Going into the Virginia Tech Liberty game, most Hokie fans were probably expecting to lose. And why not? The team had lost seven in a row for the first time in 70 years and had dropped four one-score games. To make matters worse, the Virginia Tech offense was ranked in the bottom ten percent in all of FBS in most categories, and they were facing a Liberty team that scores a lot and was nationally ranked the week prior.
But the Hokies flipped the script and walked out of Lynchburg with a win!
In an almost poetic turn of events, the Hokies were the ones coming from behind in the fourth quarter. The Hokies were the ones causing big turnovers in the last stanza. They converted thirds downs at a 33% clip and fourth downs at 100%. They won the time of possession battle. And they were the ones who eked out a one-point win. (Click here for the full box score.)
Last week, I wrote shoutouts from the Duke loss. This week, let’s give praise to the entire team for the win, but specifically, here are three big ideas from the Virginia Tech Liberty game.
Jalen Holston Deserved This!
Sixth-year senior Jalen Holston had a career day. And he deserved to end his career on such a high note. His patience and dedication were rewarded. After the Wofford game, Holston saw his workload diminish significantly. Then when Malachi Thomas returned, Holston was relegated to third string. He has had single digit carries since the Wofford game, where he gained his previous career high of 66 yards, mostly in the first half.
But now that Thomas is out and King has been battling injuries, Holston’s name was called – and he delivered! He has shown improved vision and footwork over the last few games. Instead of just being a straight-on power runner, Holston made excellent jump cuts to find open lanes the past two weeks. He averaged 5 or more yards per carry in the previous two games, thanks to these changes – and an improved run blocking scheme (more on that later)
Against Liberty Holston had 26 carries for 99 yards and 3 touchdowns, both career highs. For his career, he only has 1235 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns – and that is over a six-year span. So to get 99 yards and 3 touchdowns in one game – his final game – that is a big deal.
Most of all, Holston has been a loyal Hokie. He has never been “the guy” at Tech. But he has stuck around, worked hard and dedicated himself to the team. There is no better sign of Holston’s selflessness than what he did on that final possession, diving to the turf at the one-yard line so the Hokies could run out the clock.
As Andy Bitter of the Roanoke Times tweeted, if Holston scored on that last carry, he would have broken 100 yards and scored a fourth touchdown, putting him in elite company at Virginia Tech. But the Hokies only needed a first down, not a touchdown, and he gladly obliged so Tech could take a knee and end the game.
He is a team player, a true Hokie – “That I May Serve” – and it was great to see him close out his career like this.
The Defense Played Very Well, Especially Front Four
After struggling to close out games in the fourth quarter this year, the Hokies defense reversed that trend and played well the entire game. The Virginia Tech defense only gave up 13 points in the game (they are not responsible for the kick return and safety), with only three coming in the second half.
Unlike previous games, the Hokies played their best defense in the fourth quarter. They held the Flames scoreless and came up with two big turnovers in fourth quarter. One turnover set up the game winning drive, and one stopped Liberty’s final drive. The defense finished the game!
One common theme of this year from head coach Brent Pry is that Virginia Tech has not been winning enough one-on-one battles. That changed Saturday. The front four got off blocks, won those one-on-one battles, especially late, put pressure on the quarterbacks, and closed out the game.
They finished with 5 sacks, 3 hurries, and 12 tackles for loss. They forced two turnovers and held the Flames to two touchdowns (13.5 points) below their season scoring average (26.5 ppg) when discounting the non-offensive scores.
This unit has worked hard all year but has not had the success to show for it. Now they do and they deserve the props. It is nice to see Tyjuan Garbutt, Dax Hollifield, and Chamarri Connor go out with a win where they were a key part of the victory.
The Coaches Did a Good Job in the Virginia Tech Liberty Prep and Execution
On offense, Virginia Tech was finally able to establish the run, especially between tackles. There was one play in particular – where the ball was snapped as tight end Nick Gallo came across the backfield in motion, allowing him to kick out the end and free up a lineman to block elsewhere. This was just one adjustment in play calling.
The Hokies ran the ball 59 times! That does include sacks and three knees at the end, but still, Tech had approximately 50 rushes to 20 passes. That is an incredible ratio – when successful. And it was. Tech ran a whopping 79 offensive plays and possessed the ball for over 36 minutes. Their ability to run was a big factor in securing the win.
There was great production from Holston (99 yards) and Keshawn King (78 yards). And even Grant Wells picked up 68 yards on the ground. The team had 258 rushing yards gained. Unfortunately, the net was only 176 because Tech lost 64 yards on sacks plus other tackles for loss, as well as the final “Victory Formation” knees. This is something that Hokies hope to fix in the off season, but it was refreshing to see them run the ball with sustained success for most of the day.
There were also several pass plays that tried to get the ball to King in space. A few times he was running open to the flat and Wells delivered the ball. When King had enough green to turn upfield, that was an effective play (King finished with 31 receiving yards). We have been hearing all year about how good Keshawn King is in space, and we were able to see it on a few of those pass plays.
Pry showed improved game management this weekend. Tech was three of three in fourth down conversions, including a fake field goal. They almost converted the two-point play on their last touchdown – it was a great call, but Wells threw slightly behind Kaleb Smith, allowing the hit that jarred the ball loose. After struggling mightily early in the year to convert many-a 3rd and 1 and 4th and 1, the Hokies improved in that area this past weekend.
As mentioned earlier, the defense played well. Defensive coordinator Chris Marve called the game, his first time doing so all year. Pry made that decision last Monday, saying, “This was an opportunity to kind of, let’s get where this thing is headed. Let’s put fast forward on it and see what we look like and how we do.”
Marve called a great game, his players responded, and that left Pry to focus more on head coaching responsibilities. As a result Pry did his best job of coaching this year!
This one had the feel of many of the previous games until the key fumble in the fourth quarter. Virginia Tech kept squandering leads, and they even gave up yet another score in the final minute of the half. Those scores have made a difference in several games this year. Hopefully Tech will improve their two-minute defense in the off-season.
On the sack for the safety, Wells appeared to go down too easily. Even the announcers were on him to do a better job of avoiding the safety. But when re-watching the video of that play, it is clear that Johnny Jordan stepped on Wells’ foot, causing him to lose balance and fall. So that is why he appeared to viewers to just take the sack and the safety – he fell because Jordan inadvertently stepped on his foot.
While the games are now over, there is still a lot of work to do in the program. In the coming week, Pry and staff will move on roster management decisions and then they will have to recruit hard in the few weeks before the early signing period (December 21). After that, they will no doubt look at the portal to see where they can improve, and the players will head into off-season workouts. There are a lot of young players on this roster, so they need this offseason to continue to get bigger and stronger.
This is my final game-article of the season. Virginia Tech is done playing football for 2022. With the cancellation of the Commonwealth Clash with Virginia, the Hokies will finish the year 3-8.
I feel bad for the seniors. They will not have a Senior Day. Dax Hollifield, Tyjuan Garbutt, Chamarri Connor, Silas Dzansi, Jalen Holston, Johnny Jordan, Connor Blumrick, Jadan Blue, and Drake De Iuliis have all used up their eligibility and played their final game in a Hokie uniform last weekend at Liberty. That does not even consider the seniors who have to decide if they will return to use their Covid year. While it is good that these seniors get to go out on a win, it is unfortunate that they will not have their senior day.
But this is bigger than football. Sure, the seniors might be disappointed. The fans are disappointed. Heck, I am driving eight hours to Blacksburg to spend the entire holiday weekend with family, and we had a multi-family tailgate planned with great seats to the game. But I will still get to celebrate the holiday with my kids, and that is not true for three University of Virginia families this weekend. That is the bigger story here. I and the entire Hokie Nation send nothing but prayers and love to those families and all affected by yet another senseless tragedy.
To read more of my articles on Virginia Tech football, click here.