BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech has a long wish list for Saturday.
The Hokies want to win, obviously. That’s No. 1. We could assume that a win is a given, noting that they’re better than four-touchdown favorites over visiting Old Dominion, but let’s not go there.
They want a clean game from quarterback Ryan Willis. After committing four turnovers in the opening loss to Boston College, Willis wants to reassure everybody that his decision-making is reliable.
They want four quarters of dominance from their defense, which had an uneven performance against BC. That means not conceding any explosive plays while also forcing a few turnovers.
The next goal would be to win as big as they can. We’re talking a 51-7 type of winning. The kind of winning Tech did against overmatched opponents in its first two seasons under Justin Fuente. After this game, the Hokies will take two years off from playing ODU before resuming the series in 2022. Tech doesn’t want the Monarchs spending that down time believing they are close.
If they can get all that, the Hokies can say with confidence that this has been an excellent weekend. Even three out of four (with No. 1 being mandatory) might do it.
But I’d like to toss one more ingredient into this success recipe, one that might have significant long-term implications: Tech needs a running back to rush for 100 yards in this game.
If four running backs walk out of Lane Stadium with 70 yards apiece, that doesn’t count. If Willis somehow turns into Jerod Evans and scampers for 110 yards, that doesn’t count, either. Nor would it qualify if Hendon Hooker came off the bench and did it, or if a receiver did it on a couple of lengthy jet sweeps.
The Hokies need future opponents to respect their running game. And the best way to do that is to identify somebody — anybody — who can pose a consistent threat back there. The Hokies need a difference-making running back who takes a large percentage of the carries.
All the other aforementioned goals — winning, getting crisp quarterback play, fielding a ruthless defense and winning by a wide margin — become easier when you have this. And Fuente hasn’t had it yet in his time in Blacksburg.
You know how many 100-yard games the Hokies have from running backs since Fuente got here? Three. Sam Rogers (105 yards) did it against Virginia in 2016, Deshawn McClease (124) did it in the 2017 Camping World Bowl loss to Oklahoma State, and Steven Peoples (156) did it last year in the loss at ODU.
Keep in mind that David Wilson alone had 10 100-yard rushing games in 2011. Ditto for Ryan Williams in 2009.
“But those guys were both top-40 overall picks in the NFL Draft!” you might be thinking. “Fuente doesn’t have anybody in his backfield with that level of talent.”
And perhaps that’s true. But really, how would we know? No individual gets enough carries to demonstrate it.
When Tech’s first official depth chart came out this season, McClease and Jalen Holston were listed as co-No. 1s at tailback. These two players are veterans. The staff had all spring, summer and fall to decide which of them deserved to be No. 1. And the decision, apparently, was that they both did.
This fits Fuente’s philosophy of spreading the ball around among his tailbacks. He’s long said he doesn’t care who gets the yards.
The philosophy is fine — as long as it works. But Tech’s rushing attack simply has not been effective enough with this approach.
Evans was Tech’s leading rusher in Fuente’s first season, when the Hokies ranked 96th nationally (out of 128 FBS teams) in yards per carry. Tech ranked 98th in 2017 and 67th last year.
What we saw last week, when Tech averaged an abysmal 2.3 yards per rushing attempt against a young BC defense, was merely another data point. McClease got 11 carries, freshman Keshawn King got 10 and Holston got six. Collectively, they went nowhere.
Here’s hoping they just pick one and go. With Holston out indefinitely with an injury, it could be McClease or it could be King. But one of them should have the ball stuffed in his belly a lot on Saturday and be told to go feast. If he fails, let the other guy get lathered up against Furman next week, and pick your best option.
The Hokies might not need a primary running back to reach all their other goals in this game, but they’ll need one eventually. They should use the time they have to identify him.