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Five Things I Learned From Watching Virginia Tech Beat Duke

Last night’s Virginia Tech win over Duke – and the fact it isn’t raining for the first time on a weekend in what seems like 5 years – has certainly made for a much nicer and peaceful Sunday morning.

But while a much nicer deal to wake up to, there are still a lot of questions to be answered about the Hokies. Here are five things I learned in watching them last night:

1. When properly disciplined and focused, this team can do just about anything. This has been the case for Virginia Tech since the beginning of time. If you look at the three bad losses they’ve had since 1998 that made headlines last week, they always bounced back and had great games in the next one. After the Temple debacle in 1998, they beat UAB 41-0. After losing to JMU in 2010, they beat ECU 49-27.

You could argue neither UAB or ECU were any good (UAB finished 4-7 and ECU finished 6-7 those years) but Duke was ranked and the game was on the road. Hearing all week they were a bunch of over-rated lightweights who lost to a winless ODU program undoubtedly helped with that focus, so in that regard, it was a blessing in disguise.

I always thought Virginia Tech would be 4-1 after the first 5 games, with the loss being to Notre Dame. My reasoning was the team doesn’t do well when it thinks it is really good (and this goes back way beyond the Fuente era) and if they went into that game 4-0, they would probably have a top 10 ranking they didn’t deserve, think they were world beaters and maybe lose because of that. ODU stripped the team of that possibility, and if they play against Notre Dame like they did against Duke, they have a chance to still be 4-1.

2. They MAY have a quarterback for the future. I really liked what I saw of Ryan Willis last night. He is more decisive on his reads than previous starter Josh Jackson, has a bit more zip on his throws, but still has a nice touch on certain passes. He looks to throw first versus run, and he didn’t turn the ball over last night. He was the perfect QB for the offense Fuente wanted to run last night, and there were plays sent in last night I don’t remember seeing this season. Different quarterback, different skill set, different array of plays that can now work.

I say MAY, because one game is too small a sample size with a quarterback. If you live in Northern Virginia, you need only look back at the Kirk Cousins era up here with the Washington Redskins. Some games he threw a boatload of touchdown passes and 400 yards, some games he dinked and dunked on nothing but short passes and threw interceptions. It is the nature of the position. You get excited when a QB strings together 5 or 6 of those kinds of games Willis had last night.

But his game last night made me smile. He’s also 22, so he hopefully has a maturity about him that understands this. He’s been working hard for years for a chance to be the overnight sensation some deemed him last night. The Notre Dame game will tell us all a lot more.

3. This team still doesn’t have an identity. Are they the team that gave up almost 50 to ODU? Are they the blitzing, attacking defense Bud Foster is known for, or the one that drops the two defensive ends and has a 3-man rush like they did against Duke? With Willis now in at QB, are they now Air Fuente, will be like the days of Don Strock and Jim Druckenmiller and start heaving the ball deep all over the field?

In some ways, that’s a good thing as the next opponent doesn’t really know what to prepare for. Plus my guess is with the revolving door of personnel at key positions, the coaches are just doing the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt. But Virginia Tech football has always tended to rely on a conservative running game once they’ve gotten a lead, then they sit back and depend on the defense to protect it. It has been maddening to fans when that happens, mainly because it doesn’t always work.

The running game has had its moments, but I wouldn’t call it reliable. And the defense? Well, again, they gave up 49 to ODU. Either they shore those two areas up, or alter their philosophy.

4. Justin Fuente is a leader. Probably shouldn’t need to be said, but after a weekend where the team lost to ODU, lost its starting quarterback and kicked one of its defensive starters off the team, there were some who had concerns about how Fuente would handle all this. Some on social media said there might be a locker-room issue. Others noted that while Virginia Tech teams had always bounced back from bad losses, “those were Frank’s teams.” And to be fair, that sort of adversity can divide a team (cough, cough, Florida State).

But the team I saw last night was just that – a team. They were excited for the success of their new quarterback, there was passion and interest on the sidelines, and they came together for a big win. That’s never automatic with a sports team, and it takes the combination of a firm hand to establish discipline, but a warm heart help a team’s recovering psyche. Putting together a game plan that works doesn’t hurt either.

Fuente did all that and more last night.

5. There are playmakers on this team. One of the byproducts of the new quarterback was an offensive philosophy that involved taking chances and throwing the ball up to allow the receivers to make plays. It’s exactly what ODU did to the Hokies the previous week.

The results were encouraging. On one play, redshirt sophomore Phil Patterson was just about mugged by a Duke defender in the end zone, and regardless of the pass interference call, Patterson still caught the ball for a touchdown. Damon Hazleton made a pretty catch on a fade pattern for a touchdown where Willis threw the ball up with perfect touch and seemed to say “go get it.” Dalton Keene turned a simple flair pass into a rumbin’ stumblin’ touchdown down the sideline.

The team has playmakers. Last night they actually got them the ball.

But all this is only one game, and the consistent thing about young teams is that they tend to be inconsistent. If I can say I learned the same things after the Notre Dame game this Saturday, this could be a very fun season…



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Sunday, 29 January 2023

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