What a difference a week makes.
A short seven days ago, the sky was falling in Blacksburg. Now, the "Ryan Willis for Heisman" t-shirts are busily being printed up by Hokies fans everywhere.
Well, the latter might be a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. Just about everyone watching the program figured that how Virginia Tech responded on the road against a ranked opponent after the ODU loss would shape the rest of the reason, and Justin Fuente and company delivered.
Bud Foster rightly deserves a ton of credit for making that change happen. He has, time and again, shown an ability to draw up the right scheme to thwart even the most talented opponents, no matter the personnel he has on hand.
Only a handful of defensive coordinators on Earth could make this sort of thing happen, there is no doubt.
But I will reserve a moment of praise as well for Fuente and Brad Cornelsen for handling Willis' transition to the starting job.
They, rightly, took a ton of criticism for how they handled the offense and the play-calling against ODU. For as bad as the defense was, the offense's inability to turn the tide (even when Jackson was still in the game) was equally baffling.
Just as Foster delivered a gem, don't discount the job the offensive staff did either. The Hokies' wide receivers made a ton of great plays in one-on-one matchups, but all credit goes to Fuente and Cornelsen for helping draw up a game plan that helped Willis find those matchups and play within himself.
For all that good work, of course, they're rewarded with their toughest test of the season in a Notre Dame team that suddenly looks primed for a playoff berth — so long as they can get past the Hokies, of course.
After seeing the way the Irish thumped Stanford, it feels like a bit much to ask for the Hokies to win this one as well.
Consider that if Notre Dame should win in Blacksburg, their toughest test left on the schedule is some combination of a road game at Northwestern, a neutral site game against Syracuse or the road finale against USC (which has had its own fair share of problems recently). Suffice it to say, Brian Kelly has a lot more riding on this game than the Hokies do, at this point.
But nothing would make more sense in this dumb universe of ours than the Hokies losing to ODU, then winning the biggest game on the schedule. I won't ever discount the power of Lane Stadium in a night game, even if the Irish look awful daunting right now.
Let's get into the nitty gritty.
Preparing for a World Without Houshun Gaines
Fresh off Houshun Gaines playing the most dominant game of his career against Duke, he gets hit with the brutal news that his mother has passed away. An awful development for him, to say the least.
Foster told reporters Tuesday that the team is rightly leaving the decision up to Gaines about whether or not he wants to play Saturday. While he could always opt to focus on football, I think it's entirely fair to assume that Gaines will need to be with his family through all this.
#Hokies CB Caleb Farley, whose mother died in January, said he feels for teammate Houshun Gaines and he's supporting him as Gaines grieves the death of his own mother. Farley said he believes Gaines has gone home to N.C. for a while.— Norm Wood (@normwood) October 2, 2018
That, of course, would create another sticky situation for the Hokies on the defensive line. Foster only gets one game to adjust to the loss of Trevon Hill before he has another (albeit more temporary) absence to confront, and it could be quite meaningful.
After all, the Irish have quite the formidable offensive line — consider that the unit is earning rave reviews from the coaches, even after losing multiple first-round offensive linemen from a year ago! The group does lose talented left guard Alex Bars to a season-ending injury, but this is still quite the challenge for Tech's front seven to confront.
Foster said he thinks Notre Dame's offensive line will be one of the best, if not the best, #Hokies will face all season. Said Notre Dame is a 50-50 run/pass team and gets defenses in a lot of one-on-one matchups.— Norm Wood (@normwood) October 2, 2018
So, not exactly the easiest game to be shuffling in ever-more experienced defensive linemen. Foster had some kind words for both Emmanuel Belmar, who started in Hill's place last Saturday, and Tyjuan Garbutt, another key contender for more snaps.
But should Gaines miss this game against the Irish, after proving so versatile and aggressive against Duke, those two will need to take their games to yet another level if the Hokies have any hope of pulling the upset.
At least it seems that Vinny Mihota is making progress, getting a few snaps against the Blue Devils, even if his future remains murky.
Bud thought DT Vinny Mihota played with more motor, confidence in handful of snaps against Duke. Still doesn't give an idea of how long before he'll be able to go a full game. #Hokies— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) October 2, 2018
The secondary, of course, will face its own challenges, considering that Ian Book seems to have provided some real juice to the passing attack in taking over for Brandon Wimbush.
That group certainly recovered well against Duke — aided in part by a healthy Divine Deablo, who said Tuesday it was an ankle injury that kept him out against ODU — and it will need to stay steady on Saturday.
A Defining Moment for the Offensive Line
Notre Dame's strength on the offensive line might be matched, or even surpassed, by the Irish's excellence on the other side of the ball.
Their defensive line, headlined by DT Jerry Tillery, has helped power the unit to become one of the country's most formidable defenses. It may very well be the best such group the Hokies confront all year (unless, by some miracle, a game against Clemson is in this team's future).
So this game is also shaping up to be critical for the offensive line, which was excellent against the Blue Devils. The group allowed just one sack all night, an absolutely critical feat for ensuring Willis' success as he got his feet wet as starter.
They'll need to be just as good in pass protection against Notre Dame, and even sharper in the run game, a real deficiency for the team, as French so capably lays out in his latest film review. The running game generated just over 100 yards against the Blue Devils, and (surprisingly) it was Willis who carried the offense. That might not necessarily fly against a defense like Notre Dame's, and balance will certainly help avoid him feeling like he needs to do too much.
At least, it seems, the constant shuffling favored by Vance Vice in the early going is slowing down. It always made sense that the rotation would come into focus by the time the meat of the schedule rolled around, and Fuente confirmed that the current group (with Christian Darrisaw sticking at left tackle over Silas Dzansi) is the one he hopes to stick with.
"I think that is where it's settling down," Fuente told reporters Monday. "We still have Silas (Dzansi) who should be good to go. Our performance was good at times, I felt that everywhere to be honest with you. We showed glimpses of really doing things well, then at times I'm disappointed. I felt that we let some people off the hook and we could have hurt them with a little bit of execution on some bigger plays. I think that's the lineup that we're kind of leaning towards."
The ECU Saga, Somehow, Continues
I honestly had hoped that I wouldn't spend one more second of my life fretting over the canceled ECU game, but here we are.
Rather than leaving Dec. 1 open for a makeup game with the Hokies, the Pirates agreed to fill that empty slot on their schedule by heading to NC State, to help the Wolfpack make up their canceled game against WVU.
This is a perfectly rational thing for the Pirates to do (I'm sure that NC State dangled quite the paycheck, especially because they seem set to have a decent season, and playing ECU will likely make that record look even rosier).
But it's just another thumb in the eye for the Hokies, who now have to find their own potential opponent for Dec. 1 (should the Coastal not go their way and bowl eligibility look in doubt).
When this kerfuffle first got going, I was inclined to think that ECU was doing the right thing in canceling the game, and I wasn't especially thrilled with the petty statement the Hokies put out in the wake of it. At the time, Hurricane Florence looked like the real deal, and it made sense for ECU to be cautious.
But then we learned that ECU was holed up in Orlando to wait out the storm, rather than letting any local players be close to home with their families. I see plenty of reasons to go be close to Tampa, the site of the team's next game, with such uncertain weather. But any high-minded explanations for why that game needed to be canceled flew out the window with that decision.
It was insult to injury when the storm's path shifted and neither Blacksburg nor Greenville looked all that impacted by the hurricane — difficult to predict, but hardly helping matters.
This latest move is just one last twist that does not reflect especially well on ECU. Tech's side of things bears some blame for its initial handling of the matter, and it should perhaps be no great surprise that a program would chase a big payday rather than try to help out a rival.
But in terms of public relations, this just makes the Pirates look even smaller. Perhaps it's no great surprise that their athletic department is under interim leadership right now, and might not be firing on all cylinders in the wake of AD Jeff Compher's firing earlier this year.
As for the Hokies, I think there's only one solution: give JMU a call, see what they're up to on Dec. 1. Can't suffer two embarrassing losses one season, right?
I leave you with a fun image of Bud Foster, getting a bit too humble here.