For more than a week it has felt like Hokie Nation has been focused on Clemson and College GameDay. Nothing more. "Old Dominion? That's cute and all, but that series is solely about maintaining a presence in the 757. There has been a heightened level of confidence amongst Virginia Tech fans that hasn't been seen in years. Confidence in the veteran defensive talent. Confidence in the emerging offense weaponry. And, after years of uneven and boorish offensive play calling, solid confidence in the coaching staff.
Any talk of a potential letdown game against the Monarchs was quickly brushed aside. The Hokies would effortlessly lay waste to their in-state foe, getting some additional reps under the belts of their younger players ahead of the conference slate. And lay waste they did.
Bud Foster dialed up the pressure early and often against 17-year old starting quarterback Steven Williams, forcing him out of the pocket and into uncomfortable throws downfield. The secondary was smothering, and by game's end all ODU had to show for the effort were 85 yards passing and 149 yards of total offense.
Steven Peoples had the best game of his career, and the Hokies offense moved the ball without much resistance. Peoples accounted for 116 total yards and 3 touchdowns, including a SportsCenter Top 10-worthy catch off Cam Phillips' chest.
Games against teams like Old Dominion are challenging to digest. On one hand, when lofty expectations are not met it's easy for fans to freak out, vent, and second guess. On the other, easy victories are almost dismissed as having any semblance of meaning for the season at-large. Sometimes the best way to take stock of these types of games is to put them into context with the preceding contests. What do we know about this team through the first third of the season?
Offensively, we know that Josh Jackson is an emerging talent who makes good decisions but is still reliant on those around him. We know that the running game will be stronger than it was a year ago; the offensive line is a major strength and the skill position blocking is much improved from last season. We know that Cam Phillips is going to carry the passing attack, but his cast of characters is still developing and is sorely lacking a jump ball threat.
Defensively, we know that the defensive line depth could be a major factor against up-tempo offenses that run 75-plus plays per game. We know that when the front-seven fulfills their assignments, they are as tough as any unit in the country. We know that the secondary is incredibly talented, but still trying to figure out what personnel packages work best against certain play calls and situation.
We know that Oscar Bradburn is going to win one or two more games with his consistent leg. We know that Joey Slye isn't quite the rock we hoped he would be in his final season. And we know that the return game is going to be respected by opponents.
But for the fourth consecutive week, the Tech offense was unable to kick it into gear until the second quarter. As Virginia Tech's date with Clemson — the defending national champions — draws near, the Hokies' inability to get into an early rhythm terrifies me.
Statistically, the Hokies have looked good in 2017. They have outscored opponents 160-41 on the year and 129-17 since the opener against West Virginia. But those numbers mask the slow starts that have typified the Tech offense thus far. 140 of the Hokies' 160 points (87.5%) have come after the first quarter and 93 points (58%) have come after halftime. On Sunday, Bruce Feldman noted how gaudy Josh Jackson's second half stats have been, which is well deserved praise from a national college football writer.
This is all well and good, but Feldman's tweet is short on context. Outside of the WVU game and the first few minutes of the third quarter in Greenville, those second half stats are largely in moderate-to-low pressure situations. At the same time, the tweet omits just how uneven the Hokies' first halfs have been. Against a Clemson defense that is Top 12 in each of the big four categories (scoring, passing, rushing, and total defense), it will be tough sledding for the Hokies from start to finish on Saturday night. A fifth consecutive slow start could prove perilous.
Clemson's offense under first year starter Kelly Bryant is considerably different than it was under Deshaun Watson. But Bryant's dual-threat ability is precisely what has given Foster's defenses fits over the years. Tailbacks Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne are dynamic runners, and the Tigers' passing attack is always dangerous.
Will this Clemson offense blow the doors off the Hokies? Probably not. But they certainly have the ability to when you factor in their defense's ability to comprehensively shut down the opposition.
I understand that play calling is a chess match to Brad Cornelsen. He makes the most of early opportunities to poke and prod defensive tendencies and is content to take what he's given. But what happens when you're given nothing? What happens when the poking and prodding puts you consistently too far behind the sticks?
These are the things that worry me. Not only against Clemson, but also against consistently talented defenses that synthesize weeks of game film into suffocating game plans. That is what lies ahead of the Hokies.
Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen have proven through eighteen games that they are jedi masters when it comes to maximizing talent and creating chances. Given the offense's present shortcomings, their ability to make in-game adjustments and dial up the perfect play call may be this offense's most valuable asset.