Hendon Hooker's recent play at quarterback could be the spark the Hokies have been searching for
As they prepared to enter the back half of the 2018 schedule, Virginia Tech was sitting with a 4-2 record. One year later to the day, the Hokies are again at 4-2 as they prepare for the final six games of the season. Like last year, their 4-2 is not exactly pretty.
Of Tech's four wins, two have come against FCS opponents and another was the victory over 1-5 Old Dominion. With a schedule remaining that features a top 10 team as well as four ACC Coastal Division rivals, it will be a challenge for Virginia Tech to improve on last year's 6-6 regular-season record. But there are interesting stories that are emerging for the youthful Hokies.
Here's a little look back on what has happened so far this fall and a peek at what may be on the horizon.
Offensive MVP: RB Deshawn McClease
he senior that put his name into and pulled his name out of the transfer portal in the offseason hasn't put up huge numbers, but he's been the most consistent Hokie on offense so far this season. Despite running behind an inexperienced offensive line, McClease had 64 yards against ODU, 102 in the loss to Duke, 124 versus Rhode Island, and 57 with the game-winning touchdown at Miami. He leads the team with 422 total yards from scrimmage.
Defensive MVP: LB Rayshard Ashby
strong case could be made for punter Oscar Bradburn, who is averaging more than 48 yards a boot. But the junior linebacker is the choice as he is fourth in the ACC with eight tackles for a loss. His 54 total stops lead the team and are also good for fourth in the ACC. Ashby has brought it every week and has had at least eight tackles in five of the Hokies six games.
Best Moment of the First Half: The Victory in Miami
Up 35-14 in the fourth quarter, it looked like the Hokies would cruise to victory. But Miami stormed back, scoring a touchdown with 3:16 left that tied the game only because of a failed extra point. With momentum going in the Hurricanes' direction, Virginia Tech went 63 yards in just over two minutes and scored the eventual game-winner on a three-yard run by Deshawn McClease. The key plays were a beautiful pitch and catch from quarterback Hendon Hooker to Damon Hazelton that began the drive and a 26-yard completion to tight end Dalton Keene to convert on 3rd-and-5.
Best Newcomer: C Bryan Hudson
The plan was not to have the true freshman from Georgetown, Kentucky, start in the middle of the offensive line. But Brock Hoffman's transfer waiver was inexplicably denied and Zachariah Hoyt went down with an injury, leaving Virginia Tech in a bind. The Hokies have gotten contributions from Tayvion Robinson, Keshawn King, and Doug Nester, but Hudson's ability to step in at one of the most important spots has been extremely important.
Biggest Surprise: Passing Game Woes
Coming into the year, the aspect of the Virginia Tech offense that appeared to be the most dangerous was the passing attack. But after six games, the Hokies rank 12th in the ACC with just 217 passing yards per game. Starting quarterback Ryan Willis has lost his job while receivers Damon Hazelton and Tre Turner have been hobbled by injuries. There is hope that the change at quarterback and the return to health of the two star receivers can give the passing game a jolt of energy going forward and Hazelton's five-catch, two-score performance on Saturday against Rhode Island may be the first step.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Hendon Hooker
It's impossible to tell anything about his individual play from the Rhode Island game and his numbers against Miami weren't earth-shattering. But something feels different with the sophomore from Greensboro, North Carolina, at the helm. He's a threat to run and has protected the ball well so far, which is key because...
They've killed the Hokies. The loss to Boston College was a direct result of the team's five giveaways. The Duke loss was a complete nightmare in every aspect, but losing the turnover battle 2-0 didn't help. Virginia Tech cannot give their opponents extra possessions, especially considering the teams they play in the final month and a half.
3. Finding a defensive identity
The question is, what do the Hokies do well on defense? They're 86th in America against the run and are 68th in pass defense, but even in that context, Virginia Tech is inconsistent. Two teams have run for more than 200 yards on Tech and one was Old Dominion and their 115th-ranked attack. The Hokies were doing a decent job defending the pass until Miami threw for 469 yards. Bud Foster's unit has to develop one thing that they can truly hang their hat on.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 2 at Notre Dame
Last year, Notre Dame came to Blacksburg and beat Tech 45-23. Once again, the Irish are competing for big prizes and this time the Hokies have to go to South Bend.
2. Nov. 9 vs. Wake Forest
Virginia Tech seemed to dodge a bullet by not drawing Clemson and some of the other brand names in ACC crossover competition. But playing Wake Forest is certainly no bargain, especially this year. Quarterback Jamie Newman is having a huge season and though Dave Clawson's team did lose for the first time this past Saturday, they still scored 59 points.
3. Nov. 29 at Virginia
The Cavaliers have a solid defense and a dynamic quarterback that can make plays. They also have concerns along the offensive line and are last in the ACC in turnover margin. Everyone at UVA is aware of the current 15-game losing streak to the Hokies. Will the Hoos play with doubt in their minds or will it serve as a motivator?
4. Nov. 23 vs. Pittsburgh
The 4-2 Panthers have won three in a row including an upset of then-No. 15 UCF. Head coach Pat Narduzzi loves to be aggressive on defense and it looks like he has the personnel to execute his plan. Offensively, Kenny Pickett has developed into a dangerous thrower and he has two exciting receivers in Taysir Mack and Maurice Ffrench.
5. Oct. 19 vs. North Carolina
The Hokies have won 12 of the last 15 meetings between the two schools but there's a new vibe around the Carolina program. The 3-3 Heels run the ball well and have a nice group of receivers for freshman quarterback Sam Howell. But the biggest transformation has come on the defensive side under new coordinator Jay Bateman.
6. Nov. 16 at Georgia Tech
It's been a rough start for the Jackets and things probably won't get a lot better going forward. The offense is still adjusting to a radically new system and as a result, the defense is trending downward due to overwork.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
(Top photo courtesy of hokiesports.com)