When he heads onto the practice field to prepare his team for a trip to Duke on Saturday, Justin Fuente won't have to work very far hard to find a concrete example of the dangers of playing an unheralded ACC opponent on the road.
With a 31-17 loss to Syracuse the lone blemish on the team's conference record, and a clear path to an ACC Coastal title in sight, Fuente is using that failing as a way to focus his squad early and often.
"I think we've got a good reference point for ourselves in the season," Fuente said. "The last time everybody was patting us on the back, telling us how good a job we'd been doing, we went up to Syracuse and got smacked around. I think that's a pretty clear reference point for our guys, in terms of our preparation and the intensity in which we'll have to play. The margin of error is very small."
If the Hokies — who moved up to 23rd in the latest AP poll — want to avoid that same fate this week, they'll have to dispatch a Duke team that hasn't been the easiest out for the team in recent memory.
Isaiah Ford, who is now in sole possession of the career touchdown receptions record at Virginia Tech, said Fuente's been putting the stakes of the game in the simplest terms possible so far.
"Coach, he referenced us back to little kids touching the stove," Ford said. "Is he gonna go back and touch it again, or is he gonna learn his lesson the first time? We wanna be the ones that learned our lesson the first time."
The stakes are certainly clear for the squad — with the tiebreaker over UNC (who's also 4-1 in-conference) and winnable games against Georgia Tech, Notre Dame and UVA left after their trip to Duke, the Hokies simply need to win out to assure themselves a spot in the ACC title game.
But, predictably, Fuente isn't counting his Coastal chickens before they hatch.
"I still feel the same way that I felt before the season about our division, in that there's not a big different between anyone," Fuente said. "I don't think we're done seeing interesting outcomes. When you watch the teams that are continuing to get better, Virginia and Georgia Tech, and certainly Duke — who's had their share of big games already this year — I think one, we've got a good reference point and two, I don't think anybody's very far ahead of anybody else in this division."
Perhaps one advantage the Hokies will have this week is the reward of having nine days between traveling to Pitt and heading to Duke. Fuente noted that the team had a light workout session on Friday, but got all of Saturday to rest up.
"We practiced a little bit longer (Sunday) than we usually do the day after a game," Fuente said. "It was much more gameplan-oriented. We did give the kids some time off. On Friday, we brought them in and had meetings and got a good lift and a run in. Saturday they were off, and we had a little longer practice yesterday."
As per custom, Fuente was tight-lipped when it came to the health of his team after a grueling stretch of three games in 13 days. When asked about the ankle of Jerod Evans, Fuente only went as far as to say he was "good" and had been a full participant. He was even less forthcoming when it came to the ankle of senior Nigel Williams, only saying, "We'll see. No real updates."
But with all of that aside, one thing Fuente can plan on is a little support from VT fans down in Wallace-Wade Stadium, a venue that has traditionally become a sort of home away from home in the past.
"It's been great," Fuente said. "For me, it's obviously my first year, to see how well we travel whether we're just getting off the bus or taking the field to start the game. It was kinda odd last week — usually they're all kind of in one spot — last week, they were kind of separated throughout the stadium. I've said this before, but it's very nice to work in a place that really wants to support what your kids are doing on a weekly basis, whether they've gotta drive a couple of hours or not. I know our kids certainly notice it, I know that."
"I wanna thank everybody that came and made the trip to Pittsburgh. It was great to see the Hokie Nation turn out. It's always cool to watch your kids get to celebrate with your fans. I hope they make the trip down to Duke this week for a tough test that we've got in front of us. It's good to be back on a normal schedule and to make it through the two Thursday games. I think our kids are anxious to be back on a normal routine. We have a tremendous challenge in front of us. Coach (David) Cutcliffe has won everywhere he's been. I think the job that he's done at Duke is maybe underappreciated on a national level. I think he's one of the fine coaches in our sport. Always has his team ready to play. They'll be a tremendous challenge for us in all three phases of the game. You watch them play with great effort. They are well-coached in all three phases of the game and will pose a big challenge for us. Our kids are looking forward to it. I understand we lost a close ballgame at home against Duke last year. I'm confident we'll have a good week of prep as we get ready for this one."
ON HOW JEROD EVANS LOOKED AT PRACTICE ON SUNDAY:
ON IF HE'S HAPPY WITH THE JOB HIS RECEIVERS HAVE DONE WITH YARDS AFTER CATCH:
"I think each week is different in terms of how you try and throw the ball, based on what you're getting. Last week it was a lot of tight coverage. There wasn't a lot of hooking it up in a zone, catching the ball, and getting upfield. It just wasn't a part of it. It was kind of the same two weeks ago against Miami. I think our guys are conscious of trying to get north and south with the ball after they do catch it. I don't know where we're at in terms of yards after catch and all that sort of stuff, but I do like the way our kids have approached that part of it."
ON IF THE TEAM GOT AN EXTRA DAY OFF THIS WEEK AND IF ANYTHING NEW WAS ADDED WITH THE EXTRA DAYS:
"We practiced a little bit longer (Sunday) than we usually do the day after a game. It was much more gameplan-oriented. We did give the kids some time off. On Friday, we brought them in and had meetings and got a good lift and a run in. Saturday they were off, and we had a little longer practice yesterday. It's supposed to be the reward of playing a Thursday game, is you've gotta compact all your preparation, you should get rewarded for it on the back end of it. Because of us playing two straight Thursday games, we had to wait until this week to get to do that. We're getting a little bit of time. Hopefully we'll be fresh by Saturday."
ON ANY SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYERS WHO HAVE STOOD OUT:
"I think we've been good on kickoff — first of all, in terms of not taking it for granted Joey's (Slye) gonna kick it out of the end zone. We had a tremendous challenge last week. Their scheme is different. To their credit it was different and difficult. Their returner is very talented. Obviously Divine (Deablo) had the big play and forced the fumble. Some of our younger guys (like) Jovonn Quillen do a good job, Steven Peoples is on that unit. And then there's some older guys mixed in there, too. Chuck Clark had a nice open field tackle last week. Chuck's also on our punt team. Some of the product of better punt coverage has been better punts to cover, good hang time. Mitch (Mitchell Ludwig) continues to get better, which is a good sign for us to help us get down there and cover those things."
ON THE NUMBER 25 JERSEY AND THAT THE PLAYER WEARING IT ALWAYS SEEMS TO MAKE A PLAY:
"It's been really neat. The kids know it, too. To see Divine — I wasn't sure who caused the fumble last week, except for the fact that the smile on Divine's face as he came off the field literally just filled his helmet up. It was just pure joy. Part of that is because he made the play, but part of that is because he was wearing the 25, and I think he was really proud of that. When we decided to do this, I felt like the fans and the people that love Virginia Tech would appreciate, and I really, really wanted the kids to get excited about it and take great pride in it. They certainly have. The way that those guys have played wearing that jersey has just contributed to that, which has been a really neat thing."
ON THE STRUGGLES INSIDE THE RED ZONE AGAINST PITT:
"I'd say that we didn't execute the couple of things that we tried to do down there. I'd say part of it is they gave us a couple of things, coming off of a couple of weeks off, they played a little bit different down there. The couple of times we did try to take shots down there, we didn't complete them, we didn't make the plays. Isaiah (Ford) had one (where) the ball was a little too far outside. Talking to the staff in retrospect, we probably should have — knowing what we know now — taken a couple more shots down there. I think it was a little bit of everything, in terms of our execution, in terms of them doing a good job, in terms of us — the couple of times we did take shots down there — not completing them. I wish we, in retrospect, had taken a couple more and given our guys a chance down there."
ON HIS INITIAL IMPRESSION OF HAVING THREE RECEIVERS THE CALIBER OF ISAIAH FORD, CAM PHILLIPS, AND BUCKY HODGES TO WORK WITH:
"I was obviously excited about those guys. I think as excited as I was about their talent level, I was maybe more pleased with their work ethic, their unselfishness, their team-oriented mentality, as much as I was excited about the fact that they can run and catch, and that they're smart football players. I felt like as we were going along, our job was to help push those guys to help those guys get better, but also, we were gonna need other guys to come forward. Obviously we're still working on that, but those three guys give you a lot to be excited to about."
ON IF HE IS CONCERNED WITH THE RUNNING PERFORMANCE AT PITT:
"I'll go back to what I said since I've been here, I don't really care who gets yards. We had over 150 yards rushing, which isn't a monster day by any standpoint, don't get me wrong, but they were giving up less than 100 yards rushing, and there's reasons for that. If it means we have to run a reverse to run the ball, or we have to get the ball to the perimeter to find a way to eek out some form of running game, then I'm OK with that. I don't think it's indicative of Travon (McMillian) or Marshawn (Williams') performance. I don't think it's indicative of any one person other than we've gotta find a way to get it done. Obviously the way they played makes it hard on everybody to run the football, and that's certainly true. That's undeniable. The fact that we found a way to have whatever the numbers were running the football, and when we had the ball with two minutes to go, we got 10 yards. However we got it, whether it was Cam Phillips on a one-yard run around the edge, or Brenden (Motley) pouring it up in there, we got 10 yards."
ON IF HE SEES ANYTHING THAT IS ALLOWING BUCKY HODGES TO HAVE BIG GAMES RECENTLY:
"Nothing in particular. Each week, the teams choose to try and play their strengths against our strengths, we do our best to try and match those things up. We'll have a different challenge this week. Bucky may or may not get balls his way, but the thing I know about Bucky is he's gonna try hard and try to do the other things, if he doesn't have the ball, to help us win the game."
ON IF HE HAD ANY COMMENT ON PAT NARDUZZI'S BEHAVIOR DURING THE GAME:
"My boss and I have a clear definition of what we think the Virginia Tech head coach should be like. If other people have different definitions at different places, that's totally up to them. It's none of my business. So I have no issue with any of that, until we discredit the effort that our kids put in. Then there's some issue to be had with that. But in terms of other coaches' behavior on the sidelines, that's their business."
ON WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE THE CAREER LEADER IN RECEIVING TOUCHDOWNS:
"It's something that I don't take for granted. There's a lot of special on that list, below me now — Antonio Freeman being one of them. He reached out to me and it was amazing just to talk to him. I was humbled by it. To even be mentioned in the same category as him is special."
ON IF THERE'S A KEY TO YARDS AFTER CATCH:
"I think that thing comes with maturity. As you're younger, you're more focused on catching the ball. As you start to get older, you start thinking, 'OK, where did I leave the defender and how much space did I have between us when I caught the ball.' Things like that. Just knowing where the rest of the defense is. I think that is something that comes with age."
ON IF HE'S SURPRISED WHEN HE GETS ONE-ON-ONE COVERAGE:
"Not at all, because in past games that I have been bracketed a little bit, Bucky and Cam have been stepping it up and playing well. Teams are starting to figure out if they're gonna try to take that away, then those two are gonna shine. And they're gonna shine bright as well. It's really a kind of pick your poison type of thing."
ON IF HE THINKS ABOUT RECORDS WHEN HE'S PLAYING (HE'S EIGHT CATCHES FROM SCHOOL THE RECORD FOR CATCHES IN A CAREER):
"Not at all. I actually didn't know I was that close until you just said something. During the games, it's nothing like, 'I need one more catch, coach, let me get one more catch so I can get the record.' I don't ever think like that. I just try to do whatever it takes to win the game."
ON HIS THOUGHTS ON THE ROAD SUPPORT THIS SEASON:
"I think I've said it before, every game is a home game when you play for Virginia Tech. Our fans travel, and they travel in packs. It's amazing and it's a privilege. When our fans are cheering louder than theirs, it speaks volumes on our fan base."
ON HOW MUCH ADDING WEIGHT HAS HELPED THIS SEASON:
"Yes sir, absolutely. That's been a thing that I've tried to gradually work on since my freshman year here. I think that's been a huge improvement. The biggest thing that we've been trying to work on this year is maintaining that weight. Coach (Ben) Hilgart and the rest of the strength and conditions staff has done a wonderful job of helping me stay around the 190 (pounds) area. I think that's a great part of why I am able to make some of those catches and things like that."
ON HOW MUCH THIS TEAM IS USING THE SYRACUSE LOSS AS A REFERENCE:
"Any time that things come about that we're talking about the game this week, that's the first thing that comes out. 'Hey, you know what, we had this thing happen before and let's learn from it.' Coach, he referenced us back to little kids touching the stove. Is he gonna go back and touch it again, or is he gonna learn his lesson the first time? We wanna be the ones that learned our lesson the first time."
ON WHAT HAS LED TO THE BIG PLAYS GIVEN UP BY THE DEFENSE IN THE LAST COUPLE OF GAMES:
"We went back and looked at them, it all came down to technique and fundamentals. Basic day one things. That's all it came down to."
ON WHAT THE SENIORS HAVE TO DO TO HELP AVOID THE TRAP GAME SIMILAR TO SYRACUSE:
"We've gotta get the team up. We've gotta find a way to go on the road and get a win. We have to find a way to pump ourselves up."
ON HIS THOUGHTS ON MOOK REYNOLDS PROGRESSION OVER THE SEASON:
"As the season has gone on, he's made a lot of improvements and strides. That's how it should be for any player. As the year goes on, you gain experience, and you see different things and things come back that you see again. He's gained a lot of experience and he's becoming more of a complete player."
ON HIS THOUGHTS ON FORD, PHILLIPS, AND HODGES:
"They come in and work hard at practice. That's where it carries over. When you work hard in practice, it carries over to the game. We give them a good look, they give us a good look."
ON HOW MUCH THE DUKE GAME LAST YEAR STICKS WITH THE TEAM:
"At the end of the day, we're just worried about this week. It's in the back of your mind, but we're just trying to worry about this week and this year's game against them. You can't worry about that."
ON HOW MUCH HE TALKS TO THE YOUNGER GUYS DURING THE COURSE OF THE GAME:
"I always talk to them all the time. If I didn't, we would have a lot of confusion out there. You've gotta talk to the guys."
ON IF THERE'S ANY TALK ABOUT THE COASTAL RACE IN THE LOCKER ROOM:
"Not really, no. Like I said earlier, I told them we're trying to focus on this week's game. At the end, it'll all play itself out and we'll see where we're at. We're just trying to focus on this week."
ON HIS COMFORT LEVEL RUNNING THE FOOTBALL:
"I would say that there is an increasing comfort. It's always good when you're able to touch the ball in more ways than one. The coaches are doing a great job of calling the right plays into the right looks. Our guys have done a great job blocking."
ON IF THE DUKE LOSS LAST YEAR WAS A TURNING POINT FOR THE TEAM:
"I would say that whenever you lose a tough, hard ballgame like that, it's always tough and it hurts. Especially last year with the situation we were in with Coach (Frank) Beamer, those being his last games, we really wanted to win those for him. This year, I just say the way that we are finishing games (should) be credited to the coaches. The mindset that they sort of instilled in us and how important the preparation is, I think that probably the biggest factor in how we're playing so far."
ON HIS COMFORT WITH THE NEW SYSTEM AND IF THERE IS ANY SURPRISE ON NEW INSTALLS:
"I would say, with us being eight weeks into the season, we can expect that they're gonna change some things around. But the good thing for us — I'm talking about receivers in general — is that we're smart. I think the coaches are comfortable with switching up some nuances of places because it won't take us long to pick up the concepts in order to make the week of practice go smooth, and ultimately the game, too."
ON HOW COOL IT WAS TO SEE THREE RECEIVERS GO OVER THE 100 YARD MARK IN A GAME:
"I couldn't believe it that it took us this long to hit that. We all expect each other to make those plays. It's just great that not only we're able to do that, but how instrumental it was in helping the team win. The team needed us to do that and we did down the line making some plays. But the win, that's most important."
ON HOW MUCH OF THE OFFENSE IS PREDICATED ON THE RECEIVERS GETTING SEPARATION VS. HOW MUCH IS PREDICTED ON SCHEME:
"I think the coaches have certain plays each week that they want to get the ball to me, Isaiah, or Bucky. When they came up and played press coverage, we were just like, 'Ok, we're just gonna take our one-on-one chance.' The coaches were pretty confident with the match-ups that they gave us. When it's like that, it's easy, so why not just take the easiest way. We'll take our guys over yours."
ON IF HE LOOKS FORWARD TO GAMES WHERE THE DEFENSE CAN'T STOP THEIR OFFENSE:
"I think that's really, really fun when you can just trust your skills, and know that the quarterback's gonna give you a chance. He did that with myself, Isaiah, and Bucky had a big game. Like I said, the most important thing is that the team won. It was a lot of fun doing that, and hopefully we can do that again."