In the hierarchy of Hokie football games, there are those you want to win. There are others that you can only hope to win.
But tonight’s 17-10 victory over North Carolina was one Virginia Tech needed to win.
These last few years have seen a crisis of confidence in Hokie Nation. The glory days have drifted away to the point that it wasn’t a year or two since the football program was really good; it was a decade or two. Questions about whether Justin Fuente could coach, recruit, or even just smile in an interview were constantly asked.
Visiting teams no longer feared Lane Stadium and its fans. Even the signature moments of the team coming on the field to Enter Sandman grew great notoriety, but then you remembered when the game actually started, the team lost.
Add in the doldrums created by the pandemic that may never end, and folks during the summer talked in tones of a strange and unusual indifference when it came to the season. They needed to be awakened from this low-energy slumber by things like a huge crowd screaming its guts out so people even inches away from each other couldn’t hear what was being said. They needed a win over a top 10 team like North Carolina to give them hope this could be done more than once in a lifetime.
They needed a reason to believe.
I can tell you at 6:00:15 seconds, when ESPN sent U.S. Open Tennis to its rightful place on ESPN the Ocho and went live to Blacksburg, it was like a class reunion with the glory days. The stadium was packed, Enter Sandman blared through the sound system, and Hokie football told the country in its own unique sign language that we’re here, we’re loud, and we’re going to kick your ass tonight. If you didn’t have goosebumps tingling down your arm and maybe the beginnings of a tear in the corner of your eye watching this, you need to stop reading this and go see a doctor. You’re dead and you don’t know it yet.
Then the offense took the field and in one 5-minute drive, Virginia Tech showed it could still run the ball without Khalil Herbert, it could still pass the ball WITH Braxton Burmeister, and that it learned from last year’s game with North Carolina how to balance the two. Last year in Chapel Hill, Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen fell in love with the pass in the first quarter, didn’t use Herbert and didn’t burn up much clock during the period, all while falling behind 21-0.
Tonight, the Hokies did a 180 from last year, balancing the run and the pass. Burmeister capped the opening drive with a 4-yard TD run, then threw an 11-yard TD pass to James Mitchell early in the second quarter to make it 14-0. In doing so, they did not give quarterback Sam Howell and the UNC offense many opportunities to move the football, helping the defense stay fresh for those rare times the Tar Heel offense was on the field in the first half.
The ghosts of the past, however, made an appearance in the second half, with the biggest being the Hokies’ inability to cope with prosperity. Fuente’s penchant for becoming ultra conservative when he has a lead also reared its turtle-like head, so the second half slowly became one big “are we going to be able to hold on to this lead” guess-fest.
But just as fans were seeing the return of a loud home crowd, a consistent offense, and a successful game plan by Fuente, the one I’ve been missing the most also appeared and stood tall. The Hokies have always had a reputation for being tough defensively, and that in and of itself has been missing the last two years. But it was also WHEN that defense stood tall that made Virginia Tech unique. They always had a knack for coming up with a big play within seconds of the offense stubbing its toe, and that balance where each unit had the other’s back has been one of the foundations of Tech’s glory years in football.
That was back tonight. So was something else that I’ve been searching for watching these games the last couple of years, and it may be the most positive thing of the night on display: these guys looked like they were having fun and all playing on the same team.
Strange as that sounds, there have been games the last few years where that wasn’t the case. Fuente’s quiet, inwardly facing personality assures he is never going to be working as a late-night television host after his coaching days are over, and it’s caused people to whisper about his ability to recruit and get along with other coaches and players when things haven’t gone well. Some have even gone as far as suggesting there was turmoil behind the scenes in the Hokie locker room.
But I’d argue that tonight’s game was more than just picking up better players or tweaking a few X’s and O’s. His game plan tonight showed a flexibility he didn’t show in last year’s game with UNC. The body language on the sidelines looked much different too. It’s as if Fuente and his coaches did some soul-searching in the off-season and have made changes that could vastly improve the team both in terms of wins and team chemistry.
In doing so, Fuente got his first win over a top-10 program since coming to Virginia Tech (although we can debate how accurate UNC’s No. 10 pre-season ranking really was) and his biggest victory since 2016 when he also beat UNC in Chapel Hill when the Heels were No. 17 during the famous “hurricane game.”
Does this mean all Virginia Tech’s troubles are over and it’s smooth sailing from now on? Of course not. When Fuente beat UNC in 2016, the next thing he did was go up to Syracuse the next week and lay an egg the size of Plymouth Rock. It’s still a one game at a time situation where at any given moment (or given injury) the Hokies could be back in the grips of despair.
But for at least for tonight, we experienced an evening that was a salve that soothed Hokie souls. It started with Enter Sandman telling College Football and the world that here in Blacksburg, we’re not hiding under some rock. Virginia Tech is back.
It ended with a victory formation telling the ACC that stories of Virginia Tech's demise may have been greatly exaggerated.
All while giving Hokie fans a reason to believe.
Thoroughly enjoyed watching your Hokies defeat North Carolina. Instead of feasting on Gobblers, the pundits ate crow.