In a game where we were given a late line of around 31/32 points, Virginia Tech spent a quarter in the tank, puddled around a bit, scuffled with itself, and walked out of it all with the win I came close to figuring it would have. The offense took a bit to get going, the defense was pretty solid, and eventually the talent of the depth chart won out. Let's go over some of the important things we saw- or didn't see- in the Liberty game:
1. Justin Fuente was NOT overly happy with the offense
In attending the press conference, it was obvious that despite the fact that we won, Fuente knew that there were things to correct. "It's obvious, anybody could tell right now, that we've got loads better to get to give ourselves the chance to be the team we'd like to be." He dug the atmosphere- 'that's what college football's all about'- but the team's performance didn't help things. He did specifically say that Evans was pulled for that failed option pitch (Evans did respond and take the blame for a poor choice on that pitch). He liked the way 'our kids dug in there', but you could easily see there were plenty of drills coming in the team's future. I mean, this is to be somewhat expected for the first game with a new system and a new quarterback, but Fuente didn't sound like he wanted any of that. He was pretty complimentary of the defense (more on that later), but he was also evasive about Wyatt Teller and his playing time- 'we played a bunch of guys today'.
2. Jerod Evans is a leader and a QB to build around.
At the press conference, Evans, unprompted, took to the microphone to compliment the defense right away- "Our defense played like it was the end of the world". Indeed, the defense only gave up one touchdown, and that was the result of a short field caused by an Evans fumble. He made a poor decision on the pitch- he owned up to it and more: 'I had a lot of mistakes on my part that I am going to clean up'. But honestly? Since it was the first four TD game by a VT quarterback since Bryan Randall, I'm going to take it as a growth experience. Evans was 20-32 for 221 yards, 4TDs, and a huge 46 yard run that helped break the game open on a fourth down. There were more than a few overthrows, yes, but there were also very nice passes to Isaiah Ford's back shoulder and over the top on fades to Hodges in the end zone. You can definitely see why he was coveted as a recruit and how he could grow. He cleans up the turnovers on some basic ball-security stuff and works on his mechanics more, you can definitely see why he won the competition. Even though his long pass was 25, Coach Cornelsen was still dialing up deep passes to try and open up the defense.
3. It’s still hit and miss on the OL
Good news is that the Hokies gave up only one sack, unfortunate news is that it gift-wrapped Liberty a touchdown. The running game is going to need work. Though it averaged 4.3 yards overall, and totaled 222 yards (Netting 206), there were long stretches of time where runs would not go much of anywhere. It really hurt when Teller wasn't in the middle, but why he wasn't there is still a mystery. Again, Fuente was evasive on the subject. But the problem is the main running backs of McClease, Rogers, McKenzie, and McMillian only totaled 115 yards for 3.59ypc on a total of 32 carries. That's unacceptably inefficient. But the protection was fairly competent all game, which allowed Evans for some time to make the nicer throws he did make. We'll take it of course- the game was actually pretty balanced with 206 net rushing yards and 252 total passing yards. Playcalling actually resembled a lot of what we saw last year, but of course the offense was going to be dictated by not trying to give up a ton to Tennessee- Foster admitted to having watched plenty of tape over the summer on the Volunteers.
4. Beamerball didn't go away, but it might have some holes.
File this as something that doesn't matter until it does, but Mitchell Ludwig can get mad altitude on his punts, but they don't actually go that far. He had a 52 yarder, but his average ended up as 39.0 yards, which is rather unimpressive. The return game was fine enough- Stroman didn't have me cracking too many Maalox- and the coverage was amazing with the safety (Thanks for the assist, Liberty!) and didn't allow much in general, but let's hope that it doesn't burn us later. I wasn't exactly happy that we had more than a couple of punts downed inside the 5 on us, but that happens when your returner bails on a very deep ball like he's told to. You can't talk out of both sides of your mouth and tell him not to return and complain that we're getting balls downed way deep because they die before they get touchbacks. Joey provided his requisite touchbacks as per usual. Oh. And Joey still has some trouble from that right hash.
5. The defense looks locked in and primed to be more explosive than last year
Talk about takeaway city. 1 fumble recovery and three interceptions? Two by Stroman? One of which was ridiculous? NICE. Only one sack, but Ken Ekanem made the point that they were getting the ball out quickly, which they were. Fair enough. We kept them bottled up for the most part- 160 yards total is really low, and a lot of that was later in garbage time against the second string. It was an 'effective' shutout, as none of the drives that Liberty started in normal situations went much of anywhere. Nice to see them engaged and tuned in. They only managed 90 yards and their longest run was only 12 yards. Keeping a lid on their rushing game is definitely a plus considering the failures last year to stop the run.
6. Not that we didn’t already know, but Isaiah Ford is amazing.
Isaiah Ford is great. I'm not going to say much more than that. Starting out the season with 11 catches, 117 yards, and a touchdown, Ford did nice work on Saturday. He made a lot of great adjustments in the air on the ball, and came down with a few really choice catches. Of course, Cam Phillips did alright for himself, going 5-53-1 (…minus the rather terrible fumble). But Isaiah Ford is currently something for the team to hang its offensive identity on.
7. There was enough nonsense going on that we don't know what this team is, still.
I think that the terrible awful no good first quarter was a function of a lack of game experience. Fine. But that doesn't explain all of the decision making. We only targeted Bucky in the red zone, really. We heard all this talk about the other wide receivers and only saw a bit of the others (CJ Carroll of all people had the most featured secondary receiving roll). The running back rotation was all over the place and they weren't used in certain ways. Heck we didn't even see Rogers catch a pass or stay in the game for long outside of the first couple drives where we couldn’t get any forward traction. Call me conspiratorial if you wish but I'm going to bet there was a bit of gamesmanship going on against an FCS team we should have simply out-talented. So many one-on-one throws were made that I have a feeling that there was little in the offense structure shown to get people free. A lot of the plays looked very similar- maybe that was all on purpose. I'm going to go out on a rather safe limb and say that we didn’t see much more than was required to get ahead of Liberty and then win.
This game was an intriguing look in the exercise of building a new team. We saw some good things (Stroman, Ford, Defense) and some bad things (turnovers). We saw a good crowd scare the tar out of an offense, causing eight false starts and two delays of game. Heck, I didn't even get to the fact that for once we saw a Hokies team with only 4 penalties for 33 yards. That in itself is impressive. But this team hasn't shown all it can be yet, and it knows it. The question is how much was planned, how much was interference by the opponent, and how much of it was its own errors. Let's see what happens next week.