BLACKSBURG—Very little is certain these days, but we do know a few things after Virginia Tech’s 33–15 thrashing of Virginia Saturday night.
We know the Cavaliers’ season is over at 5–5 after they took themselves out of consideration for a bowl bid.
We know that Saturday’s romp did not prevent the Hokies (5–6) from avoiding their first losing regular season since 1992, but it might allow them to extend their national-best record of 27 straight bowl appearances. And it took quite a bit of heat off coach Justin Fuente, whose future was a hot topic of discussion on message boards last week.
We’re also sure that neither team can claim to be the commonwealth’s best, not after Liberty went 9–1 with almost as many wins over Atlantic Coast Conference opponents (three) as the Hokies (five) or Cavaliers (four).
But after an unprecedented season that Fuente called “the hardest thing anybody has ever pulled off,” it’s unclear exactly what either team’s makeup will look like next fall. Because of the pandemic, the NCAA will not count this season against any player’s eligibility, so some (but probably not many) seniors could decide to return.
Don’t expect Tech junior offensive tackle Christian Darrisaw to be back; he’s a potential first-round NFL draft pick. Same goes for Hokies running back Khalil Herbert (1,182 rushing yards) or Virginia linebacker Charles Snowden, whose senior season was cut short by a broken ankle.
No matter who’s in uniform (or on the sideline), though, we know both teams have areas that need vast improvement if they want to be more competitive in 2021. With the holidays around the corner, here’s a quick wish list:
Virginia: Pass defense
The Cavaliers rank 123rd out of 127 FBS teams in passing yards allowed, giving up huge plays in almost every game. On Saturday they didn’t sack Tech quarterback Brandon Burmeister once, and they allowed Tayvion Robinson to turn a routine out pattern into a 60-yard touchdown.
After losing top pass rusher Charles Snowden to injury and prize nose tackle Jowon Briggs to the transfer portal, the Cavaliers struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks without blitzing. When they didn’t, rivals picked on Courtland High School graduate Nick Grant, who made some key interceptions but also some big gainers.
Seven of Virginia’s defensive starters Saturday (including Grant) were listed as seniors. Defensive coordinator Nick Howell needs to find better athleticism or better schemes. Sophomore safety Coen King from Eastern View High School had some moments, but will need to be more consistent.
Virginia Tech: Quarterback stability
Burmeister earned Pro Football Focus’ best weekly rating for a college quarterback on Saturday night, when he went 15 for 22 for 212 yards and the TD to Robinson. But neither he nor Hendon Hooker showed consistency.
Burmeister, a junior transfer from Oregon, missed several games with broken toes. Hooker had some solid games early in the season, but fairly or not, he’ll be best remembered for leaving Tech’s penultimate game against Clemson complaining of being “cold.”
Having two solid options is a good thing. As Robinson put it Saturday: “I think we could have won it with any quarterback out there.” But the old adage is that if you have two QBs, you don’t have any. Fuente, like most coaches, likely will prefer to have a dependable starter in the fall.
Virginia: A running game
For once, the Cavaliers don’t have to worry about the sport’s most important position. Brennan Armstrong improved all year (until the finale) and potentially has three more seasons of eligibility.
But like Bryce Perkins before him, he became Virginia’s best running threat. Offensive coordinator Robert Anae effectively ignored running backs Wayne Taulapapa, Shane Simpson and Ronnie Walker late in the season. They earned a combined four carries Saturday after getting 13 among them the previous week. (Armstrong ran a combined 32 times in those games.)
With most of his blockers scheduled to return, Bronco Mendenhall needs better balance—not only to keep opponents off balance, but to protect Armstrong’s health.
Virginia Tech: Stout defense
The Hokies responded Saturday night when Virginia recovered a fumbled punt at the Tech 24, forcing a missed field goal attempt. But that was an anomaly. Rivals scored an ACC-high 32 touchdowns and six field goals on 44 trips inside the 20.
Injuries and COVID-19 absences hampered defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton’s efforts in his first season succeeding the legendary Bud Foster. So did star cornerback Caleb Farley’s decision to opt out. But with seven of Saturday’s starters listed in their final seasons of eligibility, Hamilton will need to coach up his younger players better next fall.
Steve DeShazo: 374-5443