Ryan Willis was firing on all cylinders in the first half against Boston College. The 6-foot-4, 223-pounder completed 16-of-19 passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns.
It looked like Virginia Tech was getting the so called “good version” of Willis.
“Really the first half of the last game was by far the best he’s played just watching him execute what he supposed to be doing,” offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen said.
“He’s always been able to make plays, and make some big-time throws, and move with his feet to make some things happen. He has continued to get better at just making the easy plays. Doing what he’s supposed to be doing.”
It was another Jekyll and Hyde performance not just for Willis, but for the Hokies’ offense as a whole. Willis only tallied 69 more passing yards over the final two quarters, and the early success quickly drained away. Virginia Tech’s running backs only contributed 54 yards on the ground, and the offensive line was hard-pressed to open any holes.
“Every single play has to be the most important play in the game,” Cornelsen said. “You never know when one simple mistake or wrong step is going to result in a negative play that puts you behind the chains. It results in a turnover. One little thing can derail a series. That’s what’s going on.”
Willis took a big shot at the end of the second quarter and was forced to sit out a play. On the subsequent play Hendon Hooker couldn’t handle the snap, and the Hokies missed out on the opportunity for points. Later in the game, Willis was tackled out of bounds down the sideline and was shaken up. Quincy Patterson replaced him for seven snaps before he reentered and eventually hit Tre Turner for a 14-yard touchdown.
“I took a couple big hits, but that’s football,” Willis said. “I’m feeling fine today.”
For a team that’s already on its backup quarterback, head coach Justin Fuente would like to see a more concerted effort to avoid those “big hits” that Willis took. Some of it is unavoidable, but there are other instances where the smart play is the better play.
“He took one shot in the pocket that he shouldn’t have had to take, quite honestly,” Fuente said. “I think he’s got to be cognizant. He took one shot over on the far sideline that was penalized, not much you can do about that. I think he does continue to learn how to play and compete and go get yards when those opportunities come, but also be smart.”
On Saturday, Willis and Co. will face a Pittsburgh defense that utilizes press coverage to make things difficult. Two years ago, Bucky Hodges, Isaiah Ford, and Cam Phillips won jump balls against the defenders out on an island. Last year, the Virginia Tech receivers didn’t make those same plays, with the exception of a Cam Phillips touchdown in the fourth quarter. It was something last year’s group struggled with all season long.
The 2018 version of the Hokies’ wideouts have exhibited the ability to win 50-50 jump balls against tight coverage. Last week, all three touchdowns by Damon Hazelton, Eric Kumah, and Turner were all plays made over defenders. Willis can spin a beautiful fade pattern, and Virginia Tech fans should see a lot of it on Saturday.
“Pitt’s going to tighten up,” Cornelsen said. “That’s their defense. They’re going to make you earn it all. They’re going to make you take those opportunities, and we’re getting better in that area. Some of those guys have made some plays, and that’s what it’s going to take for us to find a way to get some big plays, some chunk plays.”
Performing, Not Just Playing
Perhaps more than any other season prior, defensive coordinator Bud Foster has shuffled a bevy of different defenders into the lineup. It’s forced younger players into live game action sooner than expected, and led to mixed results.
“We have to perform and not just play,” Foster said. “It’s fun to see those guys step up and play extremely hard, but we need them to be the guy, to be a performer. That goes back to our practice habits.”
As the weeks have gone on, more and more replacements have taken the role of ‘next man up’ and performed on the field. Rico Kearney, Dax Hollifield, and Tyree Rodgers all were forces against Boston College when given the chance.
“When coach emphasizes you can’t just go out there and play, he always tells us, “My two-year-old daughter or my two-year-old niece can go out there and play,’” Kearney said. “You have to be your best. That’s what I try to do every day I’m on the field.”
Virginia Tech will need more of the same in the following weeks on the outside at the cornerback position. Bryce Watts fractured his forearm on Saturday and is out for the foreseeable future. Jovonn Quillen is next in line, but a number of other players could be called upon.
“Jovonn has a shot to come in. He’s got to be consistently good,” Foster said. “[Jermaine] Waller is a guy that has a lot of talent. We want him to step up, and he’s going to be in a position to perform. There’s another guy, Armani Chatman, who’s a young guy who we were hoping to redshirt, but he’s going to end up being thrown into the fire. You could take Tyree Rodgers and move him back to corner. That’s another guy that we’ve discussed…it’s going to be time for some young guys to step up.”
On the other hand, Virginia Tech is beginning to get impact performances from another guy who’s been a starter in the past. In the place of the injured Jarrod Hewitt, defensive tackle Vinny Mihota made his first start this season. His knee is close to 100 percent now nearly a year after he tore his ACL.
“Every day it’s really feeling better,” Mihota said. “I’m getting to the point where I really don’t notice it too much in practice or during games.”
It was last year’s matchup versus Pitt where Mihota suffered the injury on the play where Reggie Floyd made the game-saving tackle. He was forced to watch the entire goal line stand from the sideline.
“I was getting evaluated and trying to see what was going on,” Mihota said. “The whole time doc was checking out my knee, and I was watching the game trying to figure out what was going on. It was a really big emotional roller coaster through that whole thing.”
On Saturday, Mihota will be playing as Virginia Tech battles Pitt from Heinz Field at 3:30 p.m.