Virginia Tech Faces More Questions As NC State Opener Looms

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Virginia Tech, Justin Fuente
Justin Fuente hopes he’ll have enough players for Saturday’s opener. (Dave Knachel, Virginia Tech Athletics)

Virginia Tech football is slated to begin its campaign against NC State in just five days. At least that’s the way the team is preparing.

Following two weeks in a row of the scheduled game being postponed, the Hokies have learned more than anyone that nothing is for certain in the 2020 season.

“We will not have a full roster, but I hope we’re able to play,” head coach Justin Fuente said during his weekly Zoom conference on Monday. “We still have three more tests this week.

“I think we’re all living in a test-by-test world right now. We’ll see how they come, and we hope it all works out. I’m not trying to raise alarm, but I’m just being honest with the situation we’re in. We’re trying to make it each day and see where it’s at and hopefully we’re on the right side of where this is trending. I’m not positive one way or the other where we’re at, and I’ll know more as the week goes on.”

Virginia Tech was forced to push back last week’s expected opener against Virginia due to a mass of players being unavailable to practice under the contact tracing guidelines. It’s an added element that Fuente and Co. would never have to worry about in a typical year. Usually the concern going into an opener is how many guys are ready to play simply from an experience and talent factor, not the residual effects of a pandemic.

“I feel really good about a large portion of our football team and what they can do,” Fuente said. “It’s just getting them together at the same time has been a little bit of an issue. Ultimately, I don’t know that I’ve been this close to a game and felt as uneasy about who we would actually have in the game as I do right now.”

So how ready will the Hokies be if everything goes off without a hitch and they take the field on Saturday night? It’s one of the great mysteries that every team is dealing with in this peculiar season.

“It’s certainly been challenging,” Fuente said. “It’s like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube, and a new layer of the Rubik’s Cube gets added every single day. We’re trying to figure out who’s available and who can get work and how to bring the team together and all of these things. I’m certainly not up here to complain about it, but it’s a part of the situation that a lot of people are in. 

“Some people dealt with this in the summertime when they weren’t playing games and some people are dealing with it right now like we are. It’s been a heck of a challenge, and I feel good that we’ll get our guys back and be ready to go. I’ve seen our kids handle these hurdles in a really energetic manner, and I’ve been really proud of that.”

Beyond the internal factors that Virginia Tech is forced to manage, a Wolfpack squad will be coming to Blacksburg fresh off a 45-42 victory over Wake Forest. In the triumph, NC State ran for 270 yards on the ground and averaged 5.5 yards per carry. Florida State transfer quarterback Bailey Hockman threw for 191 yards with a touchdown and an interception. 

“They rushed the ball for 270 yards, that’s the first thing that hits you,” Fuente said. “They ran a tailback stretch play and a quarterback stretch play up and down the field. They moved with really good tempo and continued to mix that in throughout the game. They played really hard and found a way to win a kind of long and high-scoring ball game. Their quarterback came in and played well. It was kind of a situational circumstance with the other young man missing so much time, but I was really impressed with how their quarterback played.”

The two teams last played in 2015 when the Hokies won 28-13. This time, though, Virginia Tech won’t have the advantage of the raucous crowd from Lane Stadium as only 1,000 people and a number of fan cutouts will be in attendance.

“It’s going to be a little surreal in the stands,” Fuente said. “I watch the games on TV and I feel like everybody’s home field artificial noise sounds different. Some of them sound like a rock concert and some of them sound like church, and I can’t tell because I’m watching it on TV how loud it really is. I know the ACC set parameters on all of that and that sort of stuff. Once you roll the ball out there it’s time to play.”

Saturday’s contest will mark the first meeting for Fuente against NC State. The head whistle battled NC State head coach Dave Doeren in the 2011 Rose Bowl when Fuente, TCU’s co-offensive coordinator, defeated Doeren, Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator, 21-19.

It will also mark the first game for Justin Hamilton as the defensive coordinator for the Hokies, taking over the reins of the defense from Bud Foster. What kind of advice will Fuente give Hamilton before the momentous occasion?

“The biggest thing is that you have to go make decisions that you think are best,” Fuente said. “You can’t be hesitant. If you feel like blitzing or playing coverage or whatever the call is, you go and go lay it out there and know that I have your back. He’ll be prepared and the staff will be prepared. He’ll be absolutely fine on gameday.”

When Virginia Tech comes trotting out to Enter Sandman for the first time this year, it will undoubtedly have a different feel to it. It will further signal that football is ready to be played. The Hokies are hoping and anticipating that to come this week at 8 p.m.

“I’ll be excited when we get the last test in and we know exactly who is going to be out there and that sort of stuff,” Fuente said. “There is great excitement. I know I probably sound, I probably don’t have the same tone in my voice that you usually have when you’re heading into the first game. We are excited. We’re anxious to play.”

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