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If you’re a long-time watcher of Hokie athletics, there’s one premise you eventually learn: you will have good times and bad, but in the end, the Hokies will always break your heart.
This particularly applies to the historically tight games that go back and forth, where either team could make a play and win. Hokie history is filled with tales of sorrow in losing these narrow games when there were at least 2 or 3 moments where victory could be rescued from the jaws of defeat.
Such was Saturday’s game at Lane Stadium with North Carolina. Five times I prepared myself for the fact VT was going to lose. Six times I got my hopes up that instead, the Hokies would win.
Seven times I just thought they were trying to kill me.
When the dust cleared, Virginia Tech pulled it out and won 43-41 in SIX – count ‘em – SIX overtimes.
The game could end up being the proverbial fork in the road for Fuente and this team. It had all the things the great teams of the past had, with players battling through injuries and making big plays; the crowd turning electric, shouting until they were hoarse; the defense coming up with a big stop at just the moment it was desperately needed, and when all looked lost, the Hokies somehow found a way to win.
The whispers that Fuente may not be the guy to lead the Hokies hasn’t been subtle the last few weeks. People were suggesting he’s lost the team, doesn’t relate all that well to his players, and doesn’t put the right guy in the right seat on the bus, particularly at the quarterback position.
Yesterday’s game would be considered Exhibit A that such talk is pure, 100 percent, Grade A hogwash.
The group I saw on the sidelines and on the field yesterday was alive, full of fight and full of emotion. They rallied around their coach and each other. Players moved to other positions to help fill holes created by injury. Tight end Dalton Keene moved to running back and contributed; freshman Norrell Pollard got his chance at DT and made two sacks. Defensive back Khalil Ladler came off the bench and saved the game with an open field tackle at the two in the fifth overtime.
Then there was the matter of who played quarterback.
After weeks of preferring Ryan Willis to Hendon Hooker at QB, Fuente finally, if not begrudgingly, went with Hendon Hooker two games ago and was rewarded with two straight wins. Hooker played so well, in fact, that a lot of folks wondered out loud “what was Fuente thinking?” because Hooker was a much better passer and all-around QB than most expected.
Hooker went down to injury late in the first half, and in trotted Willis, leaving many of us to think the season was now in peril because Fuente loved Willis the way Steve Spurrier loved Danny Wuerffel in a Redskins exhibition game in Osaka. Barring another injury, logic dictated Willis wasn’t coming out the rest of the season.
But after throwing a TD pass on his first play, Willis looked rattled on the next drive. Fuente, surprisingly, reacted like half the fan base and pulled him in favor of third-string QB Quincy Patterson.
That may have been the moment people will look back at and say the program started turning around.
It’s not because Patterson is the best thing since sliced bread at the position (although he has tremendous potential). It’s because it signaled a change in thinking for the head coach from my view that needed to happen.
On good football teams, quarterbacks walk into the huddle and instill confidence that the play they’ve called is going to work. If the linemen, receivers and running backs perceive the QB is just guessing, or has a “maybe it will work” attitude, it’s a much tougher game. The great ones take the huddle, tell you what’s going to happen after the next play is successful, and you break the huddle believing you’re going to do just that.
Willis seemingly lost the confidence of his offense somewhere along the way. And if your coach is still sticking with that QB even after you’ve seen someone playing better in practice, you really have an issue with the plays being sent in by that coach to be run by a QB you doubt can succeed. Late in the season when everyone’s banged up, it can even morph into a “I’ll try” instead of an “I will” approach to each play.
Which I think you saw late in last year’s season.
Pulling Willis for Patterson seemed to fire up the offense. Much like when Hooker finally saw the field, fans got to see a QB who may be a work in progress, but is much more than just a running QB. Patterson also throws a nice ball, causing many to once again say “what has Fuente been thinking?” But it didn’t matter this time.
All that mattered is Fuente decided he was playing the QB that gave the Hokies the best chance to win.
While boring, the package of plays Patterson was allowed to run was actually very smart. The word on Patterson was that in practice, he had a tendency to sail his throws, which isn’t surprising. He is a physical beast in terms of size and strength, so when amped, he can throw a ball very hard and very far. As a result, it has not been unusual for him to nail a perfect throw on a line on one play in practice, then sail one well over a receiver that is intercepted on the next.
He wasn’t put in a situation to do that much against UNC. No passes were called over the middle, where that was most likely to happen. All of them were toward a sideline or the corner of the end zone, where a sailed pass only ended up landing harmlessly out of bounds. The coaches put Patterson in a position to succeed, and I also think Quincy is one of those players who is much better in a game than practice.
I am not a fan of the offense using Patterson as a human battering ram, but there was also a decided advantage in doing so. Patterson hadn’t played this season, so he was physically fresh. He wasn’t even the No. 2 QB in practice, so he was like a brand new vehicle with virtually no miles on it. Against a team midway through the season with assorted nicks and injuries that had already played more than a half of football, putting the ball in the hands of a 245-pound grown man with that kind of speed who is well rested and ready to go did make sense.
Don’t confuse this with saying I like the Hokies’ play calling. They still call plays like I dance, and I’m an old man with no rhythm.
But it worked. A loss after all the overtimes would have been soul-crushing. Instead, they won with about a dozen different players stepping up and making key plays that contributed to it.
They stopped looking like a group of individuals. They started having fun. They looked like they believed.
They looked like a team.
Even if they almost killed me 😊