At long last Hokies football is back, a welcome sight in this thoroughly unusually timed season — but does it really have to involve Georgia Tech?
While just about any Virginia Tech fan will tell you they hate UVA, or even Miami, more than the Yellow Jackets, the Hokies' annual matchup against the other Tech and the triple option elicits a sort of dread that's unique on the schedule.
And that goes doubly so this year, coming off a performance against UNC that offers just as many positives as negatives.
Sure, things would be worse if the team was licking its wounds following an embarrassing loss to the Heels, and the whole squad showed laudable resolve in hanging around and earning the comeback win. But the game also showed that there are big problems left for Tech to address if it hopes to win the Coastal, and with the toughest stretch of the schedule looming, the Hokies are just about out of time to solve them.
Justin Fuente has yet to beat the Jackets in his VT career, with a puzzling home loss to a backup quarterback becoming one of the lower moments of the 2016 season and a maddening fourth quarter dooming the Hokies' chances in Atlanta last year.
All of that is to say that anxiety levels are quite high indeed ahead of Thursday's game, for reasons I'll outline a bit later. At the least, the team won't have to worry too much about the impacts of a short week, as the schedule does allow for both plenty of time for preparation for Paul Johnson's bunch, then plenty of recovery afterward.
As for the rest, well, for a short week, it's feeling awful long.
The Hokies have benefitted from an experienced defense the last few years in whole host of ways, including the unit's familiarity with defending the triple option.
It hasn't always translated into results! Tech allowed 401 yards to the Bees a year ago, and 343 yards in 2016, so it's not as if that experience has made a huge difference in practice. The Hokies' propensity to allow big plays against the triple option was particularly problematic last year, in fact.
But this year, outside of a few veterans like Ricky Walker, Vinny Mihota and Reggie Floyd, this team just hasn't played much against Johnson's bunch, as Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch points out.
After that, many Virginia Tech defenders will be getting their first first-hand look at the Yellow Jackets' punishing offensive approach. And that's a scary thought for coach Justin Fuente.
"Part of the challenge is not just simulating the play but simulating the speed with which they execute it," Fuente said. "I'm always fearful that on the very first play of the game, the defense is going to look over to the sideline and go, 'Yeah, we recognize that play but it was executed so much faster.'"
At least the team is getting a little help from one very experienced hand.
LB Rayshard Ashby said former #Hokies mike Andrew Motuapuaka spoke to the linebackers about defending GT's option, giving them some tips. Motuapuaka saw it several times in his career. Nobody in this year's LB crew has faced it.— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) October 22, 2018
Now, part of the reason this defensive group doesn't have much experience playing the Yellow Jackets is they still don't have all that much experience playing anyone. The much-discussed offseason attrition hit the defense especially hard, including guys like Mook Reynolds, who were long big parts of the game plan in defending the Bees.
However, where it might matter most isn't in the secondary, which certainly has plenty of growing up to do, but on the defensive line.
DL coach Charley Wiles pointed out to reporters Monday that Walker will be a huge part of stabilizing the line, and is recovering well from his early season foot troubles, especially with relative newbies like Jarrod Hewitt and Emmanuel Belmar getting their first extended doses of option action.
Luckily, it also seems some reinforcements are on the way too.
#Hokies d-line coach Charley Wiles on DT Vinny Mihota: "Vinny is beginning to look like Vinny, which is exciting. ... I'm happy to see him moving around a lot better."— Mike Barber (@RTD_MikeBarber) October 22, 2018
Mihota still didn't play much against the Heels, but perhaps with a week of rest, he can finally make an impact, in what is rapidly turning into a lost season for the senior. Tech's defense would certainly be well suited if he can.
Taking Stock of the Passing Game
This little bit of insight from Monday's presser might seem small, but it represents an interesting reversal, nonetheless.
#Hokies wide receivers coach Holmon Wiggins said a lot of defenses have backed off on press coverage against Damon Hazelton and Eric Kumah. Said Tech expected Notre Dame to come with the press coverage, but Irish went away from it.— Norm Wood (@normwood) October 22, 2018
So why is this a change? Because Justin Fuente told The Key Play before the season that the team noticed just the opposite trend as the season went along last year, which he used to illustrate why the offense struggled a bit down the stretch.
"I think part of it was people played us a little bit different and we struggled on the outside more," Fuente said in August. "Like, we played East Carolina, and the entire game they played off and inside and we threw 14 out routes to Cam. Well, that's the end of that, they played press every snap from there on out, the other teams did. Those easy throws were gone and we, at times, struggled with that tight coverage, weren't able to win those 50-50 balls, weren't able to throw the ball into smaller windows and that kinda contributed to it, at least."
Certainly, it speaks to the difference in personnel in the receiving group — Cam Phillips might've been a great receiver, but a big body he was not. Hazelton and and Kumah are considerably beefier than Phillips or Sean Savoy, the focal points of last year's passing game, so it's not a huge surprise, perhaps, to see cornerbacks less willing to get physical with them at the line.
So the question becomes whether or not Hazelton, Kumah and the rest of the receiving corps can adjust to that change and beat the coverage.
Kumah and Savoy certainly performed well against the Heels, even on a frustrating night for the offense, recording five and six catches, respectively. Hazelton, on the other hand, seemed to have much more trouble, recording just two catches after putting up huge numbers early in the season.
Ryan Willis clearly was interested in finding Hazelton, targeting him a whopping 11 times for the game (including six times in the fourth alone). Perhaps the Heels (correctly) observed his importance to the offense early in the year and focused on stopping him, in which case it is a bit mystifying that Willis would so incessantly target him.
Fuente wasn't willing to make it a huge issue Monday, noting that he "didn't feel like it was an overriding theme throughout the entire game," but would say he wasn't entirely satisfied with Willis' performance.
"We missed Damon on several times that we shouldn't've but I didn't feel like on multiple occasions, maybe on a few, we weren't distributing the ball to the right place," he said.
So, whether it's Willis or the receivers themselves, it's plain there is work to be done in the passing game. The Jackets haven't exactly been great against the pass, allowing 230 yards per game through the air to rank 77th in the country, so maybe this week will be a chance for some progress.
In case you've been solely focused on Blacksburg recently, or perhaps taken a brief break from college football during the bye, you've missed things in the rest of the Coastal getting...weird.
Outside of the Hokies, Miami is the team widely viewed as having the best shot of heading to the title game.
And, well, things have gotten bizarre down in South Florida. Mark Richt has been playing an unusual game with his quarterbacks, especially following UVA's upset win over the Canes last week.
Richt yanked talented redshirt freshman N'Kosi Perry in favor of last year's starter, and early season triggerman, Malik Rosier midway through that loss. Now, he's even gone so far as to declare Rosier the starter for this week's road game against Boston College, though he says Perry will still play.
If all that sounds strange, you're not alone! Perry struggled mightily against the Hoos, and was inconsistent in Miami's last-second win against FSU the week before. But Rosier has a limited ceiling, which prompted the move in the first place, particularly after the Canes got so thoroughly whupped by LSU to start the year.
Now, Richt's staff is offering back-channel answers to the Barry Jackson at the Miami Herald to justify the move.
The Hurricanes believe Rosier is better equipped to decipher veteran defenses, according to a Canes staffer. What's more, Rosier is better at audibiling out of bad plays and into better ones.
Perry was flummoxed by Virginia's senior-heavy defense. And Boston College also has a veteran defense: 7 of 11 starters are seniors; the others are juniors.
The Eagles also have a savvy, experienced defensive coordinator in Jim Reid, who has coached since 1973 and was linebackers coach with the Dolphins.
So Rosier, the staff believes, is better equipped to pick up blitzes and disguises and all of the things that an older defense with a respected coordinator are capable of doing to rattle a quarterback, especially one as young as Perry.
It will also be an emotional atmosphere with a loud crowd, and Rosier might be better equipped to handle that too, in the staff's eyes. This will be Boston College's annual Red Bandana game, in which the school remembers a hero of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In case that reasoning seems a bit flawed to you, well, hear it from Cameron Underwood at State of the U:
Malik Rosier is a 51% CAREER passer. He threw 1 interception vs UVa and had several other balls either dropped by the Virgina defense, or broken up by Miami receivers, who had to do their best to keep Rosier from throwing even more INTs. Yes, N'Kosi Perry threw 2 interceptions, but at 10-0, Richt should have been able to calm him down and gotten the youngster to elevate his performance; that's what coaching is about.
We've seen this movie with Malik Rosier starting. We know how this is going to go. And, if he were such the better option at QB, Perry wouldn't have taken his job during the FIU week, Perry wouldn't have started against FSU — a team he beat by throwing 4 TDs vs 0 INTs I feel obligated to remind you — and he wouldn't have started against Virginia. But he did. Because he's both the more talented and better player at QB.
But, instead of supporting him like he did Rosier, Richt panicked and went back to "old faithful", a player who has been around the program for a long time and who Richt knows is neither as talented nor as good as the younger Perry.
For who? For what?
Instead of messing with the kid's confidence — even IF Perry were to start from here on out, he'll surely be walking on egg shells, worried that any mistake will be the end of his time on the field — the clear and only decision to be made is to start N'Kosi Perry, upgrade/update/improve the offensive playcalling to give him and the offense a reasonable chance for success, and move forward from there.
And as if that all isn't enough, news broke Monday that Perry was reprimanded for posting a video on Facebook of him flashing wads of cash. So, not exactly inspiring confidence from the coaching staff, I guess!
It doesn't help either that the Eagles are a bit feisty this year, and a weird Friday road game will surely not help matters.
It's not like Miami is doomed, even if they drop this game, but with a final stretch of Duke, at Georgia Tech, at the Hokies and Pittsburgh (remember last year?), things could get bad in a hurry for the Canes.
All of which opens up quite the lane for Tech, right? Well, maybe. But it's worth considering the team on the other end of that Miami loss.
Yes, the Hoos are...good? Strange as it is to say, UVA is 3-1 in conference, 4-0 at home and 5-2 overall, so perhaps things are finally clicking for Bronco Mendenhall.
And, as David Teel notes at the Daily Press, UVA faces a considerably different end to the season than they did a year ago, when similar buzz started to build in Charlottesville.
A final contrast to 2017 is the schedule. At 5-1 last year, Virginia had yet to face AJ Dillon and Boston College, Lamar Jackson and Louisville, undefeated Miami and nemesis Virginia Tech. Indeed, the Cavaliers were underdogs in each of their last four regular-season games.
This year's schedule is far more accommodating. U.Va.'s next three tests — North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Liberty — are at home, and the Cavaliers likely will be favored in all of them. They then close with road contests at Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.
Of course, it would be no surprise to see the Hoos stumble with back-to-back games against the Techs and see this all come crumbling down. But I am also quite thankful that the Hokies will get UVA in Lane this year, and am starting to get ever so slightly nervous about that one.
All of this underscores the importance of the next few weeks for the Hokies. Miami looks to have real trouble brewing, and UVA's record when it comes to delivering on a promising October doesn't inspire confidence.
The path to a Coastal title is pretty clear for Tech — but when have the Hokies ever made things easy?
Of course, there's always this fun Coastal scenario to consider: dial up that seven-way tie!
@ADavidHaleJoint Thought you might appreciate this...the most appropriate ending for the acc coastal is still possible. The fabled 7 way 4-4 tie. pic.twitter.com/q97XUxhuYy— Josh (@joshtheninja) October 22, 2018