Ryan Willis took over for an injured Josh Jackson and gave the Hokies' offense a spark
Virginia Tech was ranked in the Top 25 in every major preseason poll, so finishing 6-6 is not a cause for celebration. But the Hokies did come up big in the last two games to continue two important streaks. They have now beaten Virginia 15 straight times and they will be playing in their 26th consecutive bowl game, the longest active streak in America.
Here are the 2018 Virginia Tech team awards that give an indication just how the Hokies got to this point.
Offensive MVP: Ryan Willis, QB
When Josh Jackson went down, there was concern nationally as to how the Hokies offense would operate with the Kansas transfer at quarterback. But those close to the Virginia Tech program knew that Willis had talent and he proved his worth by throwing for 2,497 yards with 22 touchdowns.
Defensive MVP: Rayshard Ashby, LB
All three linebacker spots were open coming into the season and the sophomore from Chesterfield, Virginia, locked down his spot early on and became the team’s leading tackler with 100 stops. Productive all year, Ashby had a 14-tackle game against Miami and 15 tackles in the wins over Duke and Marshall.
Best Freshman: Dax Hollifield, LB
The prized recruit got better and better as the season wore on. He finished fourth on the team in tackles with 59 and had at least six stops in six of the last seven games. A fiery competitor, Hollifield should emerge as a team leader in short order.
Best Play of the Season: Tre Turner’s Touchdown Catch vs. Virginia
Turner had two touchdown grabs against the Cavaliers, but the first one was a work of art. The freshman made a one-handed grab with Virginia’s Bryce Hall draped all over him to break a scoreless tie late in the second quarter of the Hokies' overtime win at Lane Stadium.
Best Performance by a Player: Ryan Willis vs. Duke
Virginia Tech was coming off the embarrassing loss to Old Dominion where Josh Jackson was lost for the season. The following week at Duke, Willis showed that he was capable of running the show by completing 17 of 27 passes for 332 yards and three touchdowns without a pick.
Best Game (Team Performance): Win Over Virginia
The day after the victory, a Hokie fan said to me, “The season hasn’t been great, but we’re still better than UVA.” Continuing the streak was important and how they did it — blowing a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead then rallying from a late seven-point deficit — showed that the team still had some resolve after four straight decisive ACC losses.
Defining Moment: Goal Line Forced Fumble vs. North Carolina
This play — and this game — epitomized the whole Virginia Tech season. All night, the Hokies were trailing a depleted UNC team that would eventually finish 2-9. The Tar Heels rushed for 235 yards on the night, 165 of which was gained by Michael Carter. But midway through the fourth quarter, when all hope appeared lost, Tyree Rodgers forced a Carter fumble near the Tech goal line that was recovered by Jovon Quillen. 18 plays and 5:54 later, the Hokies scored a touchdown to survive the Heels.
Biggest Surprise: Loss to Old Dominion
Virginia Tech opened the year with a convincing win against Florida State in Tallahassee and were 2-0 coming off an open week due to Hurricane Florence. ODU was 0-3 and had been beaten 52-10 by new FBS member Liberty. But the Monarchs’ Blake LaRussa threw for 495 yards and was a part of five touchdowns in Old Dominion’s shocking 49-35 victory.
Biggest Disappointment: Rush Defense
Though LaRussa carved up the Hokies by throwing the ball that day, it was the run defense that was the biggest issue over the course of the season. Virginia Tech allowed an average of 206.5 rushing yards per game. The last time that a Hokie team allowed more than 200 yards a game on the ground was in 1987, when Bud Foster was a linebackers coach for first-year head man Frank Beamer.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most: Ricky Walker, DT
Most of the Virginia Tech production in 2018 came from underclassmen, which bodes well for the future. But Walker’s presence inside will be difficult to replace. The 6-foot-2, 304-pounder was having a so-so senior season before turning it on over his last six games with 33 tackles (7.5 of which resulted in lost yardage) and two forced fumbles.
Player to Watch in 2019: Jalen Holston, RB
With leading rusher Steven Peoples moving on, Holston and Terius Wheatley will be given an opportunity for more touches next fall. Holston appeared to inch ahead of Wheatley late in the year and had 54 yards on four carries, including a 40-yard touchdown run, in the regular season finale against Marshall.
Offseason Storyline: The Quarterback Situation
There’s a sports adage that says you can’t lose your job because of an injury. If that’s true, Josh Jackson should enter next year feeling good about his chances of being the starter. But Willis has to believe that he should be taking the primary snaps in 2019 after his play this fall. The battle will commence this spring, assuming Jackson is healthy enough to participate.
— 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)