As I watched the final seconds of the Virginia Tech Rutgers game from my fifth-row seat at SHI Stadium, I couldn’t help but notice a sadness in my soul. I was not upset with the loss, I was not disappointed. In fact, my friends and I expected a tough day and felt that a bad outcome was more likely than not. (Which in and of itself is sad!)
But it was not the actual game that was gnawing at my innards. It was the harsh realization of what just happened. Virginia Tech was beaten soundly by Rutgers.
Rutgers. The State University of New Jersey. Yes, the oft-insulted Armpit-of-America-New-Jersey (which I will go to my grave defying). Rutgers has been the brunt of college football jokes for decades, yet here we were, my Hokie alum and I, watching the Scarlet Knights manhandle Virginia Tech in the trenches and beat us at our own game.
Rutgers took advantage of a short field fumble and also a punt that torpedoed backwards to net only 13 yards, turning each into a touchdown. But even without those two plays, the Hokies still lose this one.
Why? Because that is where the Hokies are right now. And that realization, that is what is eating at my insides like a antagonist in an Edgar Allan Poe story. I grew up in New Jersey, and I returned to the Garden State after graduating from Virginia Tech. So I know the history of both schools.
The last time I sat that close to the field in Piscataway, I watched Rutgers cross three-quarters of the gridiron in mere seconds to pull off an incredibly dramatic 50-49 walk-off win over Tech in 1992. (I guess I shouldn’t sit so close to that field anymore!)
Since then, I have seen every Virginia Tech Rutgers game in Piscataway. I was at the 1995 game in the torrential rain where Tech’s defense scored the last two touchdowns en route to a 45-17 victory. I was there for the 59-19 thrashing in 1997, as well as Michael Vick’s opening play bomb to Andre Davis in the 58-20 blowout of 1999.
My children attended the next two as infants, both comfortable wins in 2001 and 2003. And then the series ended, save for an ugly bowl game in Orlando that the Hokies managed to escape on the good end.
As I left the game this weekend – with both of those kids and a third, all young adults now – I realized that it was a full circle moment. In 1992, the better team won. Rutgers went on to win seven games that year, while Tech finished 2-8-1.
I don’t know where these two teams will finish this year, but Rutgers is clearly a better football team right now, something I haven’t said for three decades.
The other part of this equation is the cause of this demise. Yes, we can blame past coaching staffs, recruiting, the transfer portal, NIL, and facilities all we want. But the hard truth is that injuries have changed this roster drastically, and Virginia Tech is not the same team now as the one in August that most of us projected to win five or six or even seven games and maybe make it to a bowl game.
The injuries have wreaked havoc on an already thin roster, and freshmen and sophomores must play now. That is an unfortunate part of the game, as well as a very unfortunate situation based on the recent past of the Hokies.
But it is what it is. And the Hokies have to make it work the best they can.
The Injuries are Like a Bad Hand of Uno
We’ve all played the card game Uno, right? Remember that time you just kept getting pounded with bad cards? Draw two. Skip. Reverse. Draw four. Before you know it, the round is over, and you have 100 points worth of cards in your hand.
Well, that is the hand Virginia Tech is playing right now because of the rash of injuries. Eight players from the end of summer starting lineup are out or have missed significant time. That is close to half of the starting roster, and they are all upperclassmen! So the Hokies are playing a lot of backups, and unfortunately, many of them are freshmen and sophomores (more on that later).
I wrote about this concern last week, and it only got worse during the Rutgers game. Offensively, Tech went into the contest without its starting quarterback (Grant Wells), its fifth-year tight end (Nick Gallo), and its top two receivers (Ali Jennings and Jaylin Lane). That is a lot of weaponry-loss for the passing game. The strides that the Hokies made to improve that facet of the offense have taken a big hit, especially because of the youth and inexperience behind them.
Defensively, Tech probably suffered more with the loss of junior safety Jalen Stroman right before halftime. Senior Nasir Peoples, the other safety, has been out the past two games. Star linebacker Keonta Jenkins played sparingly and middle linebacker Alan Tisdale (both seniors) did not play at all this past weekend. That is a huge loss of experience up the middle.
With a roster that is very thin to begin with, these injuries are forcing young, under-experienced, and in some cases, undersized players onto the field before they are ready. That is the hand that the Hokies have been dealt, now they have to play the heck out of that hand if they want to be successful.
Growing Pains Do Hurt
Although the Mayo Clinic claims that there is no evidence that growth actually hurts, Hokie Nation will tell you otherwise.
It is widely known that the Hokies are struggling both to run the ball and to stop the run. On offense, the line includes two freshmen and another first-year starter, and the center is in his first year at that position. They have struggled to get a push and to open holes.
On defense, the Hokies lack a true ball-hawking middle linebacker (as I mentioned in my ODU article). They also have several “conversions” up the middle. Keli Lawson, Jayden McDonald, and Jaden Keller did not play middle linebacker in high school. Jalen Jones was a receiver prior to moving to safety this year. And although Mose Phillips was a safety in high school, he is a true freshman. They are still learning their positions.
The young linebackers and safeties have often taken bad angles or have not gotten off blocks, enabling several big plays on the ground. Watch this video below to see it. At the 22 second mark, Rutgers quarterback Gavin Wimsatt runs untouched up the middle for a 34-yard score. Much like other big runs this year, the linebackers are blocked and the safeties take themselves out of the play on this one.
Rather than beat this dead horse, I will just say that the coaches now have added pressure to bring these young players along quickly, especially if any of these injuries are long term (and with Tech’s CIA-style of reporting injuries, it will not be a surprise if any of the injured players are out for a few more weeks). The coaches now have to get the youngsters performing better quickly or they have to scheme up better ways to stop the run – or both. It will be difficult to win games when teams continue to get chunk plays on the ground.
Big Plays – or Lack Thereof
The inexperience has led to several big plays so far against the Hokies, and in the Virginia Tech Rutgers game, two of them came on the ground to break the backs of the defense. In addition to the 34-yard quarterback scamper and the 55-yard touchdown run from third and one (see YouTube video above), the Hokies defense just could not come up with a big, momentum swinging play.
On offense, it is more of the same. Da’Quan Felton’s drop of a well thrown deep ball was the closest thing to a big play for that unit. Yes, Virginia Tech possessed the ball for almost 34 minutes this game and ran a whopping 21 more plays than Rutgers, but that does not mean much when drives do not end in points. The team needs some of these youngsters – as well as its veterans – to step up and make plays.
The Hokies are also losing the one-on-one battles, especially on defense. Against Rutgers, Virginia Tech had only three tackles for loss and no sacks. The front seven needs to apply more pressure, to be more disruptive. Yes, scheming will help that, but in the end, guys just have to win more one-one-one battles. Especially up the middle.
And it certainly does not help to lose the turnover margin. In each of the past two games, both of which were losses, Virginia Tech gave up the ball twice and did not take it away. The stop on fourth down against Purdue was like a turnover, but there were no other real takeaways.
When a team is this young and and having so many struggles, losing the turnover battle is just like throwing gas on a fire.
The Quarterback Situation
One of the brighter spots of the Virginia Tech Rutgers game was the play of transfer quarterback Kyron Drones. Other than the fumble on the second play from scrimmage – which was disastrous for sure – and his lone interception, overall, he played a decent game. In his first start of his college career – heck, it was his first real college game action – he put up decent numbers and helped inject a little bit of life into the Virginia Tech running attack.
Drones finished the game with 19 completions on 32 attempts (59%) for 190 yards with one touchdown and one interception. This includes the aforementioned drop by Felton that would’ve put Drones over 60% and closer to 250 yards. That would have been a good day passing.
On the ground, Drones carried the ball 22 times for 74 yards, which led the team considerably. The Hokies totaled a season-high 129 yards rushing, which is not great by any standard, but it is a far cry from the 11 yards against Purdue last week.
Most would think that Drones will only get better as he keeps playing, so this bodes well for the future.
Another positive from the Virginia Tech Rutgers game was the game plan. Offensive coordinator Tyler Bowen has been criticized for his play-calling over the first two weeks. The Hokies offense looked better on Saturday, with a lot more misdirection, outside runs, and moving pockets. I was so impressed early that I remarked sarcastically to my friends, “Whose playbook did we buy?”
It is certainly encouraging to know that there are indeed schemes in this offense that are attempting to compensate for the lack of experience and lack of production on the line. It just leads me to ask where it has been and why it took so long to see it!
That said, it is a bit concerning that Drones was the runaway leader in the rushing attack (yes, pun intended). He had twice as many carries as Tech’s top running back for the day (Bhayshul Tuten, who carried 11 times). And he accounted for 57% of the yards on the ground.
I am having flashbacks to the early Fuente years when the Hokies leaned on the legs of Jerod Evans and Josh Jackson, both of whom led their respective teams in carries. While it was successful for them, Evans did forego his senior season partly because of the toll that 2016 took on his body. And Jackson broke his leg early in his second season.
There is certainly increased injury risk for Drones if he is carrying the ball for half of Tech’s rushes. The Hokies cannot keep running him 22 times a game, especially when the next man up is a true freshman who only weighs 190 pounds.
While I would expect Drones to start against Marshall (mainly because I believe Wells’ injury is more severe than disclosed), and after watching him (and the offense in general) against Rutgers, I would like this to be his job to lose. I know that it is unfortunate for Wells to potentially lose his starting job because of injury, but hey, this is sports, and sometimes the guy behind you is just waiting for that game opportunity. Ask Wally Pipp about that!
The Bright Spots
Late in the third quarter, one of my friends – who is a Rutgers alum (remember, I live in Jersey) – texted me this: “VT is the better team right now.”
Then he followed that with another text late in the fourth quarter: “This score is very misleading.”
Coming from a Rutgers fan who was watching the same game with unbiased eyes, those were compliments. I don’t necessarily agree with the latter text, as the margin of victory was representative of the mistakes made and the battles in the trenches. But the point is, he saw some positives from the Hokies.
He was also complimentary of Drones. The quarterback’s play and the more varied offensive attack were bright spots.
The rushing game improved, and for the second straight week, the team fought back from a deep hole. It is easy for young teams to fold under the pressure of such a deficit, but that is twice now that the Hokies did not quit. They might not have executed, but their hearts are still in it.
And with all the freshmen playing this year, it should only help in the long term when these players continue to mature. They may not be winning now, but they are gaining valuable experience, and there are plenty of winnable games on the schedule for them to show improvement. And this is good for next year, too, because the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores!
Final Thoughts After the Virginia Tech Rutgers Game
If the Hokies can beat Marshall, they will be 2-2 heading into league play (which is right where I had them in my preseason predictions). A bowl berth would still be attainable given the schedule.
However, with the injuries to this team and the growing pains it is experiencing, getting to six wins just feels challenging right now. As fans, fixating ourselves on a bowl bid as the mark of success right now is a dangerous way of thinking.
In the pre-season, a 6-6 record seemed very possible. However, after losing so many starters to injury, those expectations have to be adjusted. Yes, we can still hope for a bowl. But if it does not happen, the season is not necessarily lost, especially since the injuries present a valid reason for not reaching the goal. Right now, the biggest concern of the fanbase should be seeing improvement, particularly from those who have been thrust into premature action.
And yes, the run defense needs to be shored up. The offensive line needs to get a better push and open holes more consistently. The youth is an issue in those areas. However, if those two things can change for the better, Virginia Tech will be in position to win games. If not, then it will be another long season.
There is a lot of football left to play. There is much opportunity for young players to learn from their mistakes. There is time for them to become better players. There is also an urgency for the staff to coach these young kids up and put them in position to make plays. If these things happen, hope can return, not just for next season, but for the remainder of this one as well.
Because of the rash of injuries, the Hokies have been dealt a bad hand this year. If you know anything about cards, then you know that there are three ways to play that hand: fold it, bluff it, or play the hell out of it.
Let’s hope it is the latter, because this is a program that has fallen from grace and it needs to climb its way out of the hole and become relevant again.
Virginia Tech has now lost ten straight non-conference games against Power-5 opponents including Notre Dame. Their last victory of this sort was to start the 2017 when the Hokies beat West Virginia in Landover, Maryland. That feels like forever ago.
This graphic really emphasizes the recent struggle for the Hokies. Tech also has gone 1-10 in its last 11 games against Power-5 schools dating back to the Pinstripe Bowl in 2021. Most of those losses have been by multiple scores.
There's your last 11 games vs. the P5 pic.twitter.com/dcyNKUURsL
— օ×ѵէ (@OX_VT) September 18, 2023
Virginia Tech heads up to Huntington, West Virginia to play Marshall University this week. The Hokies hold an 11-2 all-time record against the Thundering Herd, having won the last nine straight. Marshall has not beaten Tech since they did it two years in a row in 1939 and 1940.
The Thundering Herd (2-0) opened the week as a nine-point favorite over the Hokies, but that line has dropped to -5 very quickly. Still, the Herd has a dynamic running back in Rasheen Ali, who ran for 1401 yards in 2021. In the first two games of 2023, he already has 222 yards. The Virginia Tech defense will again be challenged on the ground.
The Marshall game is a noon kickoff on Saturday and you can watch it on ESPN2. Let’s hope the Hokies can get out of non-conference play at .500 and try to do the same with the ACC slate that starts next week. But don’t look ahead, this is a solid Marshall team and Tech will have to bring it. Let’s Gooooo! Hokieeeees!
To read more of my articles on Virginia Tech football, click here.