Wind: 1.99 m/h
After enjoying the emotional roller coaster that was Virginia Tech’s 17-10 victory over No. 10 North Carolina, I intentionally waited a while before I sat down and collected my thoughts. I wanted this to be as emotion-free of an assessment as one can make after such a dramatic win.
Now that I’ve taken some time, I think there are three logical conclusions to draw from the Hokies’ upset win on Friday night.
The Justins Get Their Revenge
Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente and defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton took it on the chin for the majority of the 2020 season. Fuente has been used to it, but Hamilton’s first season as coordinator unleashed a whopping amount of criticism that was mostly valid.
Friday night, those two men exacted some revenge.
Fuente finally shook his bug-a-boo in Blacksburg, which was winning big games. Tech had yet to knock off a top-10 opponent with Fuente at the helm, and though the Hokies had beaten ranked teams, they rarely did so at home.
Virginia Tech won their first matchup vs. a top-10 team since 2009, and did so in rather dominating fashion despite the relatively close score. While Carolina only lost by seven, it never felt like the Tar Heels were poised to take the lead. Momentum resided almost entirely on the home sideline and in turn, helped Fuente silence some of his detractors.
Hamilton’s defense starred in the upset, suffocating Heisman hopeful Sam Howell to the tune of six sacks and three interceptions. Howell completed just 17 of his 32 pass attempts and failed to find a rhythm. Tech’s backend blanketed North Carolina’s inexperienced receivers and the defensive front manhandled a veteran offensive line.
The win exorcised some demons for Virginia Tech’s football program. We’ll see if it lasts.
Tech’s Defense Is Legit
I already touched on the Hokies’ stellar defensive performance, but it deserves a closer examination.
Amare Barno and TyJuan Garbutt helped generate more pressure than I have seen in a long time in Lane Stadium. The two combined for 5.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. The tandem bottled up plays towards the sideline and put Howell out of his comfort zone. It was some of the best defensive end play I’ve ever seen out of the Hokies.
The defensive tackles didn’t stuff the stat sheet like the ends, but their consistent push in the interior played a critical role. For the first time in several seasons, it looks like Virginia Tech is four-deep at defensive tackle with Norell Pollard, Josh Fuga, Jordan Williams and Mario Kendricks.
Dax Hollifield looked much more comfortable in the middle of the defense and benefitted from a batted ball by Pollard to record an interception. Hollifield and Tisdale should give Tech two credible threats at linebacker.
What can I say about the secondary? Jermaine Waller is back to being the Jermaine Waller that we know and love, this time with the added strength to wrestle contested passes away from receivers. Dorian Strong doesn’t seem to have regressed and Armani Chatman plays with a physicality and toughness necessary to live on an island.
At safety, Nasir Peoples shocked everyone by playing a ton of snaps and consistently finding himself around the football. At times, Peoples looked like the best safety on the field.
The Hokies’ defensive performance on Friday night brought back old memories. And if they can orchestrate a performance like that against Howell, offensive coordinator Phil Longo and that talented group of players, it’s hard to see how this unit won’t be able to sustain success.
Minor Offensive Improvements
Virginia Tech’s offense mostly went into a shell after their first few possessions, but I appreciated Brad Cornelsen’s different approach to the offense.
Tech’s offensive playcaller mostly shied away from designed quarterback runs and instead put the onus on his running backs and receivers to make plays. Braxton Burmeister ran just nine times against North Carolina, a few of which were scrambles from the pocket.
Moving away from the designed quarterback keepers should extend Burmeister’s longevity and thus give the Hokies a better chance to win. I loved how the Hokies attempted to use Raheem Blackshear in the passing game and I welcome more of that moving forward. Getting Blackshear, Tayvion Robinson and Tre Turner the ball in space is always a good idea.