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Virginia Tech football: 5 takeaways from Hokies’ win over Old Dominion

Some good, some not so good, but a big win to start the season.

NCAA Football: Old Dominion at Virginia Tech Lee Luther Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Tech Hokies are 1-0 after Saturday night's 36-17 win over the Old Dominion Monarchs. The atmosphere couldn't have been any better for Tech's opener in front of a hyped-up, sold-out crowd at Lane Stadium under the lights.

Next up for the Hokies is a home date against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lane Stadium next Saturday. But before we look ahead to that game, here are five takeaways from Virginia Tech's season-opening win over ODU.

Grant Wells had his best performance as a Hokie

Grant Wells's debut as Virginia Tech’s quarterback one year ago couldn’t have gone any worse. Wells was intercepted four times, and the Hokies suffered a last-minute upset loss to the Monarchs.

After winning the starting job again in 2023, how would Wells fare in the rematch?

Overall, Wells had a strong performance but was far from perfect. Early in the game, it appeared Wells had some jitters. On a fourth down play from the one-yard line, offensive coordinator Tyler Bowen called a pass play after three consecutive runs with Kyron Drones under center. Wells rifled a pass to running back Bhayshul Tuten that was off-target and a missed opportunity.

Later in the game, Wells missed wide receiver Ali Jennings on what would’ve been their third TD connection of the game. On some shorter throws, Wells sometimes puts too much on the football, which also happened last year.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about the good. First, it was nice to see Bowen attack downfield. That results from the OC having some excellent new weapons at wide receiver — more on them later. Throwing deep works for Wells, who has tremendous arm strength. He also made some superb underneath throws and never really put the ball in harm’s way.

It was not a perfect night, but four total touchdowns and no turnovers is an excellent performance. Wells completed 17 of 29 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for a touchdown.

Early in the game, the rotating of QBs really seemed to bother Wells. While we all want to see Drones play, the two-QB system often does more harm than good. Saturday night’s game was a building performance for Wells and should have Hokie fans encouraged.

Impact newcomers

Where do we begin?

Let’s start with Middle Tennessee State transfer Jaylin Lane. I believe Lane is going to lead the Hokies in receiving this year. He is dangerous on the short stuff; he can get deep and is dangerous after the catch. Lane scored the first TD of the night, and Wells didn’t see him on a throw later in the game. Lane caught four passes for 69 yards and a touchdown. He could’ve had a lot more.

Jennings excelled in his Virginia Tech debut against his former school. He caught five passes for 72 yards and two touchdowns. As we mentioned earlier, he should’ve had another one.

Finally, there is 6-foot-5 speedster Da’Quan Felton. Felton caught a pass from Wells, turned and ran for a 34-yard gain. If not for two players having an angle on Felton, he takes that one to the house.

There’s also Tuten, the starting running back. We’ll discuss him later.

Others, such as Stephen Gosnell, his younger brother, Benji, Dae’Quan Wright and Da’Wain Lofton, all had impact plays in the game. It’s difficult to express how much better this group is.

If everyone can stay healthy, this is a deep and outstanding group of playmakers, which should only help Wells.

Run blocking

Let’s start off with pass protection. I thought Virginia Tech’s offensive line did an excellent job of protecting Wells. Wells had a nicely formed pocket throughout the night, giving him the opportunity to take shots down the field.

But the run blocking, that’s another story.

Tuten ran the ball 19 times for 55 yards. That’s 2.9 yards per attempt. Malachi Thomas didn’t have a lot of luck, either. He carried the ball 12 times for 22 yards. As a team, Virginia Tech rushed for 109 yards on 43 attempts, which averages out to 2.5 yards per attempt.

That’s not going to win you many games. No disrespect to ODU, but the Monarchs didn’t necessarily return a standout defense for 2023. If you can’t run against Old Dominion, what happens against a Big Ten foe like Purdue? Or the always-stingy Pitt defense later this month?

Let’s not get too critical because it was the first game. These guys are playing together for the first time as a unit, and they have a new coach. They’ll improve. But it was hard to judge Tuten and Thomas because they were often hit in the backfield. Much of Tuten’s yardage came after he was hit and spun out to gain extra yardage.

I believe VT’s backfield can still be a strength in 2023. Tuten and Thomas are a good duo, but they need better blocking.

Run defense

This was the most concerning aspect of the game for the Hokies. Old Dominion rushed for 201 yards on 43 attempts. Quarterback Grant Wilson led the Monarchs with 81 yards rushing. I haven’t gone back to watch the game again, but this didn’t look like the defensive line being blown off the ball. Instead, it appeared Tech’s linebackers struggled with their run fits.

Far too often in the game, there was no VT defender on that second level, allowing ODU to pick 10-12 yards. Head coach Brent Pry mentioned the run defense after the game, so you can bet he and defensive coordinator Chris Marve will be hard at work improving this aspect of the defense. Improving run fits is coachable. Getting blown off the ball is not.

One aspect that is concerning is the quarterback leading the team in rushing. How often have we seen that over the years? The Hokies never seem to have an answer for a dual-threat quarterback on the ground. That must improve — and immediately. Whether it’s biting too hard on the zone read or the quarterback taking off once he sees nothing is open, VT needs to find a way to defend it better.

Antwaun Powell-Ryland

In one game, you see why the Hokies had to land an impact pass rusher from the transfer portal. Antwaun Powell-Ryland, who began his career at Florida, made all the sense in the world — for him and the Hokies. For Powell-Ryland, it was a chance to return to his home state and be an unquestioned starter.

If Saturday’s game is any indication of what the Hokies are going to get from Powell-Ryland in 2023, buckle up. It’s been a long time since Virginia Tech had a twitchy edge rusher who could beat offensive tackles multiple times per game. That’s what Powell-Ryland did Saturday.

He finished with six tackles, two sacks, two tackles for loss and he forced a fumble.

These are the type of game-changing plays Virginia Tech has missed on defense. Additionally, Powell-Ryland’s success will only help other pass rushers, such as Keyshawn Burgos, Cole Nelson and C.J. McCray. Burgos and McCray each had a sack in the opener.

While you shouldn’t expect Powell-Ryland to have two sacks every week, it didn’t take long for him to show everyone the Hokies have a legitimate pass-rushing threat from the edge.