In football, there’s no rest for the weary. Instead of dwelling on the past misfortunes, Virginia Tech is gearing up and preparing for another grueling, 60-minute game.
The Hokies (4-4, 3-2 ACC) travel north to Heinz Field to battle Pittsburgh (5-4, 4-1 ACC) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Pat Narduzzi has the Panthers atop the ACC Coastal in a year that has come to epitomize “Coastal Chaos.”
Pitt is coming off a 23-13 victory over Virginia in a rain-soaked Scott Stadium. Panthers running back Darrin Hall recorded 19 carries for 229 yards and three touchdowns.
“I’d say it’s a vintage Pitt team from my limited experience with them,” Fuente said during his weekly Monday press conference. “Physical, run the ball with play action. They play their four press with their change up looks on defense. Very well-coached and playing hard. It starts with them running the football and stopping the run. They’ve been pretty darn good on special teams as well.”
Fuente is 2-0 against Pitt during his time at Virginia Tech, but those victories have been anything but convincing. In 2016, the Jerod Evans-led offense made the trip to Pittsburgh and torched Narduzzi’s press coverage, causing him multiple meltdowns on the sideline. Isaiah Ford, Bucky Hodges, and Cam Phillips all tallied 100+ receiving yards in the game. Meanwhile, James Conner (who’s now tearing it up at Heinz Field for the Steelers) racked up three touchdowns on the ground for Pitt. The Hokies were able to hold on for a 39-36 win.
Last year, in an ugly offensive game, Virginia Tech triumphed 20-14. Cam Phillips caught the go-ahead touchdown pass with just over six minutes remaining. Reggie Floyd had his famous chase down tackle in the closing seconds, and the Hokies’ front stuffed the Panthers on four straight tries from the 1-yard line to preserve the victory.
“The last two years, look at how close these games have been,” Fuente said. “Look at the execution, and the discipline, and toughness level it’s taken as a team to pull off the last two years worth. Two years ago we went up there, and they were very, very good. If I’m not mistaken, they beat Clemson that year. Won the game by three points. This past year it took a goal line stand on senior day to win the game. It’s going to take a similar type of toughness, and execution, and grit to accomplish a similar or the same result.”
Fuente has noted that the execution hasn’t been where it’s needed to be this year, and that’s been the cause for some of the shortcomings. It’s been a season-long problem for the Hokies, one that even came up in Virginia Tech’s dominating 24-3 performance against Florida State.
“I always stay away from the word frustration,” Fuente said. “It’s not our job to be frustrated. It’s our job to continue to try to fix, and coach, and mentor. Continuing to try to push these guys forward so that they can execute on a more consistent basis.”
Backup Linebackers Show Their Worth
When Rayshard Ashby and Dylan Rivers were unable to play against Boston College, redshirt freshman Rico Kearney and true freshman Dax Hollifield stepped into their respective spots. Kearney (18 tackles) and Hollifield’s (10 tackles) play were major bright spots in the loss.
After the game, Bud Foster said Hollifield is “that Sam Rogers kind of guy.” It’s a sentiment that Fuente would agree with.
“I would say that’s a good comparison,” Fuente said. “You’re talking about a kid, his enthusiasm is genuine. His passion for playing the game is real, and it’s every day, and it’s consistent. We’ve all come across people like that in our lives, not necessarily with football, that just have this ability to do their absolute best every single day with every detail continuing to push forward. Those people are remarkable, and he’s one of them much in the same way I marveled at Sam in that he did it every single day. There were no good days and bad days with him. I’d say with Dax so far it’s similar. He’s a very genuine person who pours his heart and soul into everything he does. He pours his heart and soul into the classroom. His grade checks are fantastic. He just has some really consistent, high energy and effort qualities that are unique.”
Rivers and Ashby’s health remain uncertain, but its optimistic to see the depth that the team has behind the usual starters. While Hollifield had largely shared reps with Rivers over the past few games, Saturday was the first true look at Kearney and he passed the eye-test.
“I am proud of Rico and how he played when given the opportunity,” Fuente said. “Rayshard has been very productive when he’s played as well. We’ll continue to see how it all turns out with Rayshard’s health and how we feel. It’s nice to have another productive player, though.”
At the whip linebacker spot, Divine Deablo garnered a career-high 14 tackles at the position in place of Khalil Ladler, who was ineligible to play the first half last Saturday because of a targeting penalty. Tyree Rodgers moved to Deablo’s typical position at free safety. Ladler only played on special teams in the second half, instead of moving back into the starting defensive lineup. It wasn’t an indictment on Ladler, but more so a decision based upon how well Deablo and Rodgers were playing in the midst of the game.
“It was one of those deals where it wasn’t a reflection on Khalil,” Fuente said. “We were playing pretty well, and Tyree at free was playing well, so there was no reason to jumble it up I guess. We’re certainly not unhappy with Khalil. He’s been very productive for us. It’s nice to have Tyree emerging to give us a little more depth at safety.”
Another Look at Quincy Patterson
Quarterback Ryan Willis was banged up after a run down the sideline, and Quincy Patterson relieved him for seven snaps in the fourth quarter. Patterson had last played for three snaps against North Carolina.
On Saturday, the offense picked up two first downs during Patterson’s brief stay. The signal caller carried it two times for 10 yards, including a three-yard rush on third-and-1. Patterson’s only pass fell to the ground incomplete.
It’s clear that Fuente is going to redshirt Patterson by keeping him at the four-game threshold, but could he see an expanded role down the stretch?
“It’s certainly a possibility, absolutely,” Fuente said. “It hasn’t been a situation where his number has been called and you got the feeling that he was anything other than ready. He just plops in there and goes and executes and runs whatever play is called. We’re not having him responsible for the entire package right now, but it’s something we could use situationally as we move forward.”
Willis was hampered down the stretch, and he was unavailable for post-game interviews following the Boston College game because he was being attended to by trainers. However, there’s no reason to worry that he’ll be anything but ready to go this Saturday.
“He’s fine. He went through practice yesterday,” Fuente said.
Bryce Watts on the other hand will not available against Pitt. The sophomore fractured his forearm in the first quarter, but Fuente refuses to rule him out for the season yet.
“I would stop short of saying he’s done for the year,” Fuente said. “We just don’t know. We’ll know more in a couple weeks. Obviously he’s not going to play this week.”