Former Kansas quarterback looking for more success in first home start vs. undefeated Fighting Irish
While Virginia Tech will forever be linked to the stunning loss to Old Dominion, it doesn't mean that the Hokies still don't have a chance to produce something positive from their 2018 campaign. Virginia Tech is currently ranked 24th in the AP Poll and undefeated in ACC play so far with wins over Florida State and Duke. And this Saturday, the Hokies have a chance to post a signature victory against No. 6 Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish are undefeated and have rolled up victories against Wake Forest and Stanford the last two weeks by a combined score of 94-44. Notre Dame has been a different team since making a quarterback switch, as junior Ian Book has replaced senior Brandon Wimbush. In his first two starts, Book has accounted for nine total touchdowns (six passing, three rushing).
Virginia Tech also made a quarterback switch, but for an entirely different reason. Starter Josh Jackson broke his leg late in the loss to Old Dominion with Ryan Willis taking his place. Willis, a 6-foot-4, 223-pound redshirt junior, did his part to try and avoid the upset, completing 9-of-18 passes for 131 yards a touchdown, but it was not meant to be as the Monarchs sealed the game with two late scores.
With many thinking the Hokies' season was over given the 1-2 punch of losing both the game and Jackson, head coach Justin Fuente named Willis the starter ahead of last week's game on the road against No. 22 Duke. While this would be Willis' first start for Virginia Tech, he was no stranger to the role having made 10 of them for Kansas as a freshman back in 2015.
Willis, from Overland Park, Kansas, was a 3-star prospect coming out of Bishop Miege High School. He signed with the in-state Jayhawks and proceeded to set a school freshman record by throwing for 1,719 yards and nine touchdowns while starting the last eight games. He played in six games (two more starts) as a sophomore before deciding to transfer after the 2016 season.
He wound up at Virginia Tech as a walk-on and after sitting out 2017 as a transfer, he won the backup job to Jackson out of fall camp. While the initial expectation was that Willis would only get on the field for mop-up duty (like he did in the 62-17 win over William & Mary earlier this season), Jackson's injury changed that.
Instead, Willis found himself making his first start for the Hokies on the road against the undefeated Blue Devils, who were getting their dynamic dual-threat quarterback, Daniel Jones, back after missing two games with a broken collarbone. Even though Willis was 0-10 as a starter headed into this game, he outplayed Jones (with a little help from his defense), as the Hokies pulled off the 31-14 upset.
Willis finished the game with 332 passing yards and three touchdowns, including a 67-yard strike to Dalton Keene in the second quarter. He only had five rushing yards (on nine carries), but he was sacked just once and most importantly, he did not turn the ball over. Willis also was extremely effective on third down, completing seven of 10 attempts for 113 yards, which led to six first downs.
Now with that elusive first win as a starter under his belt, an entirely different challenge awaits Willis and the Hokies as they return home to face No. 6 Notre Dame. Playing at Lane Stadium is a tough assignment for any team, especially at night like Saturday's game, but the Fighting Irish are undefeated, have been rolling lately, and have their sights set on getting into the College Football Playoff.
Notre Dame is averaging 32.8 points per game but has increased that to 47 in Book's first two starts. While Virginia Tech's defense has been very good at times (vs. Florida State), the young Hokies also have had their lapses (vs. ODU), so it will be critical for Willis and the offense to put some points on the board. More production from the ground game is a great place to start, but Willis will need to make plays with his arm, especially against an Irish passing defense that is ranked 12th in the country in efficiency (102.5) and has twice as many interceptions (six) as touchdown passes (three) allowed.
This will be Notre Dame's biggest road game to this point, but this is a team that has already defeated Michigan and Stanford. Virginia Tech is always tough at home, but the Hokies need to play their best game of the season (probably even better than they did in the road rout of Florida State) if they want to give people a reason to look past the upset loss to Old Dominion.
Willis already knows he's not in Kansas anymore, and if he helps the Hokies upset the Irish on Saturday night, Virginia Tech fans are going to be really glad he came to Blacksburg.
(Top photo courtesy of hokiesports.com)