Don’t blame anyone if most of the first half of Justin Fuente’s debut as Virginia Tech’s head coach made Hokie fans just a little bit nervous… especially as they looked at the coach on the opposite sideline.
No, this is not because Liberty’s Turner Gill necessarily strikes fear in the hearts of his opponents with his ability to run a program. As Fuente’s Hokies fell behind the Flames, it might have been human nature to wonder if Virginia Tech had landed its own version of Gill.
After all, there were some similarities. Both men made a name for themselves producing winning seasons at a mid-major school with little to no positive football history — Gill at Buffalo and Fuente at Memphis. Both parlayed those relatively brief periods of success into Power Five conference gigs, Gill at Kansas and Fuente at Virginia Tech, and both came in following the most successful coach in school history.
Gill lost his Kansas debut to FCS North Dakota State, and it rarely got better for him in his two seasons with the Jayhawks. He often looked underprepared, overmatched and generally not ready for prime time. As his Flames held a 13-10 lead late in the second quarter, fans knowledgeable of Gill’s career path couldn’t help but wonder if he was giving Fuente some of that medicine.
Then Fuente showed why he was different.
The Hokies stayed calm. They adjusted. With two quick touchdowns to end the half, they were well on their way to a 36-13 victory.
There’s still rebuilding to do in Blacksburg. Next week against Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway will be a huge test. The schedule is front-loaded in a way that makes it tough for the Hokies to get out of October with a winning record. Right now, Virginia Tech fans should be comfortable with the man who replaced Frank Beamer.
Saturday, the offense settled in and the defense buckled down in the way you’d expect from a team with a veteran coaching staff and expectations to win. If there’s any tension among the coaching staff after defensive coordinator Bud Foster was passed over for the head coaching job, it wasn’t apparent even when the early part of the game was not going according to plan.
In his postgame news conference, Fuente made it clear he enjoyed his first game at Lane Stadium.
“The atmosphere was fantastic,” he said. “It is what college football is all about. People at Virginia Tech take a lot of pride in the game day atmosphere and they should. From the Hokie Walk to the entrance to the reactions to the big plays, it was all fantastic. My thought process coming into the game was thinking about how were our kids going to handle these things. Thoughts on how our kids would handle things going wrong. There were some times in there when things were ugly looking. The atmosphere was fantastic and I am pleased with how our kids responded to everything.”
Yes, the players responded quite well to adversity, but a team takes its lead from the coaching staff, and that should offer plenty of comfort in Hokieland… even if the first couple of quarters raised a few eyebrows.