Letdown games. Often used as a motivator, they can be exaggerated both in advance and in hindsight. Saturday's journey to Chestnut Hill could have been viewed as such. There were a number of potential factors at play: Travel distance; a post-Clemson hangover; and the Eagles' longstanding residence in the ACC cellar, to name a few.
The final score, 23-10, ignore it. The Hokies strolled into Alumni Stadium and controlled the game virtually all night long. They were by no means perfect, surrendering five sacks and nine tackles for loss to a group of talented BC defenders. They struggled to execute in the red zone, failing to put the ball in the end zone on all four trips inside the 20. Despite those miscues, Virginia Tech cruised to their first ACC win of the season.
Boston College can be a tricky opponent. Historically, they've always been a tough out defensively. When the Eagles went 3-9 and winless in the ACC in 2015, they finished first in the nation in total defense. Offensively, they've struggled in recent years to recruit and develop enough playmakers to compete against high-level P5 programs. They've survived by utilizing talented offensive linemen and emphasizing their few offensive weapons, such as transfer QB Tyler Murphy in 2014. And despite a generally apathetic fan base, they've always had the spectre of jet lag as an added weapon.
The Hokies entered the game without tailback Steven Peoples and slot receiver C.J. Carroll, and then proceeded to lose star wideout Cam Phillips in the first half to a sprained ankle. For an offense still seeking depth at the skill positions, it presented an excellent opportunity for youngsters like Sean Savoy, Eric Kumah, Dalton Keene and Jalen Holston. While Holston struggled on the ground, Savoy, Kumah and Keene had career days in what many hope serve as springboards for greater things to come.
Savoy had little trouble picking up the slack after Phillips exited, torching the BC secondary for a 53-yard touchdown for the game's first score. He finished the night with 139 yards on 9 catches, and continues to look electric in space.
Kumah, for his part, looked like the big bodied receiver many had hoped to see this season. He made a number of timely catches with defenders draped over him, including a powerful catch and run that saw him bulldoze a helpless defender on the way to a 23-yard gain. All four of Kumah's catches led to conversions on third down, including three consecutive instances on the Hokies' second touchdown drive.
"He had some big plays on third down against man coverage," noted Justin Fuente. "It's really encouraging to see Eric win those inside routes and break a tackle and make some big plays. It was nice because it's usually Cam in there. That's what a team does. That's what a team needs. We need our young guys to continue to improve to give ourselves a chance to be the best that we can be."
Brad Cornelsen continued to find ways to utilize Keene in space, with 3 of his 4 catches going for 16 or more yards. The dynamic H-Back has been impressive as a blocker, which has enabled him to exploit defenses that fail to account for him out of the backfield.
Savoy's, Kumah's and Keene's evenings were indicative of the team's performance, as-a-whole. From the opening kickoff, the Hokies played like the more talented team as they bullied and outran the Eagles all night long. They had their lapses, but considering the injuries and surprising number of underclassmen in the game at a given time, it was an impressive performance.
The young crop of pass catchers, for all intents and purposes, shined against Boston College. Tech's top three receivers were true-freshmen or sophomores, and fellow freshmen Drake Deiuliis, Hezekiah Grimsley and Khalil Pimpleton saw action against the Eagles. While these youngsters haven't been relied on to carry the load this season, Saturday night's win provided a glimpse into the future.
Since joining the ACC, Virginia Tech has had a couple of seasons where underclassmen led the way through the air.
- 2004: 4 out of the top 5 receivers were underclassmen (Eddie Royal, Josh Hyman, David Clowney and Josh Morgan);
- 2008: 3 out of the top 4 receivers were freshmen (Danny Coale, Jarrett Boykin and Dyrell Roberts);
- 2013: 3 out of the top 4 receivers were underclassmen (Demitri Knowles, Josh Stanford and Kalvin Cline); and
- 2014: 3 out of the top 4 receivers were freshmen (Isaiah Ford, Bucky Hodges and Cam Phillips).
Three classes went on to have incredibly successful careers in orange and maroon; however, that 2013 group was an entirely different story that will be best remembered for their unrealized kick return potential, some solid rap skills and a name that made commentators insufferable.
It will take time to determine how this group of pass catchers stack up against some of the great Hokie receiver groups. The important thing is that they stepped up when called upon and proved that they're ready for more opportunities.
As the Hokies enter the second half of the regular season, opposing defenses will consistently challenge Josh Jackson and the offense. Tech shouldn't expect underachieving teams like UNC and Pitt to roll over; Miami is incredibly talented; Virginia is capable; and both Duke and Georgia Tech rank in the Top 20 in total defense.
The bye week will be a welcome sight for Fuente's squad. With a number of key contributors nursing injuries, it will provide the team with a chance to heal while preparing for the stretch run. Saturday's victory in Chestnut Hill should prove valuable to everyone's psyche. It showed that this team can bounce back and demonstrated how their collection of young talent is ready to pick up the slack when called upon.
Unlike those great young receiving groups of the past, the 2017 Hokies do not need to rely on a bunch of guys learning on the fly. They only need them to supplement established players like Phillips and Carroll. For now, enjoy the win over BC and the confidence boost that could carry the young receivers down the stretch, and worry about their ceilings later.