Tech Takeaways: Hooker Shoulders the Load in Hokies’ Win at Louisville

Talk about responding to adversity.

After a deflating and heartbreaking loss to Wake Forest, Hendon Hooker rebounded from his worst college game with an efficient and impressive performance in Virginia Tech’s 42-35 victory over Louisville.

Virginia Tech was far from perfect — any time you allow 35 points you open yourself up to some criticism. That said, the Hokies returned to form on offense and played just enough defense to win.

Saturday’s win moves the Hokies to 4-2 on the season with their lone non-conference game next on the schedule. Virginia Tech hosts Liberty before entering the final stretch of their season — a home contest against Miami, a road trip to Pitt and then consecutive home games vs. Clemson and Virginia.

But let’s focus on the now.

Hooker is back, y’all

Hooker’s abysmal performance vs. Wake Forest was an anomaly — it went against his track record of efficient passing and taking care of the football. Hooker regained his composure at Louisville this Saturday, totaling 251 yards and three touchdowns.

Virginia Tech didn’t ask Hooker to do a lot through the air. Instead, Hooker joined forces with Khalil Herbert to lead the Hokies to 283 rushing yards. Hooker ran well on stretch plays, well on the option and well on quarterback powers in the redzone.

When Hooker did throw, he literally didn’t miss. Hooker completed all 10 of his pass attempts for 183 yards. He made some exceptional throws as well, including a 42-yard strike to Tre Turner that might’ve been the best-executed passing play from the Hokies this season.

There is reason to worry about Hooker’s usage. He’s carried the ball 54 times in his last three games and his slender build can’t be expected to hold up for the rest of the season at that rate. Hooker dealt with a nagging shoulder injury last season and it hindered his performance as 2019 wound down.

Virginia Tech should continue to use Hooker in the running game, but I would like to see more carries for Raheem Blackshear and maybe even Quincy Patterson.

Two steps backward on defense

Virginia Tech made significant strides on defense against Wake Forest, putting a lid on an explosive offense with two really productive running backs.

For a while, that progress sustained itself against Louisville. Through three quarters, Virginia Tech had allowed only 14 points and turned the Cardinals over three times.  Malik Cunningham was responsible for all three turnovers, Tutu Atwell hadn’t broken off a big play and besides an inexcusable defensive breakdown before halftime, Javian Hawkins hadn’t impacted the game.

All of that progress was erased in the fourth quarter. Louisville scored on all three of their possessions in the final period. The Cardinals racked up 243 yards of offense in that quarter alone, thanks in large part to a resurgent Cunningham.

Louisville’s fourth quarter explosion showed who Virginia Tech’s defense is — a unit that can generate some stops here and there but will continue to allow a ton of yards and a ton of points. The Hokies have now allowed 30 or more points in half of their games, with the lone exceptions being NC State (without Devin Leary), Duke and Wake Forest.

Turnovers might be the only thing that will keep this defense from being awful. Virginia Tech has now forced 11 turnovers in just six contests. If the offense can avoid giving it back, the Hokies’ defense might be able to contribute just enough to win games down the road.

The importance of the offensive line

Virginia Tech’s offensive line is the most important position group on the team. They’re more important than who is playing quarterback, who’s running the football or who’s playing safety.

The big uglies struggled mightily against Wake Forest, both in the run game and in pass protection. They failed to generate gaps on the perimeter and Hooker was under duress too many times.

The unit got back to mauling people on Saturday, giving Hooker, Herbert and others wide lanes to run. They allowed Virginia Tech to keep the ball on the ground, which is by far their most efficient method of moving the football.

When the offensive line plays well, the Hokies have a great chance of winning the game. When they don’t, Tech is in trouble.

The offensive line still must improve in pass protection. Hooker was sacked three times vs. Louisville and he only had 10 pass attempts. That’s a bad, bad number.

Vance Vice ought to be in line for a significant pay bump. His unit has been the best on the team this season and they’re now the most important unit too.

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