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On a freezing evening in Blacksburg, long-time defensive coordinator Bud Foster was being mobbed by some players, while others maneuvered to be in position to douse him with a cooler of ice and even colder liquid, all to celebrate a huge upset win over Wake Forest on a day set aside to honor his legendary career.
Because everyone enjoys an ice cold Bud, right?
Now that I’ve managed to work in that absolutely awful pun, man, what a game. If you had to write a script for today, you’d have it so the defense would return to the aggressive days of old and toss that 98-pound weakling of a 3-man rush in the round file; they’d hold Wake Forest to its lowest output in yards and points for the season, and the offense would come up with several big plays so Bud could ride off into the Montgomery County sunset a winner.
Which is what happened.
Despite Wake being the favorite, Virginia Tech won 36-17 and beat a ranked team at home for the first time in 10 years (Miami and Nebraska were ranked in 2009 and the Hokies won both). Much like the Washington Nationals were declared dead after a 19-31 start, the Hokies were embalmed and buried after losing a Friday night game to Duke by 35 points, prompting many fans to change their favorite two-word cheer from “Go Hokies” to “Fire Fuente.”
Things were looking pretty dark for both.
But the Nats came back and won the World Series. This Hokies team isn’t shooting that high, but they’re now coming back to life too. With three games left, Virginia Tech is 6-3 and still controls its own destiny in the Coastal. They’ve won four of their last 5 since the Duke debacle, and had it not been for the insane clown posse that also goes by the name “ACC Football Officials,” could easily have won 5 in a row and the Hokies would be ranked next week.
There’s no question things are changing in Blacksburg, and in a good way. Part of the resurgence is the play of quarterback Hendon Hooker, who finally got his chance against Miami and promptly won two straight. Some of it could be new assistant Jerry Kill, who may have given Justin Fuente a modified version of Dean Farber’s advice in Animal House concerning the offense: Dull, boring and stupid is no way to go through life, young man.
Some of it may just be dumb luck. Things happened Saturday that sort of defied logic. Like that very predictable jet sweep the Hokies always run; it actually worked for big yardage. At the beginning of the season, Hokie tight ends might as well have been in the witness protection program, but Saturday they went looking for them and were rewarded with big yardage and touchdowns.
Then there was Wake itself. Perhaps there was a power outage in Winston-Salem all week and the coaches couldn’t watch film, because it sure seemed like they couldn’t stop plays 60,000 people in the stands and thousands more watching at home knew were coming. Normally an aggressive team, Wake was a bit passive in the second half, electing to punt on 4th and short yardage situations when it at times earlier in the season has gone for it.
Then with 4 minutes to go, the Deacons just quit. Yes, they had a huge mountain to climb down 36-17 with that amount of time left. But 99.9 percent of teams in the nation would try a few long bombs, hope to hit one, then try an onside kick. You always teach your team to never quit, and you keep trying until it gets down to the final minute. When VT scored its final touchdown, however, Wake pretty much said “have a great evening Bud, we’re pulling our starters.” Which they did.
The win doesn’t mean all of Virginia Tech’s ills have been cured and now it’s just onward and upward for the final three weeks of the season. They could just as easily lose the last three as win the three and end up in the ACC Championship game against Clemson.
But the defense is tightening up and playing better each week. Some of it is players are getting healthy, but I think a big portion is the realization that Bud Foster’s career only has a handful of games left. You could see on the sidelines there is a tremendous amount of love and respect for Foster for all he’s done in his years in Blacksburg, and that can serve to be a powerful motivator.
Love and respect will not make a slow man faster. But it might make a player focus just a little harder, pay a little more attention in practice, and give that little bit of extra on each play. That intensity was missing late last season, as a big group of players looked like they didn’t really want to be out on the field at times. Not this year. The defense wants it. And I’d guess they want it so Bud can go out a winner.
On the other side of the ball, the missing ingredient that has returned is confidence. Between turnovers and ineffective plays, this offense went to the line early in the season hoping to succeed instead of believing that actually might happen. The quarterback change had something to do with that (I have one friend who keeps texting me accusing me of hating the previous QB for saying this; my response has always been that’s not true, but I’m warming to the idea of hating YOU). But I believe it’s more than that.
Confidence grows when you come to the line, know there's a decent probability the play will work, then you react instead of try to think through everything on your feet. I believe some of the issues were the QB, some were having the wrong players in the wrong roles, some was the way Fuente was communicating with the team, and some was just inexperience and youth.
Those issues appear to be on their way to being solved, allowing some to dream that a Hokie team with a confident offense combined with a defense giving its all for its leader could do great things. It’s never going to be confused with the nation’s elite teams. But it could be good enough to survive that briar patch known as the Coastal Division, and in a one-game shootout with Clemson, anything could happen.
After the game it was announced a banner would now hang in Lane Stadium to commemorate all Bud has done in creating the Lunch Pail Defense culture. As Bud is one of those down-to-earth people who rarely misses anything, he asked Athletic Director Whit Babcock after the announcement “is this for just one game or forever?”
That’s vintage Bud. He – and his defense – never take anything for granted. They certainly didn’t tonight. They probably won’t these last three games. And if they don’t, they just might end up playing for the ACC Championship.
Stranger things have happened to other teams left for dead. After all, I’m writing this wearing a hat I got in the mail today.
It says Washington Nationals, 2019 World Champions.