Forgive me if you'd heard this before: It's difficult to take too much away from games against FCS teams. There are teaching moments abound for the coaching staff, especially on a short week; however, for fans, the games exhibit an atypical blend of starters and reserve players executing a rather vanilla playbook against physically overmatched opponents. In many ways, these types of games become more about executing your reps and escaping without any major injuries. Oh, and whatever you do, don't lose. Sadly, Virginia Tech has learned this the hard way.
For the most part, Virginia Tech's game against William & Mary went according to plan. Aside from a Deshawn McClease fumble on the opening drive, the offense dismantled the Tribe defense with a comforting efficiency. On the opposite side of the football, the defense had a generally strong afternoon. There were, however, moments where the unit showed their relative lack of game experience, characterized by missed assignments and occasionally poor execution that led to 17 W&M points. Perhaps the greatest positive to arise from the game was the relative ease with which the Hokies cruised to victory (which is more than you can say for Tech's Week 1 opponent).
The coaching staff began sprinkling in second team players as early as the second drive, mixing and matching position groups to get players experience without disrupting either unit's rhythm. For the most part, there was no noticeable drop-off in performance prior to mass substitutions late in the second quarter. For a team fielding such a significant percentage of underclassmen, that is an incredible positive and speaks to the strengths of the recent recruiting classes.
Lest we forget, just five days prior this team was full of question marks. After a resounding road win over historic power Florida State, much of that uncertainty seems to have thinned out. The truth of the matter is that this team is far from a well-oiled machine. The three-game reprieve between ACC opponents is a critical stretch for the Hokies immediate and long term growth. Multiple position groups are still settling into their roles, both individually and collectively. Some units, such as the offensive line, are still competing for starting spots. As Bud Foster noted after the win, "You gain confidence when you have experience, that's the best teacher."
Despite fiddling around with personnel groups; despite the simplicity of the offensive and defensive looks; and despite the short week, the Hokies absolutely cruised to victory against the Tribe. Tech's 305 yards rushing were the most in a game under Justin Fuente (and most since 2014). They racked up 586 yards of total offense (10th most in program history), 401 of which came in the first half (3rd most since 1987). All three quarterbacks scored rushing touchdowns. It was the first time since the ill-fated short-rest loss to James Madison in 2010 that the Hokies didn't punt the football. Oh, and after their first drive fumble, the Hokies scored on ten consecutive drives before running out the clock to end the game. Not a bad day at the office, eh?
I feel like you can learn a lot about the potential of a team based off of how they play against each tier of opponents. Great teams get up for every game, regardless of venue or their opponent's record. Middle tier teams are the ones who struggle with consistency, getting up for the big games while lacking focus or assertiveness against less talented foes. Aside from the occasional shocker, lower tier teams are the ones driving the Struggle Bus all the way to Struggleville. While it remains to be seen what this team's ceiling is, they've certainly shown up for their first two games and exhibited a tremendous amount of potential.
In Justin Fuente's first two seasons in Blacksburg, the Hokies knocked off FCS Liberty and Delaware 36-13 and 27-0, respectively. Neither game, however, was a thing of beauty. The Liberty game, Fuente's first at Tech, was defined by a sluggish start and a plethora of fumbles. Last season's win over Delaware was considerably less sloppy, but noticeably lower octane. Tech managed only 303 yards of total offense and was forced to focus on the starting group's development rather than the reserves.
Saturday was quite different. I remarked pre-game that a good offense would find a way to score at least 55 points against the Tribe. Tech hit that mark with 2:28 to play in the third quarter.
Josh Jackson was an efficient 12-16 for 217 yards and a touchdown through the air, adding 21 yards and a touchdown with his feet. Coming off of a freshman season that began with a roar and ended with a whimper, Jackson is in an interesting position for a promising incumbent. He lacks the exciting 'it' factor that has been so common for Virginia Tech quarterbacks in the past, often relying on his ability to get the ball to his teammates in space and allowing them to make plays. "I won't get tired talking about the quality of experience and the playmaking ability of the team surrounding him," Fuente remarked after the win. "Josh needs to distribute the ball. He's almost like the point guard and the ability to distribute the ball to those guys in space is important." In essence, those much needed reps on Saturday were less about Jackson and more about guys like Damon Hazelton, Hezekiah Grimsley and Tre Turner.
Tech fans have grown so accustomed to electric playmakers under center that patience is considerably thinner for a more traditional quarterback. Just ask Grant Noel and Sean Glennon.
Michael Vick was virtually unstoppable. As average as he was throwing the football, Bryan Randall limited turnovers and had knack for moving the sticks however possible. Marcus Vick was exciting as hell, albeit an imperfect leader. Tyrod Taylor was dynamic. Logan Thomas sported an inaccurate cannon for an arm, but he could run through a wall of defenders. And Jerod Evans was a single-read quarterback that used his dual threat ability to light the stat sheet on fire.
I'm not certain what Josh Jackson's defining characteristic is, but he strikes me as a high-ceiling 'game manager' type. Thus, Fuente's point guard analogy seems apt: Quarterback as facilitator, rather than quarterback as catalyst. Let's not take that as some kind of slight. In 15 starts for the Hokies, Jackson has flashed some serious arm talent and can make plays with his feet. He simply isn't explosive, and that's okay. As we've discussed since he took over, Fuente's system isn't predicated on a dynamic leader under center, but rather a collection of playmakers across the offense. Through two games, it appears that the 2018 season may be the first under Fuente where that truly is the case.
Nine players caught passes on Saturday, with Ball State transfer Damon Hazelton leading the way (4 catches for 107 yards and a TD). Hazelton has looked every bit the part of the guy coaches gushed about during fall camp. As Jackson noted, "He's what you want in a receiver. He's very strong, tall and fast."
Eight players ran for 10 or more yards against the Tribe, three of whom rushed for 50+ yards. Steven Peoples looked like the energetic bowling ball (*drink*) that we saw early last season (which might mean something), freshman Terius Wheatley was featured early and often, and Jalen Holston took advantage of some monster holes. Oh, and the ground game scored seven touchdowns on the day.
The true shining light, though, was the offensive line. As I'm sure French will touch on in his film review, the O-line was consistently getting to the second level and making opposing defenders pay for it. All of this despite a near-constant rotation along the line in an attempt to get players reps and evaluate different lineups. "I think there were like eight guys who rotated to be honest," noted Jackson. "The way that they just fit together, being versatile, and other guys being able to come in in other positions [is] very important." Snaps continue to be an issue for the Hokies, but — aside from those snafus — the mixing and matching of line groupings saw very little drop off in execution. Athleticism is the common thread, which is particularly remarkable considering the size of the linemen. Their ability to win at the initial point-of-attack and then get to the second level will be an important component to this offense's ability to move the football. And it is precisely that ability that will ease the burden on the less experienced defense.
So did Tech's performance categorize them as one of the aforementioned 'great' teams? Honestly, it remains to be seen. I'm trying not to draw too many conclusions — experience has taught me to take little stock in these games. There are just too many outstanding questions at this stage of the season. With that being said, you can't help but be encouraged by the way Tech has played over the first two weeks of the season.