Depleted Hokies Beat Duke Behind Khalil Herbert, 38-31

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Khalil Herbert roasted Duke for 208 yards rushing and 150 kickoff return yards. (Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports)

Virginia Tech football has made a name for itself in the past with difference makers at the running back position. The list includes all-time greats like Cyrus Lawrence, Lee Suggs, Kevin Jones, Ryan Williams, and David Wilson among others. Two games into his Hokies career, Khalil Herbert is making a case to become the next key playmaker from the tailback position for Virginia Tech.

Herbert carried Virginia Tech (2-0) to a 38-31 victory over Duke (0-4) with 208 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 20 attempts. The graduate transfer from Kansas also returned three kickoffs for 150 yards, totaling 358 all-purpose yards.

“Khalil has been fantastic,” Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente said. “He’s just explosive and strong. He has good vision. He’s been really good for us.

“I’m just going to tell you guys, he’s as great a kid as you’re going to find, too. He’s polite and nice, just great family. Just a pleasure to have on this team.” 

Seemingly every time the Blue Devils threatened, Herbert had a response. With Virginia Tech trailing 14-10 early in the third quarter after a Duke touchdown, Herbert returned the ensuing kickoff 83 yards to the 16-yard line. Six plays later, Braxton Burmeister punched it in from two yards out, giving the Hokies a lead they would never surrender.

“I was just trying to give the team a spark anyway I can,” Herbert said. “We have to make plays on special teams is one thing coach talked about all week.” 

Late in the fourth quarter, Duke cut the lead to three points twice. Again, Herbert and the offensive line came to the rescue. Leading 24-21, Herbert capped off a 7-play, 70-yard drive all on the ground with a 23-yard touchdown.

(Virginia Tech Athletics)

With 3:21 remaining, Virginia Tech took over with a 31-28 advantage. From there, Herbert put the nail in the coffin with a 60-yard house call. The Hokies tallied 324 yards rushing, the second week in a row that the team has churned out over 300 yards on the ground after doing so just twice in all ACC games dating back to 2004.

“It starts up front,” Herbert said. “The o-line does a really great job of opening holes for the backs and keeping things going. I think it starts with their attitudes up front. Coach [Vance] Vice does a really great job of getting them ready to go. Just following after those guys and taking the same attitude into each week.”

While Herbert stole all the headlines, the work of Virginia Tech’s defense was the story early. Year after year, Bud Foster’s defensive unit put up Herculean efforts to bail out Virginia Tech’s offense and capture hard-earned victories. In the first half, it was an ode to the past as the Hokies utilized a depleted Lunch Pail Defense with no official defensive coordinator to keep the Blue Devils’ offense honest.

Defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton was unavailable for the second consecutive week and cornerbacks coach Ryan Smith, who served as defensive coordinator in Virginia Tech’s 45-24 win over NC State last week, also didn’t make the trip to Durham. It left the play calling responsibilities to linebackers coach Tracy Claeys in the booth and defensive quality control coach Jack Tyler on the sideline.

On top of that, the Hokies were missing 21 players for various reasons, including a vast majority of the secondary. Divine Deablo, Jermaine Waller, Armani Chatman, Brion Murray, Devin Taylor, and J.R. Walker all were unavailable, leaving redshirt sophomore Nadir Thompson, true freshmen Keonta Jenkins and Dorian Strong, and walk-on Tyler Matheny as starters in the defensive backfield.

Walk-on defensive back Tyler Matheny came up big, including this interception. (Virginia Tech Athletics)

“It was pretty late in the week and we were scrambling,” Fuente said, noting he found out on Thursday that many of his defensive backs would be unavailable.

“A majority of what we dealt with last week was all offensively… What really scares you is on the defensive side of the ball. When your numbers start to get low at a particular position, there’s no punting on defense. You can’t escape it. You can’t get off the field. In my opinion, that’s where it can become dangerous.”

Matheny in particular had a standout performance in his first career game. The 6-foot-1, 209-pound safety intercepted Duke’s Chase Brice in the first quarter and finished with seven tackles and two tackles for loss. 

“What a great kid,” Fuente said. “All he does is work his tail off and do everything you ask him to do. He’s been repping for some time there at the boundary. When his time came, he met the challenge. I think it’s just a tremendous story, honestly.”

“It was unreal to be honest,” Matheny said. “It’s kind of a dream of mine to be in this position and now it’s here… This is my dream, to play college football in Division I, like Power Five. That’s what I wanted to do.”

Through the first 30 minutes, Virginia Tech’s rag-tag defense held David Cutcliffe’s offense to just 91 yards and no points. The only points Duke scored came on a fumble return for a touchdown after a muffed punt by Tayvion Robinson. It kept the Hokies in the game early as the offense was out of sync with Burmeister never finding rhythm in the passing game, throwing an interception and settling for four punts in the first half.

The defense lost steam in the second half, getting fatigued due to a lack of depth. However, when Burmeister and Raheem Blackshear fumbled a handoff, giving the ball back to Duke down 31-28 with 4:35 left in the contest, the Hokies made the biggest stop of the game and forced a three-and-out. Norell Pollard sacked Brice on third down to force a punt.

“It was definitely big,” Emmanuel Belmar said. “Adversity hit us real big and I feel like that was the most energy we had from the defense throughout the whole first two games of the season. The fumble definitely wasn’t a good thing, but we got in there and we did what we had to do. We had to force a quick three-and-out. I feel like we set the tone. Our defense will step up in big situations like that.”

Jarrod Hewitt and the Hokie defensive line were a problem all game long for Duke. (Virginia Tech Athletics)

Virginia Tech’s defensive front was a problem for Duke all day long. The Hokies continually pressured the quarterback, collecting seven sacks in the game, including three from Emmanuel Belmar and two from Amare Barno. Jarrod Hewitt was also disruptive, with five tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss.

“Just really thrilled for [Belmar and Hewitt],” Fuente said. “Just a great group of kids. To see how they work and how they try to lead and the toughness that they show in terms of playing through the bumps and bruises and showing up every day to work hard. You love watching them have success. Those two have played a lot of snaps. They’re smart, tough football players that deserve to have success.”

Fuente and Company will hit the road again next week and travel south to face the 2-0 North Carolina Tar Heels, who survived Boston College on Saturday, 26-22. It’s far too early to know who will be available to play, but Saturday’s contest exhibited the will and resilience that Virginia Tech possesses no matter the circumstances.

“We’re coming together as a family,” Herbert said. “When one side of the ball needs the other, guys are stepping up and making plays. Young guys coming in, guys who haven’t played as much coming in and making plays. I think that’s going to play significant dividends down the road.”

— box score —


  • While Burmeister was effective in the running game with 54 yards rushing and two touchdowns, he struggled at times passing, completing just 9-of-24 (37.5 percent). It left many wondering if Hendon Hooker was actually available and ready to play after suiting up this week.“[Hooker] is good,” Fuente said. “To be honest with you, we’re taking it one day at a time. We’ll evaluate this and see how it goes and make our decisions as we move through there. I know we’ve got three great kids that have got experience and played well. We need to have all of them ready to play each week.”
  • Barno’s emergence on the defensive line shouldn’t be understated. He’s just over a month and half into learning the defensive end position and tallied two sacks on Saturday, looking the part of a lean, athletic pass rusher.“Everybody on the d-line is stepping up,” Belmar said. “Amare Barno, his first time playing defensive end, two sacks tonight. That’s definitely big time.”
  • Tayvion’s Robinson muffed punt on the booming 63-yard punt was recovered for a touchdown by Duke for the first points of the game. It was the second week in a row that Robinson muffed a punt. However, he responded with two big catches for 85 yards, including a highlight-reel 29-yard grab on the next drive and a 56-yard reception on a deep ball.“Just bad judgment,” Robinson said of the muffed punt. “It was a mistake early, but I had a whole game to play, so I didn’t let it bring me down. I just tried to turn it around and do what I can do. My teammates rallied around me. They told me it was just one play and we had a whole game to play. Coach Fu told me you’re defined by how you bounce back and I bounced back pretty well. We came out with the win.”


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28 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. Yes, the entire team deserves a lot of credit — and a lot of thanks. I can’t tell you how much it helps my quarantined morale to see a good college football game, with so many guys trying so hard on both teams, and then congratulating each other.

    Beat UNCheat !!!

  2. This coaching staff deserves a tremendous amount of credit. I’m sure we have no idea what they’re having to do. And remember when the haters were saying the locker room is lost because of all the portal transfers? Looks like our coaches are pretty good at fishing in the portal! Go Fu and the new Fu Fighters along with the Vice Squad!

  3. Great win, we are much better team overall this year. The experience these backups are getting will pay dividends down the road. Both lines are playing well. The coaches have done a great job. I no longer want Fuente gone as I did after last years Duke game. Boy was I wrong.

  4. Not sure how many players out with COVID when we PPD game one, but pretty soon we’ll have worked through most of the roster? Guys are doing great job working through the challenge, go Hokies!

  5. Robinson muffed two punts where he tried to catch the ball over his shoulder,. which is a tough catch. Solution – keep the ball in front or let it go untouched.

  6. Congrats to our offence especially our run game and the o line.Herbert is a tough down hill runner that VT has been without for several seasons.He has great vision and runs like he wants to lay the wood to someone every time he hits the hole.Next week we really need to get healthy in our DB room.As much as I am impressed with what our DB’s are doing If Howell is allowed to just sit in the pocket and play pitch and catch it’s going to be a long day.Time for our D line and DE’s to really get after Howell.Cudos to the coaching staff,FU and his coaches are doing a great job under horrible conditions!GO HOKIES!!

  7. One thing I noticed that the punt returner was always going backwards to field the punt. That seems a recipe for problems. Am I imagining that or should they adjust the line up yard line?

  8. Great article. First true breakaway back since David Wilson- his skill really provides a spark to the team and the OL blocks even harder when a back can take full advantage of their setting up running lanes. One question- where is Dax Hollifield’s production?? I’m concerned that he is so far down the tackling chart, when a linebacker should be near the top like Ashby- who will be an all ACC linebacker by YE. But, what an overall effort with such a depleted secondary, and both coaches out!! Hats off to CJF and the entire team. Go Hokies!!

  9. You have to tip your hat at the Hokes. 23 players out against NC St. and 21 out against Duke. Plus 4 coaches sidelined and 2 out against Duke. Wow, against those odds we are 2-0!!!!!! Amazing I don’t care who the opponent happens to be.

  10. If we have the same defensive personnel next week we lose to UNC. I’ve been impressed with their resiliency thus far but we have a different level against us. Perhaps we’ll slow time between snaps on offense to help defense catch their breath?

  11. These hokies are playing amazing. Don’t know how we are doing it but if we can get a few more guys back ..well who knows how far this team can go. The coaches and players are doing something special.

    1. I’ll admit I’m impressed so far w the resilience w the lost players. I am glad VT didn’t face the NCSU qb that torched Pitt yesterday and with duke now 0-4 I’m not sure we have been tested yet w our limited covid squad. That said – could’ve easily lost those games and it’s kudos to Fu and staff for keeping it together.

      I hope we get the back 7 back for unc or that could be a long game. Curious about HH and if he will start at QB. Having 3 options has to make it tough for opposing DCs to prep.

      Go Hokies. Win the next one – one game at a time!!

  12. Darren Evans was in there with Williams and Wilson. We had 3 great backs in a short period of time and then went on a long dry spell.

    What’s the deal with QP? Can’t beat out Willis, can’t beat out Hooker and now can’t beat Burmeister. And Burmeister isn’t exactly lighting it up.

    1. And what’s with the gap between Lawrence and Suggs? Hebron, Paige, Thomas and Oxendine? I guess they are the “and others”. Age related, and recency bias, I suppose. Cyrus Lawrence was “recently“ a topic of discussion so he was probably aware of him. Despite this, Cory does a great job on these post game write-ups, this one included.

  13. This is a seriously good write-up. Right now I am as proud of this team as any and I went to Tech in 1966. Also, where are the Fuentes bashers?

    1. ‘69 through ‘75 – architecture. saw 3 coaches in 6 seasons stumble and fall ( the 3rd after I graduated).
      that was a rough era to hang on through. some individual standouts like Strock, Beamer, Fitzgerald, et als. hard workers but not enough talent to be consistent or sustain.
      (i know i missed some of your favorite players in that too, too brief list; but it would be endless if i tried to get all the guys who toiled)
      we started the movement and placed the foundation for what’s now!

      Go Hokies!

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