Clemson contest not just another game for Jackson
When Justin Fuente arrived at Virginia Tech late in the fall of 2015, he saw a team without a starting quarterback for 2016, an incoming class of players he didn’t recruit and a program that had good “bones,” but needed some rehab work.
Fuente did what any smart coach would do in this era of offensive-driven football. He found a junior college quarterback, Jerod Evans, to get the Hokies through 2016.
Fuente thought Evans would be an even bigger part of the Hokies’ offense in 2017, but Evans decided to turn pro. Evans’ NFL hopes have been dashed, for now at least. Instead of leading the Hokies on the field, Evans visits NFL teams, upon request, on Tuesdays for workouts to see if he can land a spot on an emergency list or practice squad.
Fuente was lucky, though. The quarterback he thought had potential as a true freshman has developed into a true college quarterback as a redshirt freshman.
Josh Jackson has led the Hokies to a 4-0 record. He’s
an accurate passer, a capable runner and has been unflappable no matter the situation.
Jackson’s unflappability will receive the sternest test of his young college career on Saturday night, when the Clemson Tigers pounce onto Worsham Field in Lane Stadium on Frank Beamer Way.
“The first game was a pretty big game,” Fuente said of Virginia Tech’s season opener against West Virginia. “That was a pretty fantastic atmosphere.”
That game was played at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. The joint was jammed. And, yes, for a redshirt freshman’s first start, the Mountaineers were a formidable opponent.
Jackson acquitted himself admirably — 15-26 for 235 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. He also ran for 101 yards in the 31-24 victory.
West Virginia isn’t Clemson. The Tigers are the defending national champions. Clemson is
4-0 this season, with victories over two Top 25 teams, at home against Auburn and at Louisville.
The Tigers aren’t to be taken lightly.
Do you care to rethink how big of a game this is, Coach Fuente?
“There’s no comparing those schools,” Fuente said. “Clemson is one of the elite teams in all of America right now. There’s no debating that.
“I’ve seen Josh’s preparation remain the same through our first four weeks. I haven’t seen any change in his demeanor. He’s a pretty level-headed kid. He takes everything in stride. He takes the good with the bad. He understands the challenges in front of him.”
Directly in front of him on Saturday night will be the Clemson defensive line, touted as one of the best in the country. The Tigers have 17 sacks in four games. They have allowed an average of 92 yards rushing per game. Opponents have converted just 29 percent of their third-down plays.
You don’t beat Clemson unless you beat them up front.
Jackson is still unflappable. “They definitely have a great defensive line,” he said. “I really can’t think about that because it might affect my play. I’m just going to play like I always play.”
This game could have a major effect on the Hokies’ fortunes the rest of the season. They are ranked 12th in the country. A victory over the No. 2 team no doubt would lift Virginia Tech into the top 10.
And if you’re in the top 10 and keep winning . ... well, all kinds of things can happen.
“I wouldn’t say we’re thinking of it like that,” Jackson said. “We are thinking of it as just another game. It does have everything behind it and all that, but it’s one conference game and that’s really all it stands for at the end of the day.”
Yeah, well, that sounds nice, reasonable even. But this isn’t just another game.
“This is a fantastic opportunity not just to show off our football team, but also our school,” Fuente said. “There is a tremendous amount of school pride at Virginia Tech.”
Fuente was channeling his inner Frank Beamer, his predecessor in Blacksburg. Beamer said something similar before Virginia Tech played Ohio State, the defending national champion and preseason No. 1 team, in the season opener on Worsham Field in Lane Stadium in 2015, before Beamer Way existed.
Unfortunately for Beamer and the Hokies, Ohio State won 42-24. In the past 20 years, Virginia Tech is 6-18 against Top 10 teams.
If Fuente and his Hokies want to change the narrative of Virginia Tech football, they need to channel a different outcome against Clemson.