The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the people of West Virginia that John Denver's song "Take Me Home, Country Roads" was based on scenery in their state.
Sure, as Denver crows "West Virginia, mountain mama, take me home" the evidence may be damning. But the Blue Ridge Mountains are found in Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and a few miles of Maryland and Pennsylvania. And while the Shenandoah River does cross into their godforsaken state for about 20 miles, the majesty of the waterway can be found in the Commonwealth.
But unfortunately "western Virginia" (or...gulp...western Maryland?) doesn't have four syllables. So instead of a nice tune about the beauty of the region, Denver gave Mountaineer fans something they'll run into the ground until the end of time.
And while regional pettiness may ooze out of the last three paragraphs, it's just jealousy. To me, western Virginia is one of the most beautiful places on earth and deserves the song. Between the mountains, the food and the people, it has a personality. And no matter if you go to Abingdon or Front Royal you know what to expect.
That of course goes for both Blacksburg and its college football team. For decades opponents walked into Lane Stadium and knew what they'd get — loud crowds, hard hits and an unrelenting ground game. At times it was explosive:
At times it was breathtaking:
And for a few years it was damn near untouchable:
(Hold on just a second, can we talk about that pregame segment? We have a cheesy fan-inspired nickname. We have a classic Frank Beamer "both guys'll get after ya" interview. We have Kevin Jones — wearing what I can only describe as the most 2002 shirt of all time — saying "sometimes they call me the holiday, because every time I touch the ball it's like Christmas." Whoever started the trend of limiting media access to college players should be prosecuted.)
But even when it wasn't flashy, the ground game still presented itself in a workmanlike fashion. Darren Evans trucked his way to 1200 yards at 4 yards per carry. Cedric Humes and Mike Imoh, Shyrone Stith and Lamont Peagues, Ken Oxendine and Marcus Parker — all pairs who lumbered towards the thousand-yard mark. And though it may not have been efficient, it was productive and, more importantly, inevitable.
But as the years passed, things started to change. After powering a top-20 rushing attack in 2009, '10 and '11, Tech plummeted to 73rd in 2012, 105th in 2013, 81st in 2014 and 75th in 2015. In the blink of an eye the Hokies' former strength collapsed as the program transformed into another similar site throughout the Appalachians.
Have you ever been to an industry town after it went bust? A coal mining town without the coal mine, for instance. You can pass through a place like this and see its bones. A downtown that used to be lively, full of once-popular restaurants and quaint neighborhoods, now left with only memories.
For years now, the Virginia Tech football program has been a place void of what made it successful. It's not dynamic running backs, nor a head coach with a philosophy of force feeding the ground game. No, the Hokies have lacked an offensive line with the ability to punch people in the mouth.
Tech had 19 All-ACC offensive linemen between 2004 (the first year they joined the conference) and 2011. Some had NFL talent (Will Montgommery and Duane Brown, for instance) and others just had the nastiness to succeed (think Sergio Render, Jaymes Brooks and Greg "pull my finger" Nosal.) It's not a coincidence some of Tech's best single-season rushing performances came behind those o-lines. Nor is it surprising that the running game fell apart as those numbers dwindled–between 2012 and 2019 the Hokies had just 10 All-ACC selections, only three of which were better than Honorable Mention.
Justin Fuente took over in 2016 with a simple offensive philosophy — throw to score, run to win. And though it would look a little different from Beamer's "idk just throw a fullback out there" ground game, Fuente's attack could modernize the Hokies without getting away from a traditional strength.
But there was one massive hurdle in bringing that vision to life — he and Vance Vice had to completely rebuild the offensive line. Between Curt Newsome, Jeff Grimes and Stacy Searles, the end of the Beamer era was filled with poor evaluating, bad injury luck, and substandard recruiting. Just look at every lineman signed in the six years before Fuente took the job:
2010: Laurence Gibson, Mark Shuman, Matt Arkema, Caleb Farris, Nick Acree
2011: Jake Goins
2012: Augie Conte, Jack Willenbrock, Adam Taraschke
2013: Wyatt Teller, Braxton Pfaff, Kyle Chung, Parker Osterloh, Jonathan McLaughlin, Andrew Williams
2014: Colt Pettit, Billy Ray Mitchell, Eric Gallo, Tyrell Smith
2015: Austin Clark, Yosh Nijman, D'Andre Plantin, Zach Hoyt
2016: Demetri Moore*, Thomas Jarrett Hopple, Patrick Kearns, TJ Jackson*
(*committed after Fuente took over)
We're looking at one legitimate star (Teller), six consistent starters (Gibson, Pfaff, Chung, McLaughlin, Gallo, Nijman) and three rotational guys (Farris, Osterloh, Hoyt) IN SEVEN YEARS OF RECRUITING CLASSES. If you want to talk about how a team can fall apart in the trenches, do things like sign one lineman in a class (2011) or use a spot on a 250-lb guard because he's teammates with a four-star running back (cue Drew Harris jokes).
And believe it or not, it could have been worse. Teller was initially recruited as a defensive tackle, Chung as a tight end and McLaughlin flipped from East Carolina and ended up starting at left tackle as a true freshman. There wasn't just a lineman shortage when Fuente took over, there was a full on deficit. He and Vice must have known they had seasons worth of depletion ahead of them.
Though recruiting in the offensive trenches is more art than science, and evaluations often come down to potential and conditioning, a 26 percent hit rate on starters is, well, it's a tough look for the Newsome/Grimes/Searles trifecta. And while Vice doesn't have a 100% hit rate by any means, he has done significantly better in a shorter amount of time:
2017: Silas Dzansi, Lecitus Smith, Aiden Brown
2018: Walker Culver, Luke Tenuta, Christian Darrisaw, John Harris,
2019: Doug Nester, Bryan Hudson, Jesse Hanson, Will Pritchard, Brock Hoffman
2020: Parker Clements, Kaden Moore
Not including the 2020 true freshmen, Vice signed seven starting-caliber linemen in three years. Seven! Brown and Pritchard retired due to injuries, Harris transferred to Mercer, but everyone else can either start or provide depth. And after years of cobbling together a front, Vice finally put five experienced, ACC-caliber players on the field together. And Tech reaped the benefits.
It would be foolish to overreact to one game — if the 2018 Hokies were as good as their performance against Florida State suggested, we'd have all experienced much less angst. NC State was not good on either side of the ball in 2019, and Tech simply capitalized on their deficiencies:
The O was State's worst since 1971, the D its worst since 2009. Pretty good pass rush, and run D was horrid, but injuries at CB meant super soft coverage. LB corps should be great, but there's turnover at DL and DB. pic.twitter.com/UTbHaM4AZa— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) June 19, 2020
But punishing an opponent's weakness is what good teams do. Bending their best player to your will, as the Hokies did with State's Alim McNeill, is what very good teams do. And Tech did both on Saturday night, to the tune of 314 yards rushing.
Sure, it wasn't just the line. Adam Lechtenburg's stable of running backs ran through, around or past Wolfpack linebackers all night. Both Braxton Burmeister and Quincy Patterson posed a strong enough threat with their legs to widen out the defense on every snap. Tre Turner broke another massive jet sweep out of nowhere. But the foundation of all Tech's success still starts at the same place it has for the last 25 years — an ass-kicking mentality.
We better be able to run it. We've invested a tremendous amount of time, played through some really young players playing on the offensive line. I think it took a dramatic step forward during the season last year, our running attack, and with the addition of new backs, I feel like we ought to be able to run the football."
Looking back, the head coach seems prescient. He and his staff endured a mammoth rebuilding process (pun intended), and can finally take advantage of all their hard work. But it's not just about the time they put in recruiting and developing their players.
Look at Doug Nester's block. It's effective, it's aggressive and it's most certainly picking on the little guy. Vance Vice hasn't just built a wall of size and experience to plow massive holes for Tech's backs. He's curated a unit that wants to beat you up for four quarters. He's resurrecting a reputation that has been dormant for nearly a decade.
Vice has brought the nastiness back to Blacksburg.