The Virginia Tech Old Dominion season opener resulted in a 36-17 Hokie victory. If you only saw that score and did not watch the game, you would think this is a great start for Virginia Tech. It is.
However, for the fans, this one was a little dicey until Tech pulled away in the second half. The overall result is very good, and this was only the first game, but as fans we tend to over-analyze each contest. So let’s just take a look at some of the big ideas that stand out from the victory and then move on to Purdue.
The Virginia Tech Run Defense Needs Work
For most Tech fans, the run defense was the most glaring issue of the night. Head Coach Brent Pry even noted it himself in the short post-game on-field interview, so you know it will be a point of focus in practice this week.
The Hokies gave up 201 yards rushing – and this is after 24 yards were subtracted from the ODU bad snap safety play (did anyone else chuckle at the irony of that one?). So technically, the Virginia Tech defense yielded 225 yards on the ground, for an average of 4.7 yards per rush.
Five Monarchs had long runs that were double digits (Tech only had one – Grant Wells, who went for ten yards on one play). Three of those five plays went for more than 20 yards. There were just too many big plays on the ground for Old Dominion.
Virginia Tech has been spoiled for a long time. The Hokies have had consistency for years with good tackling linebackers – Dax Hollifield, Rayshard Ashby, Tremaine Edmunds, Andrew Motuapuaka…that’s almost a decade of tackling machines in the middle.
This year’s crop of linebackers is very athletic, but they are very green. On several runs, the middle was wide open. On other plays, the ends were overzealous, crashing and giving up contain, without linebackers in position behind them. That led to several big runs by ODU, which sustained several drives and kept this thing interesting for far too long.
The good news is that this is something that is correctible. However, it is not something that will just flip overnight. The young linebackers and ends will have to grow into their roles, the sooner the better.
Transfer Wide Receivers Made and Immediate Impact
It took a few series for the Hokies to really target their new outside weapons, but once that happened, the transfer wide receivers helped get the offense on track. The “big three” of Ali Jennings III, Jaylin Lane, and Da’Quan Felton combined to record 10 receptions, 175 yards, and 3 touchdowns. Jennings led the way with 5 catches for 72 yards, and Lane totaled 69 yards. At that rate, after only four games each will have amassed more total yards than anyone on last year’s roster not named Kaleb Smith!
The receivers added a big play element that was missing from last year. Tech had five plays of 20 yards or more, all by newcomers. Jennings had two of them, Lane and Felton each had one. And Benji Gosnell helped ease the loss of Nick Gallo with his lone catch for 23 yards.
Three of those big plays went for 30 or more yards. Last season, Tech only had twelve passing plays for 30 or more. This is very encouraging. There was a lot of off-season hype for the receiving room, and they certainly delivered in game one.
The Offensive Line Continues to be a Work in Progress
This should surprise no one. Tech’s line has only two returning starters, and there are many freshmen and redshirt freshmen in the two-deep. On Saturday, this group struggled to get a push on run plays. Holes were not open consistently or were not open long.
Bhayshul Tuten and Malachi Thomas ran hard but they consistently lacked space to run. Combined, these two had 31 carries for 77 rushing yards. On average, it was 2.9 yards per carry for Tuten and 1.8 for Thomas. Neither broke off a run longer than eight yards, and that includes all runs by Tuten, who caused ten missed tackles. Ten missed tackles, and he still only averaged 2.9 yards per carry!
Since coming to Virginia Tech, Pry and Tyler Bowen have repeatedly said that they want to establish the run. This line is young, but it will need to grow up in a hurry to get that done. And perhaps more designed outside runs and misdirection could help.
On the positive side, pass blocking was good. Old Dominion had no sacks and only registered three tackles for loss (which is surprising given the Hokies inability to run effectively). Hopefully they will continue to do a good job protecting the quarterback as they work to open up bigger holes in the running game.
Grant Wells Showed Why He Won the Starting Job
It certainly was not a clean start for Grant Wells on Saturday. In the first quarter, his throws were high or behind receivers. And he wasn’t helped by the early drops. Social media was not a nice place to be at that time.
Wells could very well have been just a bit amped up. Can you blame him? Kyron Drones came in during the offseason to challenge him for the starting job. Wells probably heard the constant chatter from the fanbase questioning if he is the one. He won the starting job and social media still was not behind him.
This was Wells’ first game after that off-season quarterback battle. Throw in the fact that it was the home opener in front of a sold-out Lane Stadium crowd – and Enter Sandman at night? Of course he was jacked up!
When looking at his body of work from the evening, he did settle down throw several good balls while managing the game well. He avoided sacks and did not turn the ball over. And he threw for 251 yards and three touchdowns. Only twice last year did he throw for more yards (and Tech scored at least 27 points in each of those games). Not once last year did he throw for more than two touchdowns, and he had three alone in the opener Saturday night.
This is improvement. It was a solid day for Wells. And I don’t think this is the high-water mark for him either. If he gets protection like this each week, he now has the receivers to get open and he can put up decent numbers through the air. If he goes for 250 yards, 3 touchdowns, no sacks, and no turnovers every week, the Hokies will likely go bowling!
(And while we are complimenting Wells, let’s give him a shout-out for handling so many low snaps, particularly those that bounced before reaching him. Kaden Moore moved from guard to center in the offseason, and a lot of his snaps Saturday were low. Wells’ sure hands prevented a single bad snap from becoming just that. Kudos to Wells.)
Tech Showed What Pry Has Been Saying About Complimentary Football
All last season, Brent Pry talked about the need to play complimentary football. Virginia Tech did a good job of playing complimentary football in this game, and the results showed. The offense picked up as game went on. Tech could not generate any big plays on the ground, but they did grind out 109 rushing yards on the day, added to 259 in the air.
The Hokies put up 36 points. They did not reach 30 all of last year. In fact, their 36 points was the most they scored since Justin Fuente was fired after the 48-17 domination of Duke in 2021.
The defense was a little bend-but-don’t-break in the first half, but they came up with three big turnovers in the second half. They only force NINE all of last year, so this was a significant area of improvement for the defense. In addition to the turnovers, they were able to create sacks and pressure.
Virginia Tech had no turnovers and only four penalties (and only two that were non targeting calls). The offense gave up no sacks while only punting four times. The complimentary football was obvious and it is a huge improvement from last year.
Final Thoughts on the Virginia Tech Old Dominion Opener
Like many Tech fans, I was not comfortable in this game until the fourth quarter. The aforementioned concerns helped keep this one closer than I thought it would be against what is supposed to be the weakest team on the schedule.
That said, when looking at this game in totality, I feel good. It was a 19-point win where the defense had three takeaways and the offense had none. The defense was able to generate pressure, and the wide receivers got separation and made multiple big plays. That is a far cry from last season.
Yes, there are some issues, but this is only game one with a roster that has about 40% newcomers. They have not been playing together for that long. And unlike the Fuente years, I prefer to see the Hokies play their best football in November and not September, and there is plenty of hope that this very young roster will continue to improve.
The ODU game is behind us. It is time to look forward. The mistakes are correctible, and the staff will work on them in practice. The Hokies have lost their last eight games against non-conference Power 5 opponents – let’s try to get off that schneid against Purdue this week!
It was a long, exciting offseason with much anticipation in Blacksburg. Saturday night it made it worth the wait. College football is back! Let’s Go… Ho-kies!
Those who worried that Virginia Tech would not play in a bowl this year had their fears put to rest. This was a bowl game for the Hokies – the Targeting Bowl! Five targeting flags were thrown on Saturday night. I don’t think I saw five other targeting flags thrown the rest of the weekend, and I watched a lot of college football over the weekend!
While I understand and support the rule, as a fan, I was a bit taken by the amount of targeting calls made as well as the discrepancy in enforcement. I can see why the Tech players were ejected, as well as the first ODU player, but I don’t understand why the second ODU targeting was overturned. The helmet-to-helmet contact looked like the others. As a fan, that is frustrating – to see similar hits with different targeting results. I’m sure it’s worse for the players.
Virginia Tech DB Jalen Stroman has been ejected for Targeting pic.twitter.com/Zs5wFKee8p
— NCAAF Nation (@NCAAFNation247) September 3, 2023
Fans should lighten up on the criticism of Wells and Bowen. The Hokies won by 19. If they played a little cleaner and kicked field goals when inside the red zone, they would have put up 40+ and probably won by 30 or more. And this was only game one.
Remember when Sean Glennon threw an interception on the first offensive play of 2007? Well, that team won the conference. Conversely, remember when Tech won at Florida State in 2018? Well, that team lost at Old Dominion a few weeks later and finished 6-7. So let’s all sit back, take a breath, and let this one go for what it was – an opening game that wasn’t always pretty but ended with a comfortable margin of victory. The coaches know the issues and can work on them in practice, and the fans should move on to the next opponent and start looking forward to watching that one.
Speaking of the next one, the Purdue Boilermakers come to Blacksburg on Saturday for a noon start. Purdue opened their season with a loss at home to Fresno State, 39-35. The Boilermakers put up similar numbers as Tech – 254 yards passing, 109 yards rushing, 35 points – but defensively, they were gashed in the air to the tune of 371 yards. That bodes well for Wells and his receivers.
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