By Jimmy Robertson
BLACKSBURG – Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente quickly turned his attention to Wake Forest, the Hokies’ opponent Saturday, but he spent part of Monday’s press conference answering questions related to the fallout from his team’s convincing 40-14 victory over Boston College on Saturday night.
Tech takes on the Demon Deacons Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Truist Field in Winston-Salem, N.C.
The Hokies’ dominating performance that included rushing for 350 yards and forcing five turnovers moved them to 3-1 on the season and also propelled them four spots in The Associated Press national poll to No. 19.
But in a revelation that may come as a surprise to most of Hokie Nation, Fuente wasn’t completely thrilled with what he saw Saturday night.
“I don’t feel that we played all that well, to be honest with you,” he said during his weekly video news conference. “There’s just a lot that we need to do. Yeah, I’m happy with the outcome, but the outcome shouldn’t jade our evaluation of what actually occurred. We still have far too many mistakes being made out there. I think a little bit of that is due to guys haven’t played together. There’s a little bit of that that we’ve missed out on, as has everybody else. Don’t get me wrong, I know we’re no different than most people. But I think it’s pretty clear when we watch the film as coaches that there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Despite the head Hokie’s misgivings, Saturday’s outcome, going by scoring margin, was the best for Tech so far this season. The Hokies finally got the bulk of their main contributors back – the 15 who missed the game were the fewest to miss a game this season – and not coincidentally, this veteran group won by more than three touchdowns.
The game felt almost as if the Hokies had turned a corner. Fuente, though, shook his head when asked about that.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m hesitant to say anything. You see guys make comments, and the next thing you know, it bites them in the tail. I know we’re doing everything in our power to adhere by the guidelines and do our best to control what we can in this situation. We were still down some guys, but it was nice to have our staff there. That was probably the most normal week we’ve had thus far.”
That said, here are some more takeaways from Monday’s video news conference:
Clearly, Tech’s offense has evolved into one with a powerful rushing attack led by tailback Khalil Herbert, who leads the nation at 148 yards rushing per game. Herbert certainly brings an array of skills to the position. Fuente noted his 57-yard run on second-and-9 early in the second half as one of his favorite plays from the game. But Herbert is also the beneficiary of a big, athletic and deep offensive line with 10 linemen who have started at least two games in their careers.
That group has paved the way for a rushing attack that averages 312 yards per game, second in the nation behind Air Force (369), which has played just one game so far.
“Well, I would say that’s the first thing, not to undervalue experience, having been there and done that,” Fuente said when asked why the offensive line is playing well. “I think Brock [Hoffman] has brought a level of confidence and leadership and toughness to that group, not that they didn’t have it beforehand, but I think he certainly brings that on a daily basis.
“And then we have some talented guys,” Fuente said. “We have some guys that aren’t just big, but are big athletes that have some talent in there and have a chance to be productive. I don’t know what the number of games played and all that stuff is, but it’s probably the most I’ve ever had in terms of guys that have played meaningful snaps in games that deserve to play and deserve those opportunities.”
Tech’s staff continues to search for more contributors at the receiver positions, and the lack of depth at the spot was highlighted Saturday when Tré Turner left the game with an injury. Only three Tech receivers have caught passes this season: Turner, Tayvion Robinson and Kaleb Smith. Fortunately, tight ends James Mitchell and Nick Gallo possess the skills to play outside or in the slot, and the staff relies heavily on them. Still, the search continues for more depth among a contingent that includes graduate transfers Evan Fairs and Changa Hodge and younger players such as Darryle Simmons and Elijah Bowick, who just returned to practice from an injury.
Fuente singled out Smith as one to watch after a three-catch performance against BC.
“Kaleb Smith is the first one that comes to mind that is contributing in ways that aren’t showing up in the box score,” he said. “We had a third-and-3, maybe a third-and-2, perimeter screen, and he made a guy miss and got the first down. He’s playing really well on special teams and blocking down the field, and those things are going to come.
“Sometimes, the game goes in a certain direction, and some of that stuff is beyond your control, but I’ve been pleased with the group,” Fuente said. “We’re still trying to bring a couple of new guys along to help them. Hopefully, we’ll get a guy or two back. Elijah Bowick is back practicing. I hope we’ll continue to get a little healthier in that room and continue to bring guys along.”
Twice after BC scored touchdowns Saturday, Virginia Tech responded with a touchdown drive of its own, arguably the best part of the Hokies’ evening. The two scoring drives were the byproducts of a mature and confident team.
Fuente was asked about those responses following the game, and he received another question about that Monday morning.
“I know it’s something we talk about a lot,” he said of regaining momentum. “You know, life’s not perfect, and football is not perfect. No matter who you’re playing or what game you’re in, there are going to be some ups and downs. There’s going to be bad things happen, and we’ve got to be able to respond. We try to articulate that to our kids during practice if one side is getting the better of the other side, like being able to focus and kind of bear down and flip the momentum.
“I do believe that momentum is real. Getting it back is not just a boost for you, but can sometimes be deflating to the other team when you recapture some momentum. I was proud of the way we answered when Boston College seemed to gain some of the momentum.”
One player having a rather quiet season is Rayshard Ashby, an All-ACC linebacker a season ago when he led the ACC in tackles. Through four games this season, though, Ashby had registered just 24 tackles, including 10 solo stops. He finished with just two assists against BC, though in fairness, the Eagles all but abandoned the running game in the second half after following behind by double digits.
Also, some of the lack of numbers for Ashby go back to scheme philosophy. Tech’s defense plays run defense a little differently under new coordinator Justin Hamilton.
Regardless, Fuente has no worries whatsoever about Ashby and expects bigger games ahead.
“I think his fits are a little bit different than what they have been, how we’re fitting some of the run game stuff, but he’s been fantastic,” Fuente said. “He gets everybody lined up, directs all sort of traffic over there. I would anticipate that, as everybody around him continues to get comfortable and maybe does their job on a little more consistent basis, Rayshard should statistically improve as the season goes along.”