NORFOLK — Virginia Tech’s season took an unexpected turn during its trip across the commonwealth.
The No. 13 Hokies (2-1, 1-0 ACC) lost 49-35 Saturday to Old Dominion with starting quarterback Josh Jackson watching the end of the game from the sidelines on crutches wearing a protective boot.
Backup Ryan Willis nearly rallied the Hokies, orchestrating one scoring drive, but the team’s Lunch Pail defense failed to clock in giving up the most passing yards in a single game since 1993.
Coach Justin Fuente spent the week worrying about quarterback Steven Williams, but his concerns were misplaced.
The Monarchs switched quarterbacks after their opening drive with Blake LaRussa stepping under center. LaRussa was 30 of 49 for 495 yards with five total touchdowns (four passing, one rushing). It was the program’s most passing yards as a FBS team.
“I told them, ‘I liked you guys a lot better when everybody told you you were terrible. When everybody told you you didn’t have any chance in that first game, and all you did was work your tails off.’ And then now we get all feeling good about ourselves and we got brought back down to earth,” Fuente said. “We got what we deserved.”
LaRussa brought his team back multiple times in the second half before finally putting them ahead with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Jonathan Duhart with 5:11 to go.
“It became obvious they were going to throw it virtually every down,” Fuente said. “When they brought pressure, they completed fade balls. And when we played coverage, they found holes in it. And he was really, really good. And they made plays in one-on-one situations.”
The redshirt sophomore was sharp right from the start leading his team past midfield on his first drive, a feat Old Dominion didn’t accomplish against Virginia Tech last season. LaRussa orchestrated a 6-play, 75-yard touchdown drive for an encore.
The sophomore quarterback hit Duhart for a 16-yard touchdown to tie up the game 7-7 with 7:38 to go in the first quarter. LaRussa went 5 of 8 for 103 yards on his first two drives with three passes of 20-plus yards.
Old Dominion pushed the ball down the field on its final two drives of the half as well. Nick Rice missed a 37-yard field goal, but after Jackson threw his first interception of the season the Monarchs went 79 yards in less than two minutes to tie the game. LaRussa hit Duhart for a 4-yard touchdown with seven seconds left in the half to make it 14-14.
He set up a 1-yard touchdown run in the third quarter with a 27-yard completion on third down. Pressure from Zion Debose forced LaRussa out of the pocket, but he threw a strike to a diving Hasaan Patterson for the first down.
“Very disappointed in how we competed,” Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “I just didn’t think we competed for balls. We played just poor technique. We weren’t ready to play is the bottom line and I take full responsibility for that.”
Virginia Tech opened the second half with a methodical 11-play drive, 84-yard drive. The Hokies ran the ball 10 times on the drive culminating with Steve Peoples punching the ball into the end zone from 1-yard out.
Jackson completed his only pass attempt on the drive — a 16-yard throw to convert a third down to Hezekiah Grimsley — and ran the ball twice for 36 yards.
The quarterback provided another spark when he hit Hazelton for a 72-yard touchdown later in the quarter. Hazelton had a 83-yard touchdown called back earlier in the game after an official’s review, but connected with Jackson again late in the third quarter to make it three straight games with a touchdown for the Ball State transfer.
Freshman defensive back Geronda Hall, who picked Jackson off in the first half, fell down in coverage leaving Hazelton nothing but green ahead of him. Hazelton’s score gave the Hokies a 28-21 lead with 32 seconds left in the third quarter.
LaRussa brought his team back both times. He set up his 1-yard touchdown run in the third quarter with a 27-yard completion on third down. Pressure from Zion Debose forced LaRussa out of the pocket, but he threw a strike to a diving Hasaan Patterson for the first down. He scored again in the fourth quarter with a 25-yard touchdown throw to Fulgham.
Virginia Tech looked like it would pick up where it left off last season when Peoples broke an 87-yard run on the offense’s second possession.
The Hokies’ “bowling ball” nailed a strike through the middle of Old Dominion’s defense with the longest run of his career — his previous high of 16 yards came two weeks ago against William and Mary — and longest run for Virginia Tech since Kevin Jones went 87 yards against Temple in 2001. Peoples had a career-high 156 rushing yards with two touchdowns.
Virginia Tech had room to run, but the yardage didn’t translate into points. The Hokies punted on three straight possessions in the first half and Jackson struggled to get his team across midfield as he was sacked three times.
Jackson eventually hit Sean Savoy for a 28-yard touchdown to take a 14-7 lead midway through the second quarter, but Old Dominion didn’t go away.
Jackson was 8 of 16 for 151 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He ran the ball 11 times for 58 yards.
Willis stepped onto the field with the score tied 28-28. After Old Dominion took a 35-28 lead, Willis broke a 23-yard run and completed a 32-yard pass to Damon Hazelton.
The Kansas transfer converted a fourth and three on the drive to pull Virginia Tech even. He completed a 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Chris Cunningham with 7:15 left.
Willis couldn’t work the same magic with the team trailing 42-35. Virginia Tech got inside Old Dominion’s 25-yard line, but turned the ball over on downs after Willis threw a pair of incomplete passes.