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McFarling: Hokies seeking more downfield darts
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McFarling: Hokies seeking more downfield darts

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Middle Tennessee Virginia Tech football (copy)

Virginia Tech quarterback Braxton Burmeister (3) runs for a first down in the first half of the Middle Tennessee Virginia Tech NCAA College football game in Blacksburg Va. Saturday September 10 2021. (AP Photo / The Roanoke Times, Matt Gentry)

BLACKSBURG – They’re still looking for that middle ground, something between bravado and ball security, between swashbuckling and sensible.

Virginia Tech quarterback Braxton Burmeister and his coaches know there’s more here. More sting in the tail of this passing game, more big-play potential. And they know they’re going to need it eventually.

Burmeister experienced an eventful Saturday afternoon in the Hokies’ 35-14 victory over Middle Tennessee. He took a huge hit to the back of his neck late in the first quarter and had to go to the locker room, then threw a touchdown pass on his first play back four minutes later.

He took care of the ball and valued field position – no interceptions, only one sack – but put up pedestrian passing numbers (14 for 24, 142 yards, one touchdown) for the second straight week.

It leaves an overwhelming sense that there’s an unleashed version of Burmeister we simply haven’t seen yet this year.

“No doubt,” Burmeister said. “I think that’s going to come in time and with reps. There were some looks today where it was kind of in between and it could have gone either way, and I chose to protect the ball. But obviously, in a tighter game or in a game where we need some big plays, I feel like I’ll take those shots when needed.”

The North Carolina game begged to be managed, and Burmeister managed it well. In a 17-10 victory over a high-powered offense, Tech wanted to control the tempo and keep the Tar Heels off the field. That meant deep forays into the play clock and, in the end, not many plays run by either team.

Still, Burmeister averaged 8.9 yards per passing attempt in that game, which ranked a respectable 33rd in the nation for Week 1. He averaged just 5.9 yards per passing attempt in this one, which will rank somewhere around 100th in the country.

“I thought he played his heart out, but he can be a more efficient player than he is right now,” Tech coach Justin Fuente said. “He knows that, and we know that. We’ve got to find a way to craft this so that he can continue to grow a little bit. We need to make some concerted efforts to take some shots down the field. We didn't pull the trigger on them, you know?”

Not often, anyway. Burmeister’s longest pass completion of the first half went for just 12 yards. No other completion he had before intermission went for more than seven.

Part of that is play-calling. The Hokies were content to work their way down the field methodically early with some short passes to the tight ends and receivers. But there were also instances where receivers ran longer routes and Burmeister dropped back and wound up running or throwing the ball away instead of taking a shot.

Fuente stressed that he’d have to watch the video to know how often there were open downfield receivers that Burmeister either didn’t see or didn’t trust himself to try to hit.

Last week featured one play in the third quarter where Tre Turner was running wide open in the UNC secondary and Burmeister didn’t see him.

“With Braxton, I kind of just walk up to him and look at him, like, ‘Are we good now? You see me now, right?’” Turner said with a smile. “It’s not like I get any type of dislike for the quarterback or feel any type of way about it. It’s one play, he didn’t see me, and it’s just go on to the next play.”

And the next week. On perhaps the biggest play of Saturday’s win, Burmeister hit a wide-open Turner deep for a 47-yard gain in the third quarter. That set up Jalen Holston’s 29-yard touchdown run that pushed the lead to 21-7 and had the Lane Stadium crowd finally feeling a little less tense.

“That kind of got us going,” Burmeister said. “It felt good. It’s a play we’ve run a lot during spring and fall camp.”

So it’s not like they’ve been ignoring the deep pass – a weapon they’ll almost certainly need next week against a speedy West Virginia team that showed vulnerability to the chunk play in its opening loss at Maryland.

“There's an element of freedom out there,” Fuente said. “I think we have to find a balance. There's the quarterback that goes out there who just blindly chucks the ball over the place; we can't live with that. He's definitely not doing that.

“But then there's also a level of confidence and feeling and opportunity to give our guys a chance to make a play that I think we can get to.”

The sooner the better.

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