Justin Fuente’s first season in charge of Virginia Tech was a successful one. The Hokies won nine games and earned a trip to the ACC championship game by winning the Coastal Division.
The Hokies came up short, losing to Clemson 42-35, but proved to everyone watching they belonged on the same field as the Tigers. Remember, Clemson was the runner-up for the national championship last fall and earned another trip to the College Football Playoff this season.
While the result was certainly disappointing, no one should hang their heads. The Hokies were behind by as many as 21 points, yet continued to fight back and threaten the Tigers.
Good things certainly appear to be in Virginia Tech’s future after Saturday night’s showing against the nation’s No. 3 team. Even Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was impressed with the Hokies, via the Associated Press.
“They got here for a reason," Swinney said of Virginia Tech. "We just couldn't put them away."
Now that we’ve had a few days to reflect, here are some takeaways from Virginia Tech’s performance in the ACC championship.
Jerod Evans kept the Hokies in it
Junior quarterback Jerod Evans had a terrific debut season for the Hokies. Evans broke numerous school records and anytime Tech needed a big play, he somehow found a way to make it happen. Against Clemson, Evans didn’t have his best day throwing the football. He struggled with his accuracy, especially throughout the first half.
However, every time it seemed like the Tigers were going to pull away, Evans would make a big throw or have a timely run for a first down. Despite constant pressure and numerous sacks, Evans still managed to rush for 46 yards and two scores.
While we await the decisions of Bucky Hodges and Isaiah Ford regarding their NFL futures, Tech will get Evans back next season. Another year in Fuente’s system should make Evans even better. Fuente would certainly like to see Evans become a more accurate thrower in 2017, but he couldn’t ask for a better leader for his football team.
Isaiah Ford is officially the best receiver in Virginia Tech history
Sure, it’s debatable, but the junior from Jacksonville broke the school record for receiving yards in a career in the loss to Clemson. So, if you’re counting at home, Ford is now VT’s career leader in receiving yards, receptions, touchdown receptions and he holds numerous single-season records, too.
The Hokies have had some terrific wide receivers over the years. Antonio Freeman, Bryan Still, Andre Davis, Eddie Royal, Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale are some of the best receivers in school history. But the numbers don’t lie. Ford is the best.
Some could make a case that Ford plays in a more pass-happy era. Yes, that’s true in 2016. But did anyone see the offense Ford played in his first two seasons?
The opposition knows Ford is getting the football and will often scheme around him, yet he still makes plays. Whether it’s big plays down the field or a key first down, Ford is always there. Now, Hokie fans just hope to get him back for one more year.
The Hokies couldn’t capitalize on the interception
Coming into the game, we all knew Deshaun Watson would throw a few questionable balls, giving Tech a chance for a turnover or two. For most part, Watson was pretty accurate, save for a ball that was tipped by Vinny Mihota in the third quarter and subsequently picked off by Andrew Motuapuaka.
Virginia Tech had the ball at Clemson’s 38-yard line down 21-14. A touchdown, or even a field goal in this situation, we could’ve been looking at a different outcome.
Of course, it didn’t work out too well for the Hokies. An ugly offensive series led to a three-and-out and it was the Tech’s best chance to tie this game until the final drive.
On first down, Evans missed Rogers on a screen. On second down, Evans threw low to Hodges and it was ruled incomplete. Finally, Evans was sacked on third down. Just an ugly offensive series and arguably one of the major reasons Tech lost this game.
The defense buckled down and made some plays
No, this wasn’t defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s best game. In fairness to Foster, though, no one is going to completely shut this high-powered unit down. Early in the game, the Hokies forced the Tigers into some third-and-long situations and appeared to be in a good position to get off the field. Unfortunately, Tech was called for pass interference on four different occasions, prolonging Clemson scoring drives.
We can debate on if some of those calls were ticky-tack (and they were), but VT’s defensive backs were a little aggressive with Clemson’s pass-catchers. In defense of Tech’s secondary, though, the only way you were going to win battles against the likes of Mike Williams, Jordan Leggett and Deon Cain was to be aggressive with them. Early in the game, penalties were called, however, as the game progressed, the secondary adjusted and had strong coverage for the most part. Virginia Tech’s front four—particularly Ken Ekanem—was getting some pressure on Watson, which likely helped, too.
The overall final numbers weren’t pretty, but the Hokies aren’t in this game without their defense. On several occasions, especially in the second half, Foster’s group would come up with a big stop to give the ball back to the offense.
Foster deserves credit for adjusting throughout this game, keeping the Hokies in it.
The Belk Bowl is a good destination
No, it isn’t the Orange Bowl, but a trip to the Belk Bowl is good for Virginia Tech. Not only is the game in Charlotte, the Hokies drew an SEC opponent in Arkansas. Expect Bank of America Stadium to be packed full of Virginia Tech fans.
Arkansas is an intriguing opponent. The Razorbacks began the season 3-0 and 4-1, and looked like a legitimate top-15 team. The wheels eventually fell off, especially after a 56-3 loss at Auburn where the Razorbacks allowed 543 rushing yards and also a crushing defeat at Missouri in the season finale.
For the Hokies, a 10-win season is a possibility with a win in the Belk Bowl. That would be a terrific way to end Fuente’s first season on the sideline. For years, getting to 10 wins seemed like a given for Tech, but the past few years have been tough. Now, Fuente can get this team to 10 wins and focus on recruiting.