Virginia Tech was set to face East Carolina on September 15. However, Hurricane Florence had other ideas. The Pirates now sit with a record of 3-8, and the Hokies will be forced to defeat a much tougher Marshall (8-3, 6-2) squad in order to extend the 25-year bowl streak.
In the aftermath of the cancellation, East Carolina scheduled a game with North Carolina State, leaving Virginia Tech scrambling to find a 12th opponent. It took a contingency plan, a win over Virginia, and a lump sum of $300,000, but the Hokies get their shot at a sixth win against the Thundering Herd.
“Whit [Babcock] and his staff deserve a tremendous amount of appreciation and respect for getting this thing done,” Fuente said at his weekly press conference. “He was in a tough situation between the way East Carolina handled this whole deal, and between our record. For him to get this done and for us to have this opportunity, we’re excited about it. Our student body is excited about it as well. Brad [Wurthman] just told me that 7,500 student tickets have already gone. We’re in playoff mode here. If we win, we get to keep playing. If we don’t, then we’re done.”
Saturday’s affair will truly be a win-or-go-home occasion. It does generate a unique situation where Marshall wasn’t initially on the schedule when the year started. The game wouldn’t have even been played if the Hokies had faltered last Friday. However, Fuente is adamant that the matchup presents no more of a challenge in terms of preparation than any other game.
“Teams change so much that we usually prepare for the first four opponents, or wherever a natural break in the schedule occurs,” Fuente said. “You got a bye week after the third game, that’s what we spend our time on in the summer unless there’s a special reason – triple option, something like that. When you get to very end of the schedule, you have done little work during the offseason anyway because you have a whole season’s worth of film to get caught up with. The situation is unique with the makeup game… but in terms of our preparation, it’s been the same.”
Coming off the emotional high of a heart-pounding triumph over Virginia, the Hokies were able to stave off so called “elimination” in their hypothetical playoff season. They increased the streak to 15 straight wins over the Cavaliers, and will be looking for more of the same in another pressure-packed, streak-on-the-line matchup.
“It’s going to take the same type of effort this next week,” Fuente said. “It’s going to take the same type of intensity, the same type of emotion, the same type of discipline to try to extend this other streak… For us to mature as a football team, part of maturing is handling your business. We certainly handled plenty of disappointment. Now let’s handle some celebration here, and people patting us on the back, and turning the page to get ready for this next one.”
Unheralded Plays Against UVA
When reflecting on the victory over Virginia, many won’t soon forget Dalton Keene’s incredible catch, Hezekiah Grimsley pouncing on the loose football in the end zone, or Emmanuel Belmar gobbling up the football on Bryce Perkins’ botched exchange. Below the surface, there were a few critical plays that Fuente took the time point out on Monday that had a critical impact in the moment.
“In our team meeting, I’ll pull some clips that I think are worth teaching off of,” Fuente said. “Ryan [Willis] chasing down the corner on the interception right before the half. Dalton’s block [on Deshawn McClease’s touchdown] was one of those plays.”
One of the more underrated sequences in the game was the defense’s stand with 3:42 remaining. After Willis’ pass was tipped and intercepted at the 11-yard line by linebacker Charles Snowden, the defense surrendered just one yard on the first two rushes, and forced an incompletion on third-and-9. The 28-yard field goal kept it a one-score game.
“There’s also another play that Ricky makes [on second-and-11] in the possession where we hold them to a field goal there at the end of the game,” Fuente said. “The end pinches when he shouldn’t, and Ricky fights through that underneath it to make a play.
“It was a gut check when they got the ball on the 11-yard line. We have to hold them to a field goal or the ball game is essentially over. Statistically it was very slim, if we don’t hold them to a field goal, it’s going to be almost impossible. To answer the challenge like that was pretty remarkable.”
Fuente Too Conservative?
Fuente caught some grief for being too conservative in certain spots on Friday. Two of those situations occurred early in the first quarter when Fuente elected for a field goal on fourth-and-3 from the 26-yard line (taking into account that the team hadn’t made a field goal since October 6 against Notre Dame), and when he elected to punt on fourth-and-1 from the 35-yard line. Both of those decisions backfired as Jordan Stout missed the 43-yard field goal, and Oscar Bradburn’s punt went sailing into the end zone for a touchback, and a net of 15 yards.
The one time Fuente did exert some risk it also backfired, and Willis threw an interception at the end of the half. He pointed out that that interception swayed him from taking a real shot on the final possession of regulation when they were in what he called “no-man’s-land.”
“Some years you’re much more aggressive. Some games more aggressive,” Fuente said. “If you asked me before that [punt], I would’ve said they were going to get the ball inside the 10. We kicked it right out of the end zone… When you kick it out of the end zone, you say ‘What did we do that for?’ It’s the same thing I say. We second guess just like everyone else, but within our own office we talk about those things in very honest ways.”
Those open discussions on deciding whether to be aggressive or conservative take place between the staff throughout the week. Taking the time to evaluate the results assists Fuente and Co. later down the road.
“In the military they have after action review,” Fuente said. “Everyone sits down and says, ‘This was messed up, this was good, this wasn’t good, this stunk.’ We do the very same thing. Sometimes as a head coach you kick yourself for the decisions you made, and sometimes you feel good about them moving forward.”
Note on Josh Jackson
There was no real major update, but Josh Jackson’s injury is apparently healing according to schedule.
“He’s progressing fine,” Fuente said. “He’s not going to play this week. It’s been good to have him around. He enjoys this football team and this school. He wants Ryan to do well, and he wants to do whatever he can to help us win.”