The Virginia Tech Hokies responded to their first loss in an impressive way this past weekend with a 31-14 win over previously 22nd ranked Duke. The Hokies' offense didn't miss a beat without starting QB Josh Jackson as Ryan Willis had one of the best games for a Virginia Tech QB during the Justin Fuente era on his way to earning ACC QB of the Week honors.
With that said, here are three takeaways from the Hokies' win over Duke.
1. Ryan Willis Gives Virginia Tech a Vertical Passing Threat
Virginia Tech's passing game looked as good as we've seen it during the Justin Fuente era with Ryan Willis' skill set being a big reason for that. One big difference between Willis and Josh Jackson is arm strength as Jackson has had to rely more on timing and accuracy while Willis has the arm strength to stretch the field, opening up the underneath routes that helped the Hokies' passing game take off.
While some of Willis' down-field success were on 50-50 balls, he also had some quality deep balls including his touchdown pass to Damon Hazelton and the near catch by Hezekiah Grimsley that would have been a significant gain. The threat of the deep ball from Willis prevented Duke's secondary from cheating up defensively creating space for receivers like Grimsley who found more space out of the slot whether that was on a crossing route or a slight, middling route as he ran with his big 24-yard gain before Dalton Keene's 67-yard touchdown.
The fact that Willis was able to stretch the defense allowed for him to get some completions on throws that weren't right on the money because defensive backs couldn't cheat forward due to Willis' deep ball threat. Willis' deep ball ability also created some space for intermediate 50-50 balls with Duke's safeties trying to take out the big play threat, creating one-on-one matchups that Eric Kumah and Damon Hazelton were able to take advantage of at times.
While the simple presence of a consistent deep ball may have stood out to many, the fact that Willis' deep ball prevented defenders from cheating forward to cover the short and intermediate passes made a significant difference and helped the Hokies have one of their best passing peformances of the Justin Fuente era.
2. Virginia Tech's Wide Receiver Depth is Real
For the first time in the Justin Fuente era, Virginia Tech has six wide receivers that they can trust to be productive with the first team offense. Saturday night showcased this with five different wide receivers having a catch including Tre Turner's 33-yard catch off a third and long, and Phil Patterson who had 2 catches for 28 yards including a 10-yard touchdown catch that also had pass interference called against the defensive back covering him.
A big reason for that depth has been the development of guys like Hezekiah Grimsley and Patterson with Grimsley developing into a quality starting slot receiver and Patterson being a capable backup. In addition, Eric Kumah has continued to take strides after breaking out during the middle of last season while Damon Hazelton has emerged as a clear #1 target after his fourth-straight game with a touchdown to start the season.
Another great way of showing the Hokies' depth is the fact that Sean Savoy, Virginia Tech's top returning receiver, didn't have a single catch in this game while CJ Carroll, the only receiver to receive any significant playing time in Justin Fuente's first season that's still on the roster, has rarely seen the field on offense this season.
Justin Fuente, Brad Cornelsen, and Holmon Wiggins have all talked about wanting to have 6-8 wide receivers they can trust and for the first time in three seasons, the Hokies have just that and it's helping make Ryan Willis' life easier.
3. Virginia Tech's Cornerbacks Remain an Area of Concern
Though Virginia Tech's defense only gave up 14 points and had more success, the Hokies' concerns at cornerback remained. Before Bud Foster made a wise adjustment to an eight-man zone that worked quite well, Daniel Jones and the Duke passing game came close to multiple big plays over the top with a couple drops from Chris Taylor preventing Duke from having multiple opportunities deep in the red zone.
We saw Bud Foster look to make adjustments as Caleb Farley and Bryce Watts had their struggles with Jovonn Quillen coming in and providing some better play. By the end, both Farley and Watts started to find some rhythm, but their inconsistency over four quarters and struggles in man coverage made it clear that cornerback remains a weakness on this team.
Caleb Farley has shown plenty of promise and upside, but his inconsistency shouldn't be surprising for a player who before this fall had only spent 12 practices almost 18 months ago working at full health at a position that he did not play in high school. Despite that inconsistency, Farley appears to be the top cornerback while Jovonn Quillen started to push Bryce Watts for some of his playing time which will be something to keep an eye on going forward.
Virginia Tech's cornerbacks were definitely better this week, but the play at cornerback remains a concern though as Bud Foster showed, it's a weakness that defensive scheme can help negate.
Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
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