Bud Foster fondly reminisces on the 1998 trek to Chestnut Hill. Virginia Tech had rattled off four straight wins to start the season, but knew the matchup against Boston College would be a distinct challenge in the rain.
The Hokies were down to Nick Sorensen at quarterback. With the Eagles driving in the first quarter, Pierson Prioleau, who’s now on staff as director of player development for the defense, intercepted Scott Mutryn’s pass and returned it 85 yards for a touchdown.
Lamont Pegues collected 146 yards on the ground and punched in a touchdown from two yards out in the third quarter following a blocked punt to give Virginia Tech the 14-0 lead.
On the very next drive, Boston College marched down the field behind the legs of running back Mike Cloud, who finished with 186 yards rushing on 32 attempts. That led to the moment Foster remembers most about the game, when his defense stopped Mutryn and Cloud on four straight attempts from the 1-yard line for an impressive goal line stand. The Hokies went on to win 17-0.
“Really that was a hard-fought football game,” Foster said during Tuesday’s press conference. “That’s the one thing about BC, I have tremendous respect for this program. They’re tough, they’re hard-nosed, they’re well-coached, they’re disciplined, they don’t beat themselves.
“I’m hoping it will be that same type of football game [this week]… It will be a fight for 60 minutes.”
Of course Foster would love to pitch a shutout in the opener this year against Boston College, but if his unit is going to get anywhere close to a performance like in 1998, it starts with the run defense that was porous last year, allowing 210.3 yards per game (106th in nation).
Boston College, who finished with 189.1 rushing yards per game last year and boasts the uber-talented AJ Dillon, provides no easy task.
“We’re just looking forward to the challenge,” defensive tackle Jarrod Hewitt said. “It’s kind of like a gut check for us. We weren’t too good in the run game last year, so what better opponent to start than Boston College to see where we’re at?”
It’s the second straight year that the Hokies have opened with a conference opponent. While some teams would rather coast through the beginning of the season against non-conference opponents, Tech is relishing the opportunity to make a statement in the ACC right from the get-go.
“I love competition, and I know this defense and program loves competition,” linebacker Rayshard Ashby said. “We’re going to open up with whoever it may be. It’s going to be a great game. [Dillon’s] a great back, so it’s going to be a good game. We’re going to see how we do.”
The first task for the Hokies’ defense on Saturday boils down to slowing Dillon, which is easier said than done.
“He’s a big guy,” linebacker Dax Hollifield said. “He’s as big as me if not heavier.”
Built with a 6-foot, 250-pound frame, it often takes more than one player to bring Dillon down. That means players in the second level will need to be more physical.
“We do have to play physically up front,” Foster said. “We do have to be gap sound up front and with the linebackers. Then we do have to do a good job of running to the football and tackling their big back. He is everything they’re writing about. He is a big-time player. He is hard to bring down, and we have to do a great job of swarming him.
“I’m hoping our guys have a true understanding of how good he really is and what we’re going to have to do to bring him down. How important tackling is going to be, not just from our front six or seven. They’re going to make our DB’s tackle. Those guys have got to do a great job of bringing it and finishing plays.”
In the past two years, Foster and Co. have actually had moderate success against Dillon. In the Hokies’ 23-10 triumph at Alumni Stadium in 2017, Dillon was limited to just 35 yards on 10 carries. Following that game, Dillon became the workhorse tailback, racking up 1,256 rushing yards over the final seven games of the season.
Last year, the New London, Connecticut native was banged up for most of the season and wasn’t able to showcase all the abilities he demonstrated down the stretch as a freshman. Dillon still collected 96 yards on 24 carries and a touchdown against Virginia Tech in the Eagles’ 31-21 win. It was the backup running back, Travis Levy, who put on a show, getting 11 attempts for 76 yards and two touchdowns as the Eagles rushed for 219 yards on the day.
“They have some great backs,” Ashby said. “Have a great line, great tight ends. They’re just going to run it down your throat. We’ve got to stop it. It’s going to be power football.”
A big help to the Hokies’ defense against Boston College could be if the offense is able to sustain long drives and avoid three-and-outs. Leading 14-7 at the half last year, the offense came out and shut off the valve with three straight three-and-outs and an interception in the third quarter.
Quarterback Ryan Willis is back to lead the charge surrounded by skill players he’s been able to build a rapport with over the course of the offseason. Meanwhile, the Boston College defense returns only three starters.
“With the whole offense, we’re comfortable with our skill positions,” wide receiver Tre Turner said. “We have depth. That’s the most important thing. We have depth at every spot – tight ends, wide receivers, running backs… We’re going to be great. That’s just the way I see it.”
Once 4 p.m. on Saturday comes, it’ll be time for all the talk to be set aside and see who is able to settle it on the field.
“I just want to play to be honest,” Hollifield said. “I’m tired of everyone talking and just ready to play.
“We’re miles ahead of where we were last year.”