Opponent Outlook: Virginia Tech was rolling until last week

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

Handling prosperity can be an acquired trait for a football team.

Just like the knack for dealing with adversity.

Heading into last Saturday's home game with Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech was on a roll.

A three-game winning streak, 7-2 record, No. 14 in the College Football Playoff poll, and one victory away from the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division title.

And then, the Hokies laid an egg.

Their 30-20 loss to the Yellow Jackets has complicated their season. They can still win the division title with a season-ending victory over Virginia, but the Hokies have to travel to Notre Dame (4-6) first.

Andy Bitter, who covers Virginia Tech football for the Roanoke Times, takes a look at how Saturday's game fits into the Hokies' schedule, and how games against the Irish are perceived by ACC schools.

• How does playing Notre Dame in the middle of a race to win a division championship impact the Hokies' approach to the game?

It’ll be odd. Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente has preached a 1-0 mentality all season long, to the point that the team has even made T-shirts with the phrase on it, so in a perfect world he’d like them to think about nothing else other than this upcoming game.

But human nature has to creep in at some point. And the fact that the Hokies left the Coastal Division still out there by not taking care of business against Georgia Tech on Saturday can’t be the best thing for maintaining a singular focus. Winning the division has been the team’s goal all season and, with the Notre Dame game not counting toward that goal, there has to have some kind of effect. What, exactly? I’m not sure. I’m certain that the Hokies will talk a mean game about thinking about this game and only this game during the week, but where their heads are at with their last ACC game meaning so much remains to be seen.

• What do you sense as the perception of Notre Dame by the other ACC schools?

It’s an odd relationship. I gather a lot of fans think it’s cool that Notre Dame is a scheduling partner, even if it means only facing the Fighting Irish once every three years. This is one of the historically great programs in all of college football. And to be able to go to South Bend is a pilgrimage of sorts for a lot of them, while having Notre Dame come to their stadium is a big deal, with all the attention that brings.

But I think there’s also some resentment that Notre Dame is getting the bonus of housing its non-football sports in the league and gaining some of the benefits of football membership, like being a part of the bowl lineup, without fully committing to the ACC. I know that’s always the case when Notre Dame gets a higher preference in the league’s bowl selection process, even if it has the same record as another team. Let’s be honest: what bowl is going to take Pittsburgh or Georgia Tech or N.C. State over the name brand of Notre Dame? That can get annoying when you get sent to a lesser bowl.

The bottom line is that the ACC schools benefit financially from Notre Dame being in the league as a partial member, with the league’s grant of rights and upcoming network deal probably being tied to the Irish’s agreement. So you won’t hear many administrators complain. But fans are a different story, and all they’ll see is the different treatment the football team gets. That’ll be enough for them to cry foul, even though they’ll pack the stadium every time the Fighting Irish come to town.

• Why has first-year head coach Justin Fuente been able to have so much success following a legend like Frank Beamer?

Part of it is he hasn’t tried to completely revamp the program. He embraced what Beamer did here and didn’t tear it all down. He kept defensive coordinator Bud Foster, a link to Beamer’s past and a foundation of the Hokies’ success for more than two decades. He honored Beamer’s special teams legacy by giving a rotating No. 25 jersey (Beamer’s old number in his playing days) to a special teams player of the week. But he’s also changed what needed to be changed, namely, the offense, bringing that into the modern era of college football with a no-huddle, spread scheme. It’s like Virginia Tech moved forward two decades offensively overnight.

But he also had some tweaks to other parts of the program, bringing in a fresh recruiting pitch and a new strength coach to reinvigorate that side of things. Just overall, there’s more energy around the program than the latter Beamer years, when everything bad that happened was somehow tied back to the question of how much longer Beamer was going to coach. That can cast a pall over a program. Now, with a 40-year-old coach, it’s a lot more forward-thinking. That’s not to say he has everything figured out. And odd losses to Syracuse and Georgia Tech show it’s still very much a work in progress, but for a first-year coach, he’s still having a very successful season.

• What have been the pluses and minuses in quarterback Jerod Evans' game?

He’s been a great addition to the team, giving the Hokies a play-making element at the quarterback position that they probably haven’t had since Tyrod Taylor was here. He’s a true dual-threat quarterback who’s thrown for 2,519 yards and 22 touchdowns but also leads the team in rushing with 608 yards and 4 more scores. He’s had a 406-yard passing day but also has led the team in rushing five times, so he can flip a switch and give Tech what it needs. And up until last week, he’s been pretty careful with the ball. He had two interceptions the first nine games, then threw two in one game against Georgia Tech. He’s a tough kid, having played through a couple of ankle sprains this year. And his play-making skills are easy to see. Even if a play isn’t perfect, he’s got the athleticism to turn it into something positive.

He does have some minuses, though. Like I said before, he’s not always careful with the ball. And after a stretch where he was pretty good, he had some bad decisions against Georgia Tech. He’s a fairly accurate thrower on short passes, but he’s been off on the deep balls this year, something he’s kicked himself for repeatedly. And if teams can keep him in the pocket and force him to go through his full progression, I think that’s still a developing part of his game. But for a guy who hadn’t taken a Division I snap until this year, he’s been a tremendous addition to this offense and team.

• How did Virginia Tech's loss to Georgia Tech impact the way you look at the big picture of its season?

For a while in the latter Beamer years, whenever the team had a modicum of success, it was always followed up with a pretty big disappointment. The best example of that was the upset of eventual national champion Ohio State in Columbus in 2014, which the Hokies immediately followed up by losing at home to East Carolina and finishing that season 7-6. There was some thought earlier this year that the new staff had put that kind of letdown behind them. But now it seems like those old habits die hard.

The Hokies got up into the rankings earlier this year after dominating North Carolina in a hurricane, then went up to Syracuse and had a stinker, falling back out of the polls. That could have been explained as a one-off performance in a tough environment. And it seemed like the team bounced back well with wins against Miami, Pitt and Duke to get back up to No. 14 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Then, with the division within their grasp and a hobbled Georgia Tech squad coming into Lane Stadium without its starting quarterback, leading rusher and two starters on the o-line, the Hokies laid an absolute egg to a Yellow Jackets team that’s barely gotten to bowl eligibility. It felt like the old pattern hadn’t changed.

Now, I don’t know if that’s really the case and the Hokies can’t handle success or if Virginia Tech just had a bad night. But instead of Tech fans thinking the Hokies might just give Clemson a run for its money in the ACC title game and sneak into the Orange Bowl, there’s a more realistic scenario that this team ends up 8-5 before the bowl selection process and out of the rankings. That’s still not a bad season, especially for a team that’s been about a .500 group the last four years. And winning the division title for the first time since 2011, even with some slip-ups along the way, would be a great accomplishment. But considering the way the schedule shook out and looking at the games the Hokies have dropped, this could start to feel like a missed opportunity, even during a year of transition.

Virginia head coach Justin Fuente, left, applauds his players Travon McMillian (34) and Jerod Evans (4) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016. Virginia Tech won 24-21. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)