The Hokies escaped FedExField Sunday evening with a thrilling 31-24 victory over West Virginia, a late defensive stand from Bud Foster's unit ensuring the Black Diamond trophy stays put in Blacksburg for another four years. There's little time for celebration, though, as a pesky Delaware squad waits in the wings to play spoiler to the Hokies' season-opening triumph.
Led by first-year head coach Danny Rocco, the Fightin' Blue Hens dispatched in-state rival Delaware State in Week 1, but they'll no doubt face a stiffer challenge Saturday afternoon in Lane Stadium. To gather some first-hand intel on the Hens, I spoke to Kevin Tresolini, Delaware beat writer for The News Journal.
JC: Danny Rocco, a longtime staple of the Commonwealth's college football scene, took over as the head man at Delaware back in December. How did the fan base react to the Rocco hire, and what are some of the major shifts you've seen transpire as he begins to put his stamp on the Fightin' Blue Hens' football program?
KT: Delaware fans were thrilled with coach Rocco's hiring last December. The Blue Hens were coming off their first back-to-back losing seasons since 1938 and 1939, and now have gone six years without making the NCAA playoffs. Since the NCAA instituted postseason play for its lower-division levels in 1973, Delaware had only ever gone as long as three years without a postseason berth once (1983-85). Rocco's track record as a winner at Liberty and Richmond, Delaware's CAA rival, and his enthusiasm for restoring the fanfare at what has long been one of the nation's strongest I-AA/FCS programs were appealing. Delaware has won six national titles going back to 1946 and has been top 10 nationally in attendance in FCS for more than 20 years. He inherited a very experienced group, as Delaware has only graduated three or four starters each of the last two years. He has switched to a 3-4 defense, though one OLB will sometimes line up as a DE, and stressed a more downhill offensive attack, utilizing a fullback and tight ends, while hoping to strike downfield with the long ball in the passing game.
JC: Delaware kicked off the Rocco era last week with a 22-3 victory over Delaware State, limiting an overmatched Hornets team to just 224 yards of total offense. What should Hokies fans know about the Hens' season opener, and how encouraging was Rocco's first win fresh off a 4-7 campaign in 2016?
KT: Delaware has never lost to its in-state rivals in eight games and the Hornets are coming off 1-10 and 0-11 seasons and are still quite young, though obviously better. Many UD fans expected a lopsided result, and it might have been had Diante Cherry not dropped an early pass that likely would have been a 55-yard TD. Delaware had some red-zone trouble, missed two long field goals and didn't get a TD until late in the 3Q. So the Hens will need to be a lot better to compete in the tough CAA.
JC: Given their size and pedigree, Delaware has a strong history of sending players onto the next level, a list no doubt headlined by current Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Is there anybody on the 2017 squad that you see having the potential to make an NFL roster?
KT: NFL scouts were regulars at preseason camp, mainly to get a peek at Bilal Nichols, a 6-4, 290-pound senior now playing nose guard in the 3-4. A local kid from Hodgson Vo-Tech who also starred in basketball there, he has the size and athleticism to deal with the fray in the trenches and get to the QB and ball carriers.
JC: Delaware's last win against an FBS opponent came back in 2007 with a 59-52 victory over Navy, a victory led in part by the aforementioned Flacco. Where do you see the Blue Hens being the most competitive on Saturday, and conversely, where do you envision them being the most overwhelmed?
KT: Virginia Tech may be the best football team Delaware has ever played, so the Blue Hens' challenge is immense. Delaware always hopes it can have some success running the football, much the way Thomas Jefferson got loose on a 72-yard TD run on the Hens' second play two years ago at UNC, and then be able to hit some pass plays to stretch the field. Delaware also has considerable faith in its experienced defense, which features Nichols and MLBs Charles Bell and Troy Reeder, who started as a red-shirt freshman at Penn State in 2015 before transferring back home. Nasir Adderley at safety is also quite the playmaker for Delaware. But among the Hens' many worries will be coping with that Hokies offensive front, corralling Josh Jackson, thwarting Cam Phillips, whom Rocco particularly praised, and not making offensive mistakes against a defense that will be poised to force turnovers and turn them into points. Delaware starting QB Joe Walker has thrown more interceptions than TDs in his career.
JC: The Hokies are no stranger to challenges from FCS foes, a fact that won't soon be forgotten a few hours north in Harrisonburg. What's the recipe that the Blue Hens must follow to stay close on Saturday?
KT: Be physical, get yardage on the ground, keep the Hokies honest with effective passing, don't turn the football over but force some turnovers while being solid on defense.
JC: Prediction time: do the Hokies move to 2-0, or can Delaware pull off a stunner in Blacksburg?
KT: Hokies 38, Blue Hens 13.