When Virginia Tech players carry the football, they’re carrying the “hopes and dreams of everybody.”
That’s what head coach Justin Fuente tells his players.
“We know with the running backs, if we fumble that’s pretty much it,” said Travon McMillian. “They hit hard on that. Just be sure to protect the rock and everything. We know that we have to protect the rock if we want to stay in the game. That’s the only chance we have. He says when we’re holding onto the ball, we have the hopes and dreams of everybody.”
In 2017, the Virginia Tech coaching staff has driven that point home. Take care of the ball, or lose. It’s really that simple.
“I think the biggest thing is, statistically speaking, it’s still one of the biggest determining factors of winning or losing games,” Fuente said. “Last year, for us here, was kind of an anomaly, in terms of taking care of the ball and still winning games, or not taking care of the ball. And if you look at the games we won vs. the games we lost, there was a huge discrepancy. We’ve always taught the techniques, we’ve always done the drill work. I think maybe just during team emphasis, we’ve done a better job of emphasizing it and seem to understand it more.”
Virginia Tech has taken the message to heart. Through eight games, the Hokies have turned the ball over just six times, which is tied for fifth in the FBS. Virginia Tech turned the ball over three times vs. Clemson, and sure enough the Hokies lost 31-17 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score might indicate.
The progress that’s been made in 2017 has been remarkable. In 2016, Virginia Tech committed a whopping 26 turnovers, tied for 117th in FBS. In the Hokies’ wins in 2016, they were plus-8 in turnover margin. In their four losses, they were minus-9. This season, Virginia Tech’s turnover margin is plus-6, and the Hokies are 7-1.
Part of that is because of Josh Jackson’s ability to take care of the ball. The redshirt-freshman quarterback has thrown just four interceptions all season, and has an interception rate of just 1.67 percent.
“He’s really been judicious with his decision making,” Fuente said. “I think he’s playing at a little faster tempo than maybe he did to start the season in terms of some anticipation and those sorts of things.”
Part of Jackson’s success is because he’s been good, but it’s also part of the scheme. Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen have done their best to put Jackson in good positions, and not ask him to do too much.
“I think it’s both,” Jackson said. “Obviously, when they put us in good situations it’s hard to turn the ball over. But when they put us in bad situations, which isn’t very often, then you just have to make sure you take care of it and throw it away, or take a sack, or something like that.”
The other reason is because the skill position players are not fumbling the football. Tech’s players have been credited with four fumbles all season, and have lost just two of those. Fuente has told his players that he wants to see “visual confirmation” that his players are thinking about taking care of the football, and so far, he’s seen it.
“Oh yeah. We work every day at practice, holding the ball high and tight,” said receiver James Clark. “Securing it, not giving any room for any fumbles or for any defenders to come in and take it out.”
Virginia Tech’s offense faces a stiff task on Saturday night against Miami. The Hurricanes’ defense is one of the best at forcing turnovers, as the ‘Canes have taken the ball away 16 times this season. And every time they force one, they bring out the turnover chain.
“I’ve heard some people talk about it and that sort of stuff. By all accounts, and this is a third person account, but by all accounts, they do get excited about it and it’s something that they take pride in,” Fuente said. “They understand the importance of taking care of the ball and taking the ball away. It’s probably one of the biggest reasons they’re in the situation they’re in right now.”
With such an opportunistic defense on the other side, Virginia Tech is sticking with their normal plan. The Hokies are emphasizing ball protection just as much as they normally would.
“We’ve been emphasizing it each and every practice. Coach Fuente talks about it every single day,” McMillian said. “We know that if you want to be on the field, you need to take care of the ball.”
The Hokies are hoping their defense helps them out this Saturday. As good as the Virginia Tech defense has been — the Hokies rank second in FBS in scoring defense — Tech has lagged behind in the turnover department. Virginia Tech’s defense has only forced 12 turnovers this season, which is 65th in the country.
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster is aware that the Hokies need to be better there.
“We usually have a few more picks,” Foster said. “I know this, our completion percentage is very low, and obviously our third downs and some things, but part of that goes back to when you’re playing people and you’re going to get their best shot, they’re really going to work hard on taking care of the football. I think the more and more you’re playing good people, the more and more they place an emphasis on it. I know how we place an emphasis on it, because ultimately, that makes the difference in the football game.”
Virginia Tech’s players are aware as well. Senior linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka, who has five career interceptions and five career forced fumbles, says the defensive players understand that they need to wreak even more havoc than they have this season.
“Yeah, we talk about it in the meeting rooms and stuff like that,” Motuapuaka said. “I think it just goes back to being at the right place at the right time. Just extra effort-type stuff. Just swiping at the ball. Just showing evidence that you’re trying it all the time.”
And at the end of the day, winning is what matters. But if Virginia Tech has a chance to show that the Lunch Pail is better than Miami’s turnover chain, they’re going to take it.
“We all definitely take it as a challenge, just to be the best defense on the field,” Motuapuaka said. “We’re taking on that challenge and we’re practicing hard, but I’m looking forward to it. We’ll see who the best defense is. Defense wins championships.”