New week, new feel in Blacksburg. Gone is the gloom and doom from a nasty night in Norfolk. In its place, a sense of cautious optimism surrounds the program as the No. 24 Virginia Tech Hokies (3-1, 2-0) prepare for No. 6 Notre Dame (5-0). It's the Irish's first ever foray into Lane Stadium.
And because of this, Saturday's game is receiving the primetime treatment. 8 PM, ABC, Saturday Night Football.
Bring it on.
First Down: Back To Our Scheduled Programming
Virginia Tech's performance against Old Dominion was about as bad as you could get. Nothing wrong with saying that.
Did the 49-35 defeat to the Monarchs hurt? Sure. Nothing wrong with saying that either.
But in the bigger picture of this 2018 season, the Hokies went into Durham last Saturday with all their goals intact. Coastal division championship. ACC Championship game appearance. ACC title. And before you scroll to the comment box and yell at me about how the program should be aiming higher, do you really want to see this young secondary go up against Tua Tagovailoa this year?
A win at Duke last Saturday moved the Hokies to 2-0 in the ACC. And just like that, the sky wasn't falling anymore. The ODU loss looked more like a disastrous combination of bad performances than an indication of the talent (or apparently the lack of) within the program. Hope is in the air again!
It was a reassuring performance at Duke, not just for the fans, but for coaches and players as well.
"We've been there before," acknowledged Bud Foster. "Sometimes with a young group, it's like you tell them 'the burner is hot, don't touch the burner'. And that's what we told them the week before, and they still touched the burner anyway. They didn't believe us. And hopefully, they realized that we know what we're talking about after 35, 38, whatever plus years of coaching and all the other people involved in this and what we've done and what we've seen and what we've experienced ourselves."
I'm sure Foster was just loving the talk about what went wrong in Norfolk. So with massive amounts of disdain, he spent some time on Tuesday looking at the positives from defensive players that stood out in the Duke game.
"I thought Tyjuan Garbutt was active," said Foster. "I thought Zion [DeBose] could've been a little more active, a little bit more productive. I thought of those youngins, Ty really made some plays. Was a little bit more of a factor. And what I want him to be. And obviously, I've said it before, the best teacher is experience, and the more those guys can play, I think, they're only going to continue to get better."
A player that really turned the page from the ODU loss was junior DB Jovonn Quillen. Against the Monarchs, Quillen was awarded the coveted 25 jersey, but didn't play up to its standards.
"I didn't have a good specials team game and it kind of got in my head a little bit," explained Quillen. "And then once I got called out in the meeting room, I knew I had to get right and do my job. I know I could play better, and you could clearly see on the film that I could play better. And that's what I had to do."
It shouldn't come as a shock to anyone that the coach to call out Quillen, head of special team, James Shibest. And Quillen bounced back. In a big way. A career high seven tackles is all that will show up in the stat sheet from Duke, but his presence was felt all over the field. Quillen recovered a muffed punt and provided coverage against a skilled Duke wide receiver corps.
"Coach Mitchell told me earlier that week that I would have chance to get in and show what I have," added Quillen. "When I got the opportunity, I tried to take it."
And capitalize he did. His career day and strong performance caught Foster's eye.
"Jovonn, I was disappointed in the week before, in the overall approach," added Foster. "I thought he really responded this last week and he did that in practice, and then obviously it carried over to how he played."
All of this positivity might reassure the fanbase. Especially given the lull after the ODU loss. However, Justin Fuente is a "see both sides of the coin" kind of coach. Naturally, he pointed out some negatives of an otherwise positive outcome against Duke.
"It shouldn't be lost in the fact that just because we won the game, we have plenty of work to do to continue to bring these guys along," explained Fuente. "We made numerous mistakes, but fortunately we made enough plays to find a way to win the game. That teaching is continuing from our coaches and everyone as we try to bring these young guys through."
Second Down: Now That's What I'm Talking About, Willis!
New QB1 Ryan Willis faced some big-time pressure in his first start as a Hokie: A road ACC divisional game, one of the worst losses in program history the previous week, playing a ranked team, in primetime. No biggie.
And guess what? Willis balled out. 332 yards on 17 for 27 passing with three touchdowns. And those 332 yards? Most from a QB making his first start in maroon and orange. Also, he celebrated his birthday the day before the game. Pressure? What pressure?
That doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement.
"There's a thing or two you can always improve on," noted Willis. "You got to get 11 men going the same way every play. You know, we hit the film, there's a lot to clean up. We need to have big practices today, rest of the week, we're going to be ready for Notre Dame."
"[Willis] played pretty well," added Fuente. "I thought he was a little amped up early. But really, I'm not sure that was correct. Going back and looking at the film, he could've put a little more air on a couple balls maybe. But, he was pretty in control. He felt comfortable with the looks. ... Now the challenge is can he turn the page and get ready for a completely different defense with completely different looks in one weeks time and be as proficient as he was last week?"
Fuente added some more issues against Duke.
"We had a few mistakes though," said Fuente. "We had a poor exchange that could've hurt us on a third and long, we had a couple series there in the second half, that's not all Ryan's fault, but just offensively we didn't get much going on to give us a chance to have success. So there's certainly some mistakes in there, but for him [Willis] to get in there and play, against a quality opponent like Duke that I think is going to have success this year, and play as well as he did, I think it was a nice performance."
Willis' demeanour stood out last week when he faced the media for the first time. That initial impression was solidified this week. He genuinely seemed excited when he was introduced as the next guy up at the podium.
Ryan Willis gives a thumbs up to Coach Wiggins as he leaves the room and then says "oh shoot, right now?" when introduced. His personality is awesome. #Hokies— Henry Skutt (@henryskutt) October 2, 2018
Willis' ability to embrace his new role has been impressive so far. The Hokies' faithful hope he continues to impress on Saturday night.
The other common theme from Willis' time in front of the media was a simple mantra.
"We're going to be ready to go."
Willis said it so many times, I went out of my way to write it down. Hopefully it's not just hot air.
Third Down: Receivers Rolling
Remember when wide receiver depth was a main offseason concern? That seems so long ago.
The Hokies suddenly have a handful of capable pass catchers. The two-deep listed in the Hokies' media guide consists of:
- Damon Hazleton, 6'2" 220 pounds
- Phil Patterson, 6'2" 202 pounds
- Hezekiah Grimsley, 6'0" 185 pounds
- Sean Savoy, 5'9" 192 pounds
- Eric Kumah, 6'2" 225 pounds
- Tre Turner, 6'2" 187 pounds
Kumah, a junior, is the only wideout older than a redshirt sophomore. And I don't think it's off base to conclude Hokie Nation would be okay with any of those players targeted during a big moment.
Hazelton received heaps of praise not just during fall camp this year but all of last season. The transfer from Ball State, sat out a year per NCAA rules, and still got hyped up. And it was warranted.
Hazelton's notched back-to-back 100 yard games, scored a touchdown in every contest, and is on pace for over 1,000 yards. He's averaging the fourth-most yards per game in the ACC, and has the third-most touchdowns in the conference. Oh, and he's a redshirt sophomore. Come on.
"He's probably his biggest critic," noted Holmon Wiggins. "He's the guy that understands that sometimes he can get into his own head. After the game, we'll kind of look at the film and assess it and say here's something we could have tweaked. This is where we have to get better. Sometimes that's in game. This kid puts a lot of pressure on himself. And he wants to do well. In the beginning of the Duke game I had to tell him to just breathe a little bit. 'Look man, the opportunities are going to come. There's press man coverage. You know where the guy's at', and now we just got to sit there and let the game come to us as opposed to him trying to go force the issue. Seeing some of the things that he's done is good. But we need to be more consistent. Catching the ball, playing the ball, and also being a whole lot playing without the ball."
Hazelton isn't the only Hokie playing what Wiggins calls "big boy ball" though. Kumah has made substantial strides too.
"It's been a little bit of a process," said Wiggins. "When he got here, he was a lot lighter than what he is. We tend to look back on a little bit of film and I showed him how he was to where he is now. Shouts out to our strength staff and what they've done just as far as developing him. He's done a good job at just growing and maturing himself. Just understanding, 'this is me and now this is how I have to go play'. And that's one of the things that we've asked him to do. He's starting to hang his hat on that."
"It is [his performance against Duke] a little bit of him showing off what we expected he should be able to do," added Wiggins. "I call it 'big boy ball'. He's a big body and there's been times I've challenged him. I said, 'You're 6'3" 220 something pounds. You need to go play like it and not just look like it'. It's good to see him out there and doing the extra effort. But also, he's a physical guy, so now you see him do things like that and it's not shocking to us because it's stuff he should've been doing all along."
With Willis under center for the foreseeable future, Tech's wide receivers could benefit from his gunslinger style. Pierson said it best.
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.
Fourth Down: Notre Dame FAQ
What has Notre Dame done so far this season?
5-0 with ranked wins over Michigan and Stanford, a spanking of Wake Forest, and some struggles against Ball State and Vanderbilt. Not too shabby. Leading up to the Stanford game however, the general consensus was that Notre Dame was overhyped.
But then the Irish went out and put a 38-17 whooping on a legitimate contender. The game was played in South Bend though. In fact, the Irish have only played on the road once this season (Wake Forest). Lane Stadium, in all of it's striped glory, will be quite the test.
Or maybe it won't be.
Left tackle Liam Eichenberg was asked about the environment coming Saturday night in Lane Stadium."It's gonna be loud. But our stadium is loud. I'm excited to go in there, kick the shit out of them, get a win, then get out of there."— Pete Sampson (@PeteSampson_) October 4, 2018
What should Hokie fans expect to see in the Terrordome Saturday night?
According to the defensive players that addressed the media, Notre Dame is very disciplined on offense and has skill across the board. There's a reason that Fuente claimed that Notre Dame is "the most complete and talented team we've played to date".
"They're very very disciplined," said Divine Deablo. "Tough team. They can block, they can do pretty much everything. Lot of speed on the outside, they can run bubbles. And their quarterback is very dangerous. We got to be disciplined."
"Their receiving corps is big," added Quillen. "They try to throw the ball underneath and over in the area where the corner isn't. As long as we stick to our gameplan, play confident like we did at Duke, keep our head level, we should do pretty good. ... Their running back, he looks good. He can run the ball if you let him get into open space, he'll run past you and take it to the house. As long as we stay with our tackles, stay with our game plan, we should be good."
It goes without saying, but I'll say it anyways. The Hokies will need to play their most complete game of the season to pull off the upset.
Who wins and why?
The dream scenario is that Lane Stadium roars to life and the Hokie faithful get to see some flustered leprechauns. I'll leave you with my previous predictions:
East Carolina: Picked the Hokies and the game was cancelled.
Old Dominion: Picked the Hokies and everyone knows how that went.
Duke: Picked the Blue Devils and Virginia Tech dominated in Durham.
So uh ... Notre Dame wins this one. For sure.