Entering Saturday’s game against Wake Forest, quarterback Hendon Hooker had thrown just two interceptions in his career. In Winston-Salem, the Hokies’ signal-caller tossed three picks as Tech couldn’t find answers offensively against the Demon Deacons.
“If he thinks he’s going to go through the whole season not turning the ball over and never making a mistake, that’s pretty unrealistic expectations for a guy who handles the ball every single snap,” head coach Justin Fuente said. “He’ll bounce back fine. He had a good day yesterday. You’ve got to be able to handle those things.”
All three passes were picked off by freshman walk-on Nick Andersen, who was recently selected as the National Player of the Week on defense.
The first interception was tipped into Andersen’s hands at the end of the first half, costing the Hokies at least three points. Hooker followed up after halftime with an interception deep in Wake territory again.
“With the second one, if Hendon was sitting right here, he would say that it just wasn’t a good read. Those things happen,” Fuente said. “There are a lot of plays in the game, and you have to shake those things off, move on and go play the next play. We did turn the ball over three times which is not good, but we understand that, and we have to go find a way to win the turnover battle.”
The final pick came in the final minute as Tech desperately tried to score a game-tying touchdown. That one sealed the 23-16 loss for the Hokies.
Hooker truly struggled for the first time since taking over as the starter last season and showed some of the flaws that the Hokies have had in the passing game this year. Through the first four games, Tech averaged well over 300 yards rushing per game, but when the rushing offense didn’t have its typical explosive day, the Hokies didn’t make enough plays in the passing game to win.
“We certainly haven’t been in a position to really have to make too many plays in the passing game,” Fuente said. “This past week, we needed to, particularly in the red zone. We had two negative plays in the red zone that put us in passing situations, and we weren’t really able to make a play in those.”
Some of these struggles seem to fall on the lack of depth at receiver. Tre Turner was expected to step up in the room after departures this offseason, but injuries and other factors have limited his production early in the season.
Turner is one of just three receivers with a catch this season, joined by Tayvion Robinson and Kaleb Smith. Without other legitimate threats on the outside, the Hokies haven’t been able to make as many plays downfield.
“We’ve been a little bit hit and miss I would say. At times we’ve been able to [get separation] and others we haven’t,” Fuente said. “Certainly not as consistent as we’d like, but hopefully we can do some things to help that out.”
The bright spot in the passing game has been tight end James Mitchell. The junior leads the team in receiving yards and touchdowns and stepped up again with the Hokies’ only touchdown on Saturday from 39 yards out.
Outside of that drive, the Hokies made four trips to the red zone and came away with just two field goals. Tech had no problem moving the ball on the Demon Deacons at times, but could not capitalize when it mattered.
“We really felt like we’ve been really good down there in terms of getting that ball into the end zone,” Fuente said. “I don’t know what our stats are in terms of long field goals versus short field goals, but I feel like we’ve done pretty well getting the ball into the end zone down there. We did not do a good job last week.”
The Hokies have relied heavily on Khalil Herbert this season, and he touched the ball 16 times on Saturday. However, on Tech’s red zone trips, Herbert had just four carries for 12 yards as the offense was forced to go to the air.
“I don’t think we played well in the red zone last week. He gets tired sometimes and he has to come out. If he’s running all the way down there, sometimes we have to give him a little blow,” Fuente said. “We had to kick five field goals last week. We turned the ball over in the red zone, so I’m being truthful and concerned in regard to talking about Khalil, but we also had two negative plays down there that really hurt us that put us into obvious passing situations down there tight.”
Herbert’s fantastic production through four games may have been standing up this Hokies’ offense as they worked through the other issues that have plagued the roster. However, when Herbert had a pedestrian 64 yards on Saturday, the rest of the offense couldn’t pick up the slack.
The passing game will have to figure out some of the issues they saw on Saturday if the Hokies want to bounce back against Louisville this week.