more so.
Book now has two starts under his belt this season in place of Brandon Wimbush, and he’s found success with his arm and legs. Book torched the Demon Deacons for five touchdowns two weeks ago and against the stingy Cardinal defense, Book tossed another four scores. Wimbush’s struggles through the air limited Notre Dame’s offense last season, but Book is a different story. He can do it all, and he’s just the type of quarterback who has historically given Bud Foster fits.
Virginia Tech got what they wanted — an 8 p.m. matchup vs. the Fighting Irish on ABC. It’s a chance for the Hokies to not only redeem themselves, but make a statement on the national stage.