The Virginia Tech Hokies finally open 2018 season on Monday night when they head to Tallahassee to face the Florida State Seminoles in an ACC battle.
As we’ve covered here months, we aren’t sure quite what to expect from this team in 2018. The Hokies lost so much on defense from a year ago that defensive coordinator Bud Foster is facing one of his biggest challenges yet. Fortunately for Hokie Nation, Foster loves a good challenge and he’s usually up for it.
Tech has to hope sophomore quarterback Josh Jackson looks like the player he was from the first two months of 2017. Jackson, of course, was battling a seriously sore shoulder for the final month of the regular season and it clearly affected the passing game as a whole. Jackson is having a strong summer and the hope is that carries over into the opener on Monday night.
So, how can the Hokies win at Florida State tomorrow night? Here are five keys to victory for Virginia Tech in the season opener.
Run the Football
The Hokies weren’t great running the football last season. Overall, Tech ranked No. 54 in rushing offense, which, is surprisingly a high number for anyone who watched this team last season. The Hokies had no standout back and went games where they seemingly struggled to get anything going on the ground.
Virginia Tech ranked No. 96 in yards per carry last season, at 3.9, which is more indicative of how this running game was.
For the Hokies to go into Tallahassee and win on Monday night, they need to run the football. Deshawn McClease, Jalen Holston and Steven Peoples must find some room to run and create multiple big plays on the ground.
The ‘Noles, much like the Hokies, lost several standout defensive starters from a year ago. Perhaps head coach Justin Fuente can design a plan to take advantage of FSU’s relative inexperience up front, as the Seminoles have five new starters in their front seven.
Josh Jackson Must Have a Big Game
In his first career start, Jackson was outstanding. And the circumstances were somewhat similar as it was a prime-time game to open the season. Jackson was good through the air and on the ground against West Virginia last September and never looked like a freshman quarterback.
That’s the player Fuente needs on Monday night.
.@CoachFuente and Josh Jackson himself know that he's ready to take that next step as @VT_Football's QB and lead the #Hokies to the top of the ACC's Coastal Division. #ACCKickoff pic.twitter.com/oTNw9kGBal— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) July 18, 2018
With so many young receivers around him, VT needs Jackson to make plays with his arm as well as his legs. This offseason, whispers around Blacksburg have been encouraging about Jackson and his willingness to go downfield more. FSU has a talented secondary so we shall see if Jackson does that in live game action.
If Jackson can make a few plays downfield and take care of the football, the Hokies can win this game.
No Mistakes on Special Teams
For years, Virginia Tech was known for its expertise on special teams. Well, the Hokies aren’t going to remind anyone of Beamerball as currently constituted, however, they don’t have to block punts or kicks to be successful.
What Tech needs on Monday night is a mistake-free night by all special-teams units. That means no shanked punts, fumbled kicks or missed field goals. That’s asking a lot considering there are going to be new returners on kicks and punts and also a new place-kicker.
Virginia Tech can win this game if Johnson hits his kicks and the Hokies can get something out of the return game. Caleb Farley looks like the primary kick returner now and fans will be excited to see him get the ball in his hands.
Young Pups Must Grow up in a Hurry
There are many reasons to be excited about this defense. It just may not show up immediately. The Hokies have a ton of fresh faces on defense, many of whom should be very good. Youth is everywhere in the back seven as Farley—a redshirt freshman—starts at corner opposite of Bryce Watts—a sophomore.
QB Josh Jackson on what stands out about the #Hokies' young cornerbacks: "Their speed, I think, helps them. Even when you think you've beat them, they catch up and make a play." Mentioned Caleb Farley's speed especially.— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) August 26, 2018
Dylan Rivers—a sophomore—and Rayshard Ashby—a redshirt freshman—are the starters at linebacker. While the nickel spot will be filled by sophomores Khalil Ladler and Devon Hunter. Dax Hollifield—a true freshman will see plenty of action at linebacker, too.
At defensive end, the Hokies have several young faces behind starters Trevon Hill and Houshun Gaines. They should all see action on Monday as Foster will want fresh legs on the field as much as possible to keep this group fresh.
For as much as everyone should be concerned about the youth, inexperience and severe lack of depth at the defensive tackle position, you should be just as excited for Foster’s game plan with this group. It will be fascinating to watch.
Hokies Must Pressure Francois and Keep Him in the Pocket
The Seminoles have an outstanding trio of running backs in Cam Akers, Jacques Patrick and Khalan Laborn. While Akers is FSU’s top back, all three can take over a game. That’s why it’s imperative Foster not allow quarterback Deondre Francois to beat the Hokies with his legs.
As you know, the Hokies have struggled to contain mobile quarterbacks over the years. That’s a scary proposition heading into Monday night as Francois is quite the athlete. Fortunately for the Hokies, it’s his first game back after missing last year with a serious knee injury. Will there be jitters for Francois?
There should be and it’s up to the Hokies to give him the jitters and make him nervous. Virginia Tech should come after him early and often and never let up. The best way to alleviate the concerns about the secondary is to keep pressure on the quarterback. Foster loves to design pressure from spots on the field. That’s what he needs to do on Monday night.
"I've seen Bud Foster lose a bunch of guys on defense, return two or three starters, and you're thinking, 'Boy, this is going to be a down year,' and here comes that next wave of eager, excited, hungry players, and they end up playing better than they did the year before." https://t.co/fR6vK3uDdP— Gene Wang (@gene_wang) August 24, 2018
How the Virginia Tech defense handles Francois is the key to the game.