It took another good dual-threat effort from Jerod Evans and a moment of throwback Hokies football, but Virginia Tech managed to survive a 24-21 scare at Duke, holding onto its own destiny in the ACC Coastal Division.
It was a game that both typified the transition in Justin Fuente’s first season at Virginia Tech and exemplified the competitive nature of the Coastal. The No. 19 Hokies are now 7-2 and tied for first place in the division. Duke remains winless in conference play and last in the Coastal.
The close calls from teams such as Duke and Virginia against ranked ACC foes show only a hair or two might separate the Coastal’s best and worst. Saturday in Durham the difference was a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown. Over the course of the season for the Hokies, the larger difference has been Evans.
Adonis Alexander scooped up a blocked field goal and returned it 75 yards to give Virginia Tech a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter. It was a play that brought back memories of the best days of the Frank Beamer Era, when blocked kicks and special teams touchdowns were commonplace.
They were happening with much less frequency in the twilight of Beamer’s career. Less “Beamer Ball” meant fewer trips to the ACC Championship Game. That helped usher in the end of the legend’s career and the start of the Fuente era.
Blocking a field goal for a touchdown — that was classic Beamer. A quarterback carrying his team to victory even when it wasn’t his or the squad’s best day? That’s what got Fuente, a former quarterback himself and the mentor of Paxton Lynch and Andy Dalton, to this position.
Evans completed 15 of 27 passes for 192 yards without a touchdown. It was far from his best passing day, but he also rushed for 83 yards and a score, converted on two fourth down attempts and didn’t have a turnover.
The lack of turnovers has become Evans’ trademark. He has thrown just two interceptions all season. He’s the reason the Hokies will go to the ACC title game if they win out. He won’t get the Heisman Trophy hype fellow ACC quarterbacks Lamar Jackson or Deshaun Watson receive, but he may be the conference’s most valuable player in certain literal senses of the words.
Without Evans, who does everything Fuente could ask of his signal caller, this might be a rebuilding year in Blacksburg. Saturday at Duke likely would have ended in a loss, as would have the Thursday night squeaker at Pittsburgh.
Fuente is showing what he can do with a junior college quarterback who was highly rated coming out of Trinity Valley in Texas, but far from a sure thing. Fuente is going to continue to bring in talented passers, likely some who are better pure throwers than Evans.
But the JUCO transfer’s poise and discipline already show the traits that Fuente’s quarterbacks have traditionally demonstrated. When the Blue Devils rallied, the Hokies did not panic. It’s a team that has quickly taken on the personality of its coach, at least partially because he found a quarterback to represent him.
Virginia Tech needs that, because even though it finishes the conference schedule with two teams in the bottom half of the Coastal, nobody in the division looks like a pushover at this point.