As the second half gets underway, Virginia Tech sits alone atop theACC Coastal standings with a 3-0 record. Coming into the year, Miamiwas considered the cream of the crop in the division, but the Hokies are now the hunted as we go down the stretch.
But it’s hard to erase what happened on Sept. 22 in Norfolk. Coming in as a 28-point favorite, the Hokies couldn’t stop Old Dominion quarterback Blake LaRussa and fell to a Monarch team that hasn’t won another game this year. That loss alone gives pause to anyone thinking that Virginia Tech is good enough to run away and hide in the Coastal.
Let's look at the positive, though. Here are some awards for the first six games and a peak ahead at what remains.
Offensive MVP: WR Damon Hazelton
The 6-foot-2, 217-pound wide receiver has had three 100-yard games and though he only had two catches this past week against North Carolina, they were big grabs in the second half when the Hokies really needed a play to be made. Hazelton has a nice connection with new quarterback Ryan Willis and is on pace for a 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown season.
Defensive MVP: LB Rayshard Ashby
This is not a typical Bud Foster defensive unit as the Hokies are 95th in total defense, so it’s difficult to pick a true standout. But Ashby leads the team in tackles and is tied for the lead in tackles for lost yardage. Beyond the numbers, he has helped bring stability to a very inexperienced position group.
Best Moment of the First Half: Tyree Rodgers' Forced Fumble Against North Carolina
North Carolina led 19-14 with just over six minutes to go and had the ball 1st-and-goal at the Virginia Tech one-yard line. A score and the game was, for all intents and purposes, over and the Hokies would be at 3-3 and have a loss in the ACC. But Rodgers hit UNC running back Michael Carter before he crossed the goal line, the ball popped out, and Jovonn Quillen recovered the fumble. Eighteen plays and 98 yards later, Virginia Tech scored a touchdown and put themselves in first place in the division.
Best Newcomer: WR Damon Hazelton
In the ACC, you don’t generally expect big things out of transfers from Ball State. But Hazelton has proved to be a big-time player and has been the best Hokie on the field multiple times this season, including an impressive 12-catch, 131-yard showing in the loss to Notre Dame.
Biggest Surprise: QB Ryan Willis
While Hazelton’s level of success has been surprising, the rise of Willis has to be considered an even bigger shock. Much had been made of recent recruits Hendon Hooker and Quincy Patterson, but when Josh Jackson went down it was the walk-on transfer from Kansas that was inserted into the lineup. And he has been effective with eight touchdown passes and just three interceptions while leading the Hokies to road wins at Duke and North Carolina.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Shoring up the pass defense
Simply put, the pass defense has been brutal. They rank 122nd nationally, giving up 296 yards per game through the air. They have gotten some pressure up front, but the secondary is young and still learning. There aren’t many high-powered passing attacks on the back end of the schedule, but this is an area that has to improve as the season goes on, especially if the Hokies are fortunate enough to play Clemson that first Saturday in December.
2. Steven Peoples
With Hazelton, Eric Kumah, Hezekiah Grimsley and Sean Savoy, Virginia Tech has some talented receivers for Willis to use. But to maximize the offense, the running game has to take another step and Peoples has shown positive signs as the primary ball carrier. The offensive line has played pretty well and as a result Peoples and the running game could provide some needed balance over the second half of the year.
3. Winning the Coastal games
Because of Hurricane Florence, the Hokies will only play 11 times and they have just five games remaining. Four of those are against division opponents and three are at Lane Stadium. Tech has a one-game lead over Miami, Pittsburgh and Virginia in the Coastal and Tech still has dates remaining with each of the contenders. Win the division contests and the Hokies will be in Charlotte for the ACC Championship Game.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 17 Miami
The Hurricanes are not what most experts thought they’d be coming in, but their defense is still nasty. Plus, it is likely that when Miami comes to Blacksburg in November, the game will determine the division title.
2. Nov. 3 Boston College
How dangerous the Eagles will be the rest of the season will be determined by the health of running back AJ Dillon. The 2017 ACC Rookie of the Year was injured against Temple and has missed the past two games. If he’s back, combined with quarterback Anthony Brown and defensive end Zach Allen, Boston College will be a handful for anyone.
3. Nov. 10 at Pittsburgh
Pat Narduzzi’s team started off the year sluggish, but has played two good games in a row, beating Syracuse at home and giving Notre Dame all it could handle in South Bend before falling 19-14. Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall are dangerous backs and the Hokies will be challenged in their only remaining road game.
4. Nov. 23 Virginia
Every football fan in the Commonwealth knows the story. Virginia has lost 14 in a row to the Hokies and have not won in Blacksburg since the Clinton administration was in power. But Bronco Mendenhall is slowly building the Cavaliers and Bryce Perkins may be the best quarterback left on the schedule.
5. Oct. 25 Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets are 3-4 and Paul Johnson may be coaching for his job the rest of the season. Virginia Tech’s run defense has been much better than their pass defense, something that should be of benefit against Georgia Tech’s option system.
— 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)