The Tailgate: Virginia Tech – Boston College Athletics

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One of the more underrated aspects of becoming a father last year has been my ability to function at any hour of the day. My wife jokes that between the night owls and early birds, we both learned how to live as permanently exhausted pigeons, but living without decent sleep for days on end was a staple trademark to my family growing up. We woke up notoriously early and fell asleep later than usual, but it never really ruined our ability to function on a day-to-day basis.

A big part of me thought about that when I woke up at 4 a.m. this week and went to the couch to rewatch the Rutgers game instead of going back to sleep. It was pitch dark out with a few cars rumbling down the main street at the end of my road, but there I was, sitting in a lights-out room, watching the film with a trusty cup of coffee in my hand.

At some point during the second half, maybe about the time I went to refill my trusty coffee mug, I shut the game off entirely and switched to something different. I read over my notes, and I realized it wasn’t doing me any good.

“You have to flush it and move on,” said head coach Jeff Hafley. “By the time we get back on Monday, and really Sunday, by the time we have to get back to work as a staff, we have to move on, and that’s what we did.”

The film identified the areas of need, but overreacting to last week would have placed this week’s game at Virginia Tech in jeopardy. It was fine to discuss what happened, even necessary to a degree, but as the Hokies drew nearer during the week, it became untenable to continue emphasizing the past over the upcoming second game of the season.

“It’s onto Virginia Tech,” Hafley said. “It’s over, and I talked Sunday about it. I talked Saturday about it. We’re onto [the Hokies] or else we’re going to lose two games because of one, and we cannot let that happen.”

Here’s what to watch for when the Eagles head to Hokie Village:

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Game Storylines (Garth Brooks Edition)

Blame it all on my roots.

I showed up in boots.

And ruined your black tie affair.

-“Friends in Low Places”

I have always enjoyed how the differences between Boston College and Virginia Tech built a unique contrast between their home bases. BC is metropolitan and Northeast, and Virginia Tech is out in the remote areas of western Virginia. Downtown Boston has towering skyscrapers while the tallest building in Blacksburg is a 12-story residence hall located on the Virginia Tech campus. The entire metropolitan area around Blacksburg has a little over 181,000 people, and there were just shy of 125,000 people in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston alone as of 2015. Virginia Tech is a public university that began as an agricultural and mechanical college, and BC is Catholic, Jesuit and private.

That said, the differences are what made the ACC’s first round of realignment so great because they both expanded the footprint of a conference defined by major southern cities. The Carolina schools and Tobacco Road opened gateways to Charlotte, Greensboro, and the major thoroughfares of the league’s heartbeat, but Atlanta and Tallahassee represented capital cities of huge states. Maryland opened the fertile region around the Beltway and Washington, D.C., and Clemson was, well, Clemson. 

Adding Miami strengthened the ties to the major city in Florida, but both Virginia Tech and BC fundamentally altered that landscape by giving the ACC a town out by the West Virginia border and a major city in the Northeast. Neither fit the traditional ACC footprint, and they individually and collectively helped pave a different road forward.

Pairing them together gave the league a new take on an old rivalry forged when Virginia Tech joined the Big East as this outlier type of team opposite the northeastern leagues, but that uniqueness took center stage whenever they played. That the league can successfully separate the duo is now a testament to how the ACC’s growth and later expansion helped remove those stark contrasts in a bigger, deeper league.

It’s the white in his knuckles,

The gold in the buckle,

He’ll win the next go ’round.

-“Rodeo”

Saturday marks the first home game for new Virginia Tech head coach Brent Pry after he was hired in the offseason to replace Justin Fuente, who mutually parted ways with the Hokies after going 5-5 in the first ten games of last season. A longtime assistant coach and defensive coordinator, this is his first head coaching position after he spent the last decade coaching as a coordinator and assistant head coach at Penn State, with his previous stops taking him over a well-traveled career dating back to Louisiana-Lafayette’s assistant head coach and defensive coordinator position in the early 2000s.

Pry has limited connections to Virginia Tech, though he was a graduate assistant under legendary defensive coordinator Bud Foster in the mid-1990s, but he comes from a coaching family and helped establish winners at each of his stops. Lafayette’s Sun Belt Conference championship, for example, came while Pry was coaching the defense, and his unit at Georgia Southern held second-seeded William & Mary to 15 points during a season that the Eagles advanced to the FCS semifinals.

“I don’t know him personally, but he’s a defensive guy, and it’s always nice to see defensive guys get [head coaching] jobs,” Jeff Hafley smiled. “He did a really good job at Penn State. I was at Ohio State for one year, but we were on the same side of the ball, so I didn’t really study [his scheme] very much. The most I’ve studied is now trying to get ready for the game, but I have a ton of respect for him. He’s done a great job and worked his way up from an assistant. He was a coordinator for a long time and now has a chance to be a head coach.”

That’s not to say the Hokies played poor defense under Fuente, but finishing 55th in total defense didn’t stop Notre Dame and Miami from scoring 30-plus points; Syracuse from scoring 40-plus; and Maryland from dropping 54 points in a Pinstripe Bowl blowout. Last week, Old Dominion failed to advance the ball with any type of regularity, but the 245 total yards were enough to beat the Hokies because of an offensive turnover machine.

Life is not tried,

It is merely survived,

If you’re standing outside the fire.

-“Standing Outside The Fire”

Every football team faces adversity over the course of its regular season. Injuries, youth, inexperience, a bad break, a bad call, a dropped pass, a missed field goal, a blown assignment, a bad sack…really anything creates hurdles for a player, a unit, a coach and a team over the course of a 12-game regular season. Those don’t define football teams, though the way they respond to those troubles invariably does, and Saturday arrives with both BC and Virginia Tech facing adversity in their own unique fashion.

Both are 0-1, and the way they lost their respective games left a foul taste beyond just the final score because both teams made costly mistakes. BC’s issues were well-documented by Coach Hafley, and it isn’t terribly difficult to pinpoint Virginia Tech’s problem with four interceptions thrown by starting quarterback Grant Wells. But like BC, none of those issues by Virginia Tech lingered into this week, and Pry’s explanation shrugged off the criticisms of the Marshall transfer.

“Two of them we kind of put on him,” Pry said. “One was kind of a poor decision, and one was kind of a poorly thrown ball. Not anything that lends to a pattern or anything like that.”

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Question Box

How do we chart progress?

A win will help, but the performance within the numbers matters. BC can’t let the Virginia Tech defense get to the quarterback, and limiting the penalties and mental mistakes are a big component of what needs to happen. Jeff Hafley has long been a proponent of avoiding the errors that cost teams games in the first couple of weeks, and after last week, it’s critical that the Eagles play better against Virginia Tech’s stingy defense that ranked best in the ACC in pass defense efficiency last weekend.

In particular, the way the Hokies play from the back end to the front is going to mirror what BC does to stop opposing offenses, and the personnel exists to make the Eagles’ life miserable in the second and third levels. Dax Hollifield is a linebacker who plays all-out on every play, and he combined with Nasir Peoples on 20 tackles in the loss to Old Dominion.

“I think their strength is down the middle,” Hafley said. “They have a couple of interior defensive linemen – [Josh Fuga, Mario Kendricks, and Norell Pollard] – and then obviously [Hollifield] in the middle. Then their nickelback’s a really good player. [Hollifield] plays with his hair on fire. He’s a strong guy that makes a ton of plays. He plays with a high motor, and he plays with great effort. I saw it last year live. He’s a veteran, and this team has a lot of guys who played a lot of football.”

Does Grant Wells have a bounce-back game?

Wells threw four interceptions last week, but he’s still the quarterback who spent the last two years throwing for over 5,500 yards and 34 touchdowns at Marshall. He had turnover issues last season, but a remarkable consistency existed in his ability to average anywhere between seven and eight yards per pass on a completion percentage between 61 and 66 percent.

“He has a strong arm and a quick release,” Jeff Hafley said. “The ball comes out of his hand really well, and he can certainly make all of the throws. Just watching back a couple of things from last year in the spring game, he runs well, and he has quick feet. He’s played a bunch of football, and he had success at Marshall. I’m sure [Virginia Tech] is happy to have him. I think he’s a good player, a solid quarterback who can run and throw, so I’ve been impressed with him.”

Old Dominion intercepted Wells twice last year while he played for the Thundering Herd, but the early October overtime win was the last time he threw for multiple picks in a game. He threw three interceptions after that game, including one in the very next game against North Texas, and he finished three of his last five games without a pick. Two of those games ended in a win: a 38-0 win over Florida International and a 49-28 drubbing of Charlotte, during which he completed 80 percent and 75 percent of his passes, respectively.

How does BC reset the areas where it struggled?

Redshirt junior Keshawn King isn’t the prototypical every-down running back, but the five-foot, 11-inch runner was one of the ACC’s best backs last week after he averaged 5.8 yards per carry against Old Dominion. He didn’t score a touchdown, but his 11 yards on 19 carries was every bit as good as Syracuse’s Sean Tucker or North Carolina’s Omarion Hampton. 

Stopping King isn’t going to be easy, but finding a way to beat Virginia Tech starts with stopping a running game that offers a very different look from the battering ram backs employed by Rutgers last weekend. To do that, BC had to analyze its own scheme and clean things up with a rhythm driven by a desire to avoid ever letting a team repeat a victorious performance.

“You only get one Tuesday to do first and second down,” Jeff Hafley said. “There’s only one Wednesday to do third down and red zone. There’s only Thursday to clean it up. It’s not like training camp when you have all this time, so you better lock in, and you better be more intense. And that’s what I want to see. There are guys, we needed to get a lot out [this week]. I couldn’t wait to get back out on the practice field.

“I can’t wait to get back out on the game field,” he continued, “and I could feel that come out [the team]. Was everything perfect? No. Is it going to be perfect on a Tuesday? No, it’s not. But they need to go, and it needs to be intense. Now our job as coaches is go clean it up and make it better [later in the week].”

*****

Meteorology 101

Had this game been played in the early afternoon, the forecast might have been a little less bleak, but it’s increasingly looking like Saturday night is going to bring wet weather to the Lane Stadium faithful filing through the turnstiles. A high percentage of precipitation exists for those in attendance for an 8 p.m. kickoff, and it doesn’t look like it’ll diminish much as the night progresses. I’m not sure if it’s going to be persistent, but news reports around the Roanoke area are calling for potentially heavy rain capable of producing a half of an inch of precipitation over the course of the day. 

Normally I’d be wary of potential impacts to a natural grass field, but Virginia Tech boasts an irrigation and drainage system capable of handling upwards of 16 inches per hour, per its athletics website. Even in the worst conditions, the field should hold up, though the sledding in the trenches obviously slows whenever the weather takes a turn for the worse.

*****

BC-Virginia Tech X Factor

Boston College’s offensive line

The coaching staff didn’t need a neon highlighter to circle the areas where the offensive line struggled last week. The number of quarterback hurries were too high, the two sacks on the last drive amounted to half of the backfield takedowns against Phil Jurkovec, and the running game lacked a thrust against the teeth of the Rutgers defense. That’s all fact, and it doesn’t need any more hammering than it’s already received. I do, however, believe this offensive line is going to improve as the year progresses. Last week was battle-tested and served as a hardening process, and it’s unfortunate that it had to come with a loss that heightened the feelings of how things went badly. 

Saturday night is therefore pretty important for an offensive line that can and will be much better. This was simply the starting point, but the goal has always been improvement. A bad game or bad play happens, but the key is how the unit gets better with time and space. Week Two, as any coach preaches, has to be better than Week One, and thinking about Week Three or Week Four has to wait until after this game is complete.

“I know they play hard,” Jeff Hafley said. “I know they put in the work. But the goal here is [that] they need to be better next week, and I’m probably going to tell you after the next game that they need to be better. And hopefully by Week Eight or Nine, they’re way better than they were in Week One. That’s our job as coaches, and that’s their job as players. We have to coach them every week to improve, and we have to play and execute at a much higher level.”

*****

Around College Football

It didn’t take long for college football to produce exciting results, and last week offered five days of pure anarchy and chaos for fans looking for heart-pounding, exciting finishes (here’s looking at you, UNC and Appalachian State!). Living up to that billing for a second week is a difficult task, but several matchups offer tantalizing possibilities.

It starts early in the noon slate when No. 1 Alabama visits Texas for a 12 p.m. start among future SEC opponents, and it kicks off opposite No. 16 Arkansas’ SEC opener against South Carolina. Later, No. 19 Wisconsin hosts Washington State in a mid-afternoon game, and No. 25 Houston visits Texas Tech in a sneaky good game among future Big 12 opponents.

A nationally-ranked game between No. 20 Kentucky and No. 12 Florida kicks off at 7 p.m. from The Swamp, and the national television slate on ABC has the Pac-12 matchup between No. 10 USC and Stanford on The Farm in California before No. 9 Baylor visits No. 21 Brigham Young in the late game.

On the ACC slate, BC’s trip to Virginia Tech garners primetime attention on the ACC Network, but sneaky tough games exist for the conference’s fight for early-season respect. Duke is at Northwestern at noon, the same time No. 23 Wake Forest plays at Vanderbilt, and the mid-afternoon features a nationally-televised game between No. 17 Pitt and No. 24 Tennessee. 

Later, Syracuse travels east to play Connecticut at 7 p.m. for a game with local ties.

*****

Dan’s Non-Sports Observation of the Week

This summer’s overall heat and humidity really forced me to rethink my annual strategy of grilling every single meal, but this past week gave me an opportunity to step outside and fire up the propane tank for the first time in what felt like forever. Twenty minutes of sausage later, we had an old-fashioned tailgate at the Rubin household, even though it was on the patio, as we waited for the Los Angeles Rams and Buffalo Bills to kick off the 2022 NFL season.

Grilled meats are an art form to me, but this summer made it impossible to totally enjoy being outdoors with burgers, hot dogs, steak tips, chicken thighs, chicken breasts, Italian sausage, or basically anything else requiring an open flame. It was too hot for me, and the thought of standing over a 400-degree grill while oppressive heat, humidity and sunshine reigned supreme chased me inside to the comfort of my stove and microwave.

I readily admit that I probably could have done more with my summer, but I relished – no pun intended – this past week for that hamburger and sausage night. It was the perfect start to autumn, though it should be noted that I’m saving hot dogs for my pregnant wife’s triumphant return and the release of any dietary restrictions at the end of the month-ish.

*****

Pregame Quote and Prediction

Exit light, enter night. -Metallica, “Enter Sandman”

Nobody enters the season expecting to lose the first game, but both Boston College and Virginia Tech are in the second week sporting winless records. Both lost their game last week, but both don’t necessarily need a heightened sense of urgency to think the season lives and dies on this week of the season.

That’s because that particular sense is already present. No team enters a week thinking about letting its foot off the gas pedal, and the season is too short and too precious for a coach or player to give anything less than their best on any given day. There is no way to enter October without first passing through September, and there’s no conceivable method advancing to Game Three without first playing Game Two. BC and Virginia Tech are both 0-1, but they each wiped the slate clean this week for the next “one-game season.” Both are attempting to go 1-0, and after this week is over, both will wipe that slate clean and do it all over again. 

These two teams are old rivals dating back to the old Big East, and the games over the years featured some of the biggest, brightest, best memories of both programs. Ghosts of Michael Vick and Matt Ryan exist in both locker rooms, but a night game at Lane Stadium is the perfect backdrop for what comes next.



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