It was still September and the Hokies were already faced with their gut-check moment of the season. A week earlier, in a matter of hours, a young Virginia Tech team had gone from a revelation to a national laughing stock. Their starting quarterback was lost to a broken leg. Their stud defensive end was dismissed from the team. Staring them in the face was a road trip to face a ranked and dangerous Duke squad that received an unnecessary pregame shot in the arm with the surprising return of QB Daniel Jones.
After last week's debacle, it was virtually impossible to know what to expect from the Hokies. Their new starting signal caller, Ryan Willis, had ten career starts (and zero wins) under his belt at perennial doormat Kansas. An already dangerously thin defensive line was without arguably their best playmaker, leading many to wonder how Bud Foster's group would create pressure against a David Cutcliffe coached offense. And the relatively inexperienced crop of players suddenly looked like a shell of their early season selves. Which team were they? The ones that strolled into Tallahassee and knocked the doors off a talented (albeit grossly underachieving) Florida State team? Or the one that lollygagged their way through a drubbing in Norfolk seven days earlier?
Thankfully for everyone's psyche, the Hokies of old showed up Saturday night. The offense looked steady. The defense looked steady. There were highlight reel moments, but in many ways it was a throwback to regular old Virginia Tech football. They just plain got the job done.
The confidence that the team played with was noticeable. Duke took a 7-3 lead midway through the first quarter, and the Hokies immediately answered back with a 9-play, 76-yard drive punctuated by a back shoulder fade to Damon Hazelton that looked amazingly easy. The Tech defense then forced a quick three-and-out, which was shortly followed by a simple screen pass to Dalton Keene that he took to the house thanks to a team full of blockers and a series of slick moves. A 4-point deficit became a 10-point lead in less than 7 minutes, and the Hokies cruised from there.
One week removed from one of the most stomach-turning performances the fan base had ever seen from a Virginia Tech team, the win over Duke felt oddly stress-free. The Hokies looked the part of the more successful program, rather than one buckling under the weight of inexperience. A lot of that had to do with the performance of new QB1 Ryan Willis and the sure tackling of the Hokies defense. Both sides of the ball did a good job dictating the game, which was impressive for both units coming off a total breakdown at ODU.
On the heels of Trevon Hill's dismissal, Bud Foster challenged his defensive line to step up and be disruptive. Heading into their matchup with a well-coached Blue Devil team, Foster told his team, "Let's go pin our ears back and play and have some fun. Let's not worry about making a mistake, let's just go play." That approach was clearly actualized by his linemen, as they regularly mixed in three-man fronts to confuse and disrupt Daniel Jones and the Duke offense. Houshun Gaines continued his explosive play, contributing 2.5 sacks and a number of hurries. And Ricky Walker and Jarrod Hewitt helped anchor the line, stifling the Duke rushing attack.
Quite possibly the biggest difference on the defensive side of the football from a week ago was the sure tackling of the entire unit. After struggling to wrap up and contain the ODU offense, the young Tech defense did a phenomenal job of repeatedly bringing down Blue Devils in space. Rayshard Ashby logged 15 total tackles. Reggie Floyd was all over the field, finishing with 8 tackles, 2.5 TFL, a pass breakup and an interception. And Jovonn Quillen, who saw an expanded role against Duke, was solid on the outside and a standout on special teams.
Justin Fuente reflected on the defense's ability to bounce back after such a demoralizing performance:
"They did a great job. We played some drop-eight in the game and were still able to get some pressure and keep the ball in front of us. They tried to hit us deep early in the game and didn't complete it and we were staying on top of it after that. Played pretty well up front. In order to drop eight, you've got to play pretty well up front to handle that. We did a good job. Again, the defensive staff put together a plan and the kids went out and executed it and played with passion and heart and intelligence. I think it's a pretty big response."
Offensively, Tech faced a disciplined and talented Duke defense led by star linebackers Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys. Willis not only took care of the football — which was a major concern, considering his 12/17 career touchdown/interception ratio entering play — but he made some well placed throws against press-man coverage, allowing his big, athletic receivers to go up and make plays. Hazleton, Eric Kumah and Tre Turner each made impressive leaping grabs in traffic, helping move the sticks at critical junctures.
The Hokies converted a rather ordinary 6 of 16 third downs (37.5%) against the Blue Devils. Dig a little deeper and you'll find that the Hokies faced an average distance of 8.4 yards on those third downs. Despite that average distance, Willis went 7-9 for 123 yards (17.6 yards per completion).
Fuente reflected on Willis' performance after the win, noting:
"Off the cuff without grading it and evaluating it, I felt comfortable with him in there. He was really having fun out there. It certainly wasn't too big for him. In turn, all that said, he made plays for us. He gave our guys some opportunities to make plays. We knew we were going to see a bunch of man coverage, tight coverage. The guys on the outside made enough plays and Ryan did a good job. We didn't have operational issues or things like that. I was pleased with his performance and his ability to step up in the moment."
If there was one area that needs some clarity, it's Willis' role in the run game. It appeared that many of the read option plays were straight handoffs designed to keep the defense honest, simplify Willis' assignments and keep him healthy. There were some moments that looked to be poor reads by Willis (the near decapitation of Sean Savoy on a jet sweep comes to mind) and sloppy fundamentals (the poor exchange with Steven Peoples on Tech's own doorstep). You'd have to believe that the offensive staff will be working to integrate more true read options or designed keepers moving forward, as the Duke defense stopped respecting the QB running threat early on. But even with a relatively limited run game, the Tech offense was solid throughout against a good Duke defense.
I'll refrain from making blanket statements about what Willis' performance could mean for the remainder of the season or how it could spell trouble for Josh Jackson's starting spot. It's too early in Willis' tenure under center, and it's certainly not fair to anyone involved. But I will say this: If he can consistently put the ball in a position for his big receivers to go up and get it (like he did against the Blue Devils), the offense will have a dangerous dimension.
Moving forward, the big question is how do Willis and the offense perform once opponents have film to study? While Willis had a handful of starts to his name heading into the game, the only solid film Duke had to study was from his cameo against ODU. Now that the element of surprise is somewhat gone, can Willis come close to repeating his opening performance against a talented Fighting Irish defense?
Reflecting on the win, I'm reminded of Virginia Tech's 2015 season. Backup quarterback Brenden Motley stepped in (unsuccessfully) for an injured Michael Brewer in the opener against Ohio State, only to absolutely torch hapless Furman and a plucky Purdue team in successive weeks. In his first two starts, Motley accounted for 6 total touchdowns and 515 total yards in blowout wins. In his third start against East Carolina in what can only be described as a monsoon, cracks in the armor began to show in a frustrating loss.
As the Hokies entered the meat of their schedule and the degree of difficulty ratcheted up, Motley found it harder and harder to rediscover his early success. One week after the loss in Greenville, the bottom dropped out for Motley at home against Pitt. He went 9-20 for 91 yards, tossing three picks while finding absolutely no room to run. The circumstances surrounding both Motley and Willis' ascension are quite different, as are their skill sets and the systems within which they play. Yet it's difficult to ignore some of the parallels.
Willis' 332 passing yards were the second highest total in his career and only the third time he's thrown for more than 215 yards. His 3 passing touchdowns against the Blue Devils is a new career high, and his 202.9 Passer Rating is his highest against an FBS opponent. WIllis is in an incredibly different — and more beneficial — system than his days at Kansas, but let's continue to be mindful of just how exceptional his performance was.
Notre Dame's defense isn't exactly the '85 Bears. They enter Saturday's game ranked #72 in total defense, allowing 340.6 yards per game. So while the Irish are talented, they've been a relatively average unit thus far. Willis and the Hokies passed their first post-ODU test against Duke, putting the hearts and minds of Hokie Nation at ease. The season is not entirely lost, yet. Now it's time for the pressure and the spotlight to crank up in intensity. Fans learned a lot about this team Saturday night. They'll learn even more under the lights, when the Fighting Irish enter the Terror Dome.