We had just returned to my wife's aunt's house after celebrating Thanksgiving with the other half of her family. We quickly re-arranged some seating, cracked open some adult beverages and watched overtime of the Duke-Texas basketball game. My brother-in-law leaned back in his chair, took another sip of his beer and asked, "So, do you think we can keep the streak alive tonight?"
It was weird enough to be watching such an important game in someone else's house (who has zero interest in the outcome of the game), let alone pondering such a question. I would be lying if the thought hadn't crossed my mind a number of times during the week leading up to the game.
Virginia Tech would be facing UVa without starters Terrell Edmunds, Mook Reynolds, Vinny Mihota, Sean Savoy, and Joey Slye. The pregame rumor mill suggested Trevon Hill, Tech's other starting defensive end, was warming up with the second string d-line while nursing an injury. Oh, and QB Josh Jackson hadn't looked healthy in weeks. And that's just accounting for injuries. It's not like Tech had looked like world-beaters over the last month. If there was ever a year where the Hokies looked to be at a disadvantage, it was this year.
When it comes to rivalry games, teams can almost always hit the reset button. The competitiveness between rivals transcends poll rankings, and both winning and losing streaks. Injuries to key players are tough to overcome, no doubt. At the end of the day, it's the little things that make the difference: Pre-game and in-game coaching decisions; team chemistry; focus; desire; and all of the other things that Al Pacino talks about in his Any Given Sunday hype speech.
At the end of the day, I felt better about the Hokies' chances when I reminded myself that Tech had the better coaching staff and the better team. Plain and simple.
I found myself thinking back to the beginning of the season and the anxiety I felt over the talent level of the Virginia Tech defense. Though depth was lacking in the front-seven, the group's overall talent and prior experience had them primed for an exceptional season. When I paired the graduating seniors with the handful of potential NFL Draft early entrants, I lamented how the wet-behind-the-ears offense could ultimately hold the Hokies back from truly maximizing the defense's potential.
It was an incredibly myopic perspective. I had watched enough Tech football to know that, come next September, a collection of new and familiar names would step up to take the reins. Every now and then, someone comes out of left field to become an integral part of Bud Foster's system (e.g. Jake Johnson). Yet more often than not, it simply becomes time for rotation players to shine. Friday night's defensive dominance of the Hoos was a perfect example.
Guys like Houshun Gaines, Emmanuel Belmar, Khalil Ladler and Deon Newsome integrated themselves rather seamlessly into the Hokie defense. They not only attacked the football all evening long, but they also played solid assignment football that allowed their teammates to bottle up the Cavalier offense. Gaines and Newsome tied for second on the team in tackles with four each, and Belmar was disruptive in place of Hill.
By the end of the night, the Tech defense held UVa to 5 yards rushing on 20 carries (0.3 ypc), 186 yards of Total Offense, sacked Kurt Benkert 4 times, and forced two fumbles (1 of which was recovered by the Hokies).
"That was critical," remarked Bud Foster after being asked about the Hokies' run defense. "We needed to make them one dimensional, when all's said and done. Early, Ricky [Walker] and Tim [Settle] were playing physical on their side of the line. Tremaine Edmunds just continues to get better. To see Houshun Gaines and Emmanuel Belmar step up, particularly Belmar in bigger roles, and then Trevon was able to come in and sustain some play without reinjuring himself. Then you've got Lad on the back end. Last week, he played four plays, and I told him, 'You're probably going to have to play probably 64 plays this week and be ready to go.' But our expectations are not going to be any different. It just makes a statement about our kids and how they work, but more importantly how they care about one another, and I think they were able to put that on display today."
It was a coming out party of sorts for Gaines. Two of his four tackles were behind the line of scrimmage, including a sack, and he also added a fumble recovery off of Reggie Floyd's strip of UVa tailback Chris Sharp. Despite a bizarre recruiting experience and disciplinary issues threatening his role on the team, it was nice to see him shine on such a big stage.
When I woke up Saturday morning and reflected on Tech's victory, I was surprised by the change in my outlook. After worrying about the talent drop-off between the defensive starters and their back-ups, I was suddenly optimistic about 2018. Sure, it was only one performance. But you can learn a lot more about a player's potential from an ACC game than a spring game.
My brain started to wander, imagining what Foster's group could look like if the Edmunds brothers and/or Walker and Settle return. The thought of Gaines, Belmar and all of the promising freshmen (like Bryce Watts and Zion Debose) playing key roles took on more meaning and made me genuinely excited for what the Hokies could look like behind a deeper and more seasoned offense.
In many ways, it's larger than the back-ups that shined Friday night. It's symbolic of the Bud Foster era and what he has been able to do year-after-year. Though some seasons have been tougher than others from a personnel standpoint, Foster essentially re-loads every year. He and his staff are constantly working behind the scenes to develop the next wave of defensive talent. It's one of the reasons why so many walk-on and 2-star recruits have gone on to be stars at Virginia Tech. That work was on full display Friday night.
It was funny. I spent the week leading up to the game worrying about the end of an era, the end of an annual tradition of reminding Tech's snooty neighbors to the north who runs the Commonwealth. When all was said and done, I had rather quickly moved on to the promise of what was to come; how Tech would reload to extend the streak to 15 and regain their foothold atop the ACC Coastal. After watching guys like Gaines and Ladler shine, I felt damn good about the future. You should too.