On Tuesday, Virginia Tech defensive tackle Norell Pollard was asked a simple question: how badly does this team need a win this week?
“Bad,” Pollard responded. “We’re going to get it, too.”
Everything has been downhill for the Hokies as of late. Three straight losses at home, including two gut-wrenching defeats against Notre Dame and Syracuse, have Tech sitting at 3-4 (1-2 ACC). Five games remain, and four of those contests are on the road, starting this week at Georgia Tech.
Head coach Justin Fuente’s seat continues to heat up, and his team has yet to play a complete game so far this season.
On Saturday against the Orange, the Hokies had their best offensive outing of the season. On the flip side, the defense had its worst performance of the campaign. That’s without mentioning special teams, which had maybe it’s second-best moment of the season and it’s worst in the same game vs. Syracuse.
The Hokies blocked an extra point and Dorian Strong returned it for two points in the first half, but after Malachi Thomas scored a touchdown put Tech up nine, the kickoff unit allowed a 51-yard return. That’s the longest return the Hokies have allowed under Fuente, and as the head coach said on Tech Talk Live on Monday, the longest he thinks one of his teams has allowed in his ten-year coaching career.
As Chris Coleman said multiple times on the Tech Sideline Podcast in the Syracuse recap, “it’s always something different.”
Where does Virginia Tech go from here? Each of the next five games are winnable, and Pollard and center Brock Hoffman both mentioned how their respective units have confidence moving forward. Pollard because of the way Tech performed defensively in the first six weeks, Hoffman because of the boost that Thomas gave the Hokies on Saturday (more on that below).
“Like Coach Fuente said, we played our worst game on defense last week and, for six weeks straight, we were lights out,” Pollard said. “It’s just not getting lazy with the techniques, not getting lazy with the assignments, and going out there and playing hard. Knowing it gets rough because we’re losing, but just knowing it’s a blessing to be out there to be able to play.”
Tech linebacker Dax Hollifield elaborated. Last week, the captain told the media that he thought the Hokies had one of their better Tuesday practices. When asked about that statement and if the vibe is the same this week by David Teel of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he had an intriguing response:
“I don’t think we had been practicing the way we usually had the past couple of weeks, in my opinion,” Hollifield said. “The way it’s supposed to look. And we definitely got that right today [Tuesday]. I can promise you that. We practiced the way the game demands.
“Execution… you always have to execute during practice … but it’s the running to the ball, taking good angles. It’s the little things. The finishing of the play is what we really focused on today. … There’s a standard that the game, football, has set, and we have to live up to that. And I feel like we sort of got lazy the past couple of weeks, but we’re getting back to that.”
Virginia Tech hasn’t had back-to-back losing seasons since 1991-92 under Frank Beamer. He turned the program around after that 2-8-1 season in ’92. The last time the program had three sub-.500 seasons in a four-year stretch was from 1977-79. Tech went 3-7-1 under Jimmy Sharpe, and then 4-7 and 5-6 in Bill Dooley’s first two seasons.
The Hokies need at least three wins over the next five weeks to not hit that mark.
If the offense can keep the same energy it had last week, the defense can come along and the entire team has a decent level of confidence, that might be possible. Nevertheless, the final stretch starts on Saturday in Atlanta.
Malachi Thomas: A Boost Of Confidence
One of the main reasons the offense came to life against the Orange was Malachi Thomas. The first true freshman in program history to rush for three touchdowns in a game, Thomas was a difference-maker on Saturday.
He was also a boost of confidence. Tech has preached the need to spark the ground game throughout the course of the season, and the Hokies did just that vs. Syracuse. Doing so provided a jolt of confidence for the rest of the offense, especially the offensive line, who created the holes for Thomas to run through.
“It’s a huge spark, a huge spark, and it also helps everyone’s confidence,” wide receiver Tayvion Robinson said. “When he can run the ball well, the o-line is doing their job and Braxton [Burmeister] can throw the ball to us and we’re doing our job. It’s like we’re all just clicking.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised [at Thomas’s performance],” Hoffman said. “Malachi came in this summer with a good attitude, just willing to learn, and throughout fall camp, he did that. … I’m glad he had the opportunity to shine.”
Last season, Virginia Tech had Khalil Herbert in the backfield, who rushed for 1,182 yards. He’s in the NFL with the Chicago Bears now, and he’s played like an NFL running back.
— Larry Mayer (@LarryMayer) October 26, 2021
Without having that explosiveness in the backfield this season, it’s been tough for the Hokies. In earlier games, Tech was rotating through four different backs: Raheem Blackshear, Jalen Holston, Keshawn King and Thomas, who burnt his redshirt.
With Thomas coming out of the woodwork, it (seemingly) cuts Tech’s rotation down to two: him and Blackshear. That’s a good thing, particularly for an offense that struggled to find consistency as a unit.
Moreover, his creativity, boost and vision gave a spark to an offense that was in dire need of a shock. As Fuente said, “he’s just a ballplayer.”
The Hokies have to hope his presence helps open up the offense down the stretch.