The pieced-together, makeshift version of Virginia Tech football, the one that scrapped its way to an all-things-considered impressive 2-1 start to this season, is now a thing of the past.
Saturday night, the Hokies unveiled the team they were expected to be in 2020 — a Hendon Hooker-led offense that rolled against Boston College and a defense that short-circuited the potent Eagles.
“I have been proud of the way our kids have handled some tough things that we’ve been through, but those things aren’t over,” said Tech coach Justin Fuente, who has skillfully navigated the COVID-19 minefield to keep his program competitive. “This isn’t time to for us to sit back and relax and slap each other on the back.”
Of course not. Social-distancing guidelines wouldn’t allow for that, anyway. But Fuente’s program has earned early-season kudos. Tech, seemingly closer to full strength with each week, is a team on the rise in the ACC, sitting at 3-1 and up to No. 19 in the national rankings heading into Saturday’s game at Wake Forest.
Rival Virginia’s trajectory points decidedly more downward.
The Cavaliers’ loss at Wake Forest on Saturday made them losers of three in a row for the first time since the end of the 2017 season. The slide started with a surprisingly competitive and ultimately forgivable road loss at Clemson, the top-ranked team in the nation.
Even the second loss, at home to a resurgent North Carolina State team — a game in which UVA lost starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong to a concussion in the second quarter — didn’t sound too many alarms.
But this past weekend’s loss to Wake, which had not won an FBS game this season, has red flags flapping in the central Virginia breeze.
The defense that was supposed to carry the Cavaliers this season gave up 40 points — 17 in the fourth quarter — and 483 yards to the Demon Deacons.
Virginia (1-3, 1-3 ACC) has increased its wins total each of Bronco Mendenhall’s four previous seasons. Last season, it went 9-5, won a division title and reached the Orange Bowl.
That “unbroken growth” that Mendenhall has touted during his rapid program rebuilding appeared to suddenly shatter, scattered in pieces somewhere on Route 29 between Charlottesville and Winston Salem, N.C.
“It feels like there’s been a break,” said Mendenhall on Monday. “There’s contributing factors, but it seems like a step back or a hiccup at this point. The rest of the story will be written the rest of this year.”
Mendenhall’s correct. It isn’t too late to pick up the pieces, but the upcoming schedule doesn’t do Bronco’s bunch any favors. UVA plays at No. 8 Miami this weekend, then hosts No. 11 North Carolina on Halloween — scary.
But Mendenhall doesn’t see fear or panic in his players.
“I love my team. I love who they are. I love how they prepare,” he said. “A handful of plays each week are what we need to make to continue to grow and improve our program.”
They’re the kind of plays the Hokies made early on, when their roster and coaching staff were depleted. Saturday against Boston College, Tech had all its assistant coaches, most of its players and little trouble with the Eagles, rolling 40-14.
Hooker ran for three touchdowns and threw for a fourth. Running back Khalil Herbert had his fourth straight game rushing for more than 100 yards.
The defense forced five turnovers, three coming on the first four BC possessions.
Still, Fuente squirmed at the assertion that his team had turned the corner.
“I don’t know. I’m hesitant to say anything,” he said. “You see guys make comments and the next thing you know, it bites them in the tail, so I don’t know. … We were still down some guys but it was nice to have our staff there and it’s probably the most normal week we’ve had thus far.”