7:30 PM EST, ESPN 2 – Line: Virginia Tech -3, Over/Under: 47
A pair of teams looking to cleanse themselves of the stench of mediocrity meet tonight in Chestnut Hill, as the struggling Virginia Tech Hokies battle the Boston College Eagles, who continue to search for their first conference victory of the campaign. In a season in which many premier schools are opting to get ahead of things and fire their Head Coaches well before the season ends, Virginia Tech (4-4, 2-2 in ACC) very well may be the next to join them, for they are once again coming up short of expectations. Indeed, the hot seat has never been hotter for (Head Coach) Justin Fuente, who in his six years in Blacksburg has overseen a program that has continued to slide downhill. After a 10-4 finish in his first season in charge, the 45-year old has since guided the Hokies to a disappointing 32-26 (.551) record, including a pair of losing campaigns over the last three years. To put that into proper perspective, this is a school that never suffered a single losing season under (former Head Coach) Frank Beamer, who reigned supreme for a whopping TWENTY-NINE years. Needless to say, the natives of Blacksburg don’t do well with mediocrity, and last year’s 5-6 run probably should have been the final straw for Fuente, who has struggled mightily on the recruiting front as well as establishing a consistent identity at the program. With that said, like many of his contemporaries, the COVID-19 pandemic did him ZERO favors, which in all likelihood bought him a stay of execution, leading to one of the most awkward press conferences in recent memory as his Athletic Director was forced to explain to the media why he WASN’T getting fired. Either way, even with a proper offseason to address their litany of issues 2021 was always going to be a difficult campaign for Fuente & Co, who have lost four of their last six games, punctuated by a three-game losing streak (at Lane Stadium no less) that was thankfully snapped last weekend at Georgia Tech (26-17). There are problems on both sides of the football, though the attack has been starved of the big plays that carried them so in 2020; Virginia Tech lost a trio of young stars from arguably the most explosive Offense in the Atlantic Coast Conference, as (Left Tackle) Christian Darrisaw and (Tailback) Khalil Herbert took their talents to the NFL, while (Quarterback) Hendon Hooker transferred to Tennessee. As a result, the attack has been a far cry from the one that led the league in explosive plays (runs of 10+ yards and pass plays of 30+ yards) a year ago, in which they met that criteria on a sizeable 15.4% of their offensive plays, the second-highest rate in the country. This year’s group has struggled in that department, averaging a meager 24.0 points per game (94th in FBS) on 350.0 total yards, which each represent considerable drop-offs from the 31.1 and 440.7 that they managed in 2020. With Hooker gone, (Junior Quarterback) Braxton Burmeister (54.3%, 1,495 YDS, 7.2 Y/A, 9 TD, 3 INT) was expected to seize control of the attack, and while he’s shown flashes of playmaking talent he has yet to live up to the potential from when he arrived as a transfer from Oregon. Consistency has been lacking in this department, for even with a veteran group of pass-catchers at his command, the passing game hasn’t been able to muster more than 189.4 yards per game on a relatively pedestrian 6.7 yards per attempt. Furthermore, in their four losses Burmeister & Co have been relegated below 200 passing yards thrice, including a miserable 28-7 defeat against Pittsburgh in which he was held to a scant 134 yards on 11-of-34 passing. Then again, the Hokies scored twenty-nine and thirty-four points in two of those losses, so the Offense shouldn’t be culpable for all that ails them, for the Defense has earned more than it’s fair share of criticism. Virginia Tech was always formidable on this side of the football under (former Defensive Coordinator) Bud Foster, and it has since fallen on hard times following his departure, with (his successor) Justin Hamilton failing to meet their previously lofty standards. With COVID-19 wrecking havoc on the program last Fall, Hamilton lost three-quarters of his starting Secondary en route to overseeing a unit that relinquished a disappointing 32.1 points (82nd in FBS) on 447.5 total yards (103rd in FBS), with those figures representing the highest posted by the program since 1973. While this group has been better in 2021, it’s still getting trampled against the run (177.9 Y/G), which was the biggest takeaway from that aforementioned losing skid; the Hokies yielded 231.7 rushing yards against the triumvirate of Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse, including a season-worst 314 in a 41-36 shootout versus the Orange. Even that victory over the Yellow Jackets failed to provide the necessary relief, for Hamilton’s troops still gave up 183 yards on the ground. This isn’t setting up for a comforting finish for Fuente, with all but one of their final four games on the road, including trips to Miami (Fla) and Virginia following tonight’s voyage to Chestnut Hill. We’d love to be optimistic and proclaim that Fuente has four games left to save his job, but the feeling out of Blacksburg is that the school is indeed ready to move on. There was a time that Virginia Tech was a virtual lock on Thursday and Friday nights, particularly at home where the faithful at Lane Stadium created one of the most raucous atmospheres in the country. However, under Fuente’s watch the Hokies have lost two of their last three such outings, though did manage to pull a 17-10 upset of (then-No. 10) North Carolina in the season opener. Furthermore, they are 3-2 against Boston College since his arrival in 2016, including last year’s 40-14 thumping of the Eagles at Lane Stadium.
Meanwhile, Virginia Tech isn’t the only disappointing team featured in tonight’s affair though it’s been a very different kind of disappointment for Boston College (4-4, 0-4 in ACC), who are currently mired in a four-game losing streak, all of which coming in conference play. While the Hokies underachieved in the madness that was 2020, the Eagles punched well above their weight class in (Head Coach) Jeff Halfey’s first campaign in Chestnut Hill, finishing 6-5. Indeed, it was absolutely a transformative season under the 42-year old’s watch, with both sides of the football undergoing a massive change in philosophy that was quick to take hold. On Offense, (Offensive Coordinator) Frank Cignetti quickly revamped a passing game that had languished for years, as BC went from posting a 68-32 run-pass ratio in 2019 to a 45-55 ratio in 2020, marking the second-biggest shift in the country. Defensively, Halfey, who had spent the previous season as Ohio State’s Defensive Coordinator, took a unit that finished 101st (32.2) and 125th (478.7) in points allowed and total defense to 60th (28.4) and 73rd (416.8) in those respective categories, marking the biggest improvement within the ACC and the eleventh-greatest growth in the nation. Furthermore, they held their own against their toughest opponents, forcing North Carolina (22-26) into overtime while testing both Clemson (28-34) and Notre Dame (31-45), who were ranked first and second overall in the polls at the time. Simply put, this was a program on the rise coming into 2021, what with loads of experiences and nine returning starters on both sides of the football, which is what makes their current predicament all the more disappointing. Much of the optimism surrounding Boston College this season was due to (Junior Quarterback) Phil Jurkovec (67.9%, 325 YDS, 11.6 Y/A, 3 TD, 0 INT) who made quite the impression in his first season as the starter in Chestnut Hill. A transfer from Notre Dame, Jurkovec took to Cignett’s scheme quickly, completing 61.0% of his attempts for 2,558 yards on 7.6 yards per attempt, with seventeen touchdowns opposed to just five interceptions, while also proving capable of making plays with his feet in rushing for another 150 yards and three scores. With his entire Receiving Corps and Offensive Line returning with him, BIG things were expected out of this kid, which made his (potentially) season-ending hand injury all the more nauseating; Jurkovec was balling out before fracturing his right hand in what would be a 45-28 victory over Massachusetts back on September 11th, with the Eagles dropping four out of their six games without him. In his stead, (Senior Quarterback) Dennis Grosel (57.4%, 1,191 YDS, 6.3 Y/A, 6 TD, 7 INT) has utterly failed to keep the Offense afloat, completing fewer than 60.0% of his passes and averaging just under 150 yards through the air despite being surrounded with ample talent, most notably (Junior Receiver) Zay Flowers (35 REC, 511 YDS, 14.6 Y/R, 2 TD), who led the ACC with nine touchdown receptions last season. This current losing skid has been particularly harsh on the upperclassman, who has completed just 54.6% of his throws for 184.7 yards on 5.7 yards per attempt, with two touchdowns in comparison to five interceptions, eventually leading to his benching in favor of (Freshman) Emmett Morehead (40.0%, 87 YDS, 5.8 Y/A, 0 TD, 0 INT) during last weekend’s 21-6 loss at Syracuse. After completing just six of fifteen passes for eighty-seven yards, Morehead exited the field of play with a minor injury, though there is no word from Halfey yet as to who exactly will be called upon tonight to ignite a stagnant attack that has managed a combined forty points over the last four games. Ironically, this where the faithful probably wish that the coaching staff hadn’t eschewed the nation’s sixth-ranked rushing attack from 2019. BC struggled on the ground last season on 101.7 yards per game (118th in FBS), though have improved marginally in 2021 with 155.3 yards via the run despite this very much remaining a pass-first Offense. The problem is that in committing seven turnovers in these four losses they haven’t been able to stick with the run game, which has in turn kept the Defense on the field a lot longer than they would prefer. As well as they played last season, this unit simply doesn’t have the depth or talent to survive something like this, and the numbers prove it; apart from logging four takeaways in a 28-14 loss at Louisville, the Eagles have been starved for big plays, which was their calling card a year ago when they ranked third in the conference in turnovers (21). Of course, Halfey would prefer to be playing with the lead, where he can really start to utilize the pressure packages that were so effective in Columbus, but with the Offense continuing to misfire, it’s starting to look like this once-promising campaign is nothing more than a wash. Despite three of their final four games being contested at Alumni Stadium, Boston College faces a tough path towards bowl eligibility, what with tonight’s affair with Virginia Tech followed by winnable games against both Georgia Tech and Florida State before hosting (No. 10) Wake Forest in the Finale. Prior to last year’s 40-14 loss to the Hokies, the Eagles had bested tonight’s opponent rather handedly in back-to-back meetings by a combined score of 66-49.