By Jimmy Robertson
The Virginia Tech football team didn’t return from Louisville with a case of that city’s finest product – bourbon – in tow, but the Hokies brought back something much more important.
Tech’s 42-35 victory over the Cardinals on Saturday evening enabled the Hokies to crest the hump of this weird 11-game season with a 4-2 overall record and a 4-2 mark in the ACC. For sure, given the circumstances throughout the past two months, such a record is worthy of a toast of Kentucky’s finest here at their season’s halfway point.
Tech now faces a difficult stretch run – its final five opponents are a combined 21-9. But analyzing them will come at a later date.
First, though, it’s time to hit rewind on Saturday’s game against the Cardinals, and quite simply, the Hokies won because of near-flawless execution on offense. They jumped on Louisville early and stayed relentless, scoring on seven of 11 possessions, including four consecutive possessions in the second half. The only time that the Cardinals stopped the Hokies in the game’s final 30 minutes occurred when Hendon Hooker took a knee to run out the clock.
One week after a frustrating loss in Winston-Salem, the Hokies ran the ball with authority (283 yards), Hooker played maybe the best game of his career, Tech didn’t turn the ball over, and the offense scored all five times it visited the red zone. Teams that do these things win with regularity.
There was a lot to analyze from the game, but here are a few of the main takeaways:
HOOKER BOUNCES BACK
At Wake Forest, Hooker barely completed 50% of his pass attempts and threw three interceptions. Saturday, he completed all 10 of his pass attempts for 183 yards, and he rushed for three touchdowns – a staggering reversal. Those three scores gave the Hokies a 21-0 lead, and they never trailed.
Hooker finished with a career-high 19 rushing attempts, which went for a total of 68 yards, on a night in which the Hokies rushed the ball a season-high 51 times. He now leads the team with seven rushing touchdowns.
Hooker is – and quite honestly, has been – the key to this offense. He moved to 8-3 as a starter, and nearly everyone associated with the Tech football program this week expected a huge bounce-back game.
For sure, they got it.
“That’s what he’s done basically every game he’s played except for one,” Tech coach Justin Fuente said. “He hasn’t won every game as a starter, but he’s played pretty well, with the exception of one game.
“He went out there today and played like the Hendon Hooker we’re all accustomed to, and I’ll remind him that we won, so he’s going to get more credit than the quarterback usually deserves. Just like last week, he probably got more blame than the quarterback deserves. But he was really good [against Louisville].”
PLAY OF THE GAME
Hooker and James Mitchell teamed up to make arguably the biggest play of the game when Hooker found Mitchell for a 24-yard gain on the Hokies’ first possession of the second half. Tech had suffered what Fuente termed a “gut punch” on the final play of the first half when Javian Hawkins went 90 yards for a touchdown that cut Tech’s lead to 21-14 and gave the Cardinals the momentum going into the locker room.
But mature teams find answers, and the Hokies showed poise and maturity. On the first play of that first possession, Hooker was sacked for a 7-yard loss, but he found Mitchell down the seam on the next play, giving the Hokies a first down and putting them in Louisville territory. Five plays later, Tré Turner scored on a 1-yard run to give Tech a 14-point lead.
The Mitchell catch and the Turner touchdown gave the Hokies some breathing room, calmed their nerves, and put Louisville in catch-up mode the rest of the half.
“It was really big,” Hooker said of Tech’s response. “You know, whenever we get a positive play, it’s big. Just coming out and executing at the beginning of the second half is crucial, and we did that.”
“I think the coolest part of it is just seeing our response after that gut punch we took at the end of the first half,” Fuente said. “I’ve never seen anything like that [Hawkins’ run]. I was really proud of the way our guys were in the locker room at halftime in terms of really anxious to get back out there. They could have gone in the tank pretty easily there because we had dominated most of the half and found ourselves only up by seven.”
The Hokies found the perfect response – but that play made it happen.
SIDELINE BRINGS THE JUICE
A lot of things went wrong in that Wake Forest loss, but Fuente complained about the Hokies’ lack of energy and excitement on the sideline. He brought that up a few times in the lead-up to the Louisville game, and obviously his team received the not-so-subtle message.
Tech’s players displayed much more spirit on the sideline in this game, starting with the first play. Fans saw a fired-up squad after Justus Reed sacked Malik Cunningham on the game’s first play. The emotion continued after Hooker’s first touchdown and after Devin Taylor’s first-quarter interception that led to another Hooker touchdown. The emotional level seemed to be elevated with every big play.
“This is a game that is played with emotion, and it’s more so the guys that aren’t in the game continuing to support the players that are on the field,” Fuente said. “I think what disappointed me the most [after the Wake Forest loss] is that’s something we harp on in practice and actually practice doing it. When we scrimmage and we practice, it’s something we do all the time, and we didn’t do a very good job of it last week.
“I think our guys listened to the message this week, which is encouraging, and took the coaching and went out there and put it on display. Now it’s difficult to do all the time, but when we do those things, we have a chance to be a much better football team. If we want to be a good football team, then we’ll have to do those things week in and week out.”
The Hokies’ margin for error is slim. The ACC features a lot of parity, with one dominant team and a cluster of good teams. Tech falls into that latter category.
But it simply can’t show up and expect to win games. Emotion and passion need to be a must.
DEFENSE STILL LEARNING
Tech’s defense gave up 562 yards to an explosive Louisville offense – the second-most yards allowed by Tech this season – and the Hokies defense simply couldn’t put Louisville away despite a 31-14 lead early in the fourth quarter and a 14-point lead with 5 minutes left.
Yet this performance by the defense needs to be put into context.
First, Tech’s rush defense actually played well – except for one play. Louisville rushed for 198 yards, but 90 came on Hawkins’ touchdown run before halftime. Take out that run, and Louisville averaged less than 4 yards per carry. The Cardinals came into the game averaging almost 5 per carry.
Second, 243 of Louisville yards came in the fourth quarter with the Cardinals in desperation mode. Louisville entered the quarter trailing 31-14, so the Cardinals’ staff became even more aggressive with play calling and connected on some shot. Perhaps the Hokies played a little softer in coverage, too.
“We didn’t make as many plays defending the pass, either in pass rush or pass coverage, as I would have anticipated that we would have,” Fuente said. “But our guys kept fighting and battling and playing the next play – but they are an explosive, dangerous offense.”
Finally, fans and some media members tend to forget the situation with Tech’s secondary. Two of the projected starters – Caleb Farley and Devon Hunter – haven’t played a game this season. Another projected starter, Jermaine Waller, has played in just one, and the fourth starter, Divine Deablo, isn’t playing the same position that he played at for the past three seasons.
Tech’s staff expects to get Waller back from an injury soon, perhaps against Liberty this Saturday. That would help, but the rest of this group will continue to learn on the job – and that unfortunately means making mistakes.
Techs’ staff hopes to see better play on defense overall, as the players gain more experience within their positions. But right now, the Hokies need to rely on – and win – with their offense.
So far, at the halfway point of their season, they’ve been able to do exactly that.