Bet­ter late than never:

Va. Tech ends reg­u­lar sea­son with sixth win, ex­tends bowl streak to 26

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Paul Woody [email protected]­Dis­patch.com

To all those who didn’t re­al­ize Vir­ginia Tech had a foot­ball game Satur­day, don’t feel too badly. Ap­par­ently, Mar­shall didn’t ei­ther.

The weather forecast was cloudy with a chance of rain, but it quickly be­came clear there was no chance of thunder from the Thun­der­ing Herd.

In­stead, things quickly went “thud” for them.

Things are on the up­swing for the Hok­ies, which means you might want to

cir­cle Dec. 31 on your cal­en­dars. That’s the date of the Mil­i­tary Bowl in An­napo­lis, Md., the most ob­vi­ous place for the Hok­ies to play in their 26th con­sec­u­tive bowl game.

One bowl, the Mil­i­tary, sent rep­re­sen­ta­tives to ob­serve Vir­ginia Tech on Satur­day. They prob­a­bly didn’t make the trip for the weather.

The Hok­ies gained bowl el­i­gi­bil­ity, and more, with their 41-20 vic­tory over Mar­shall. It will be Vir­ginia Tech’s 26th con­sec­u­tive bowl ap­pear­ance, which will give them the long­est such streak in the coun­try.

“Cer­tainly get­ting to

No. 26 was a part of this,” Vir­ginia Tech coach Justin Fuente said. “But I re­ally felt like it was even big­ger than that. Those kids in that locker room stood tall and stood strong when other peo­ple ran. When things weren’t well and things were tough, they stayed to­gether. They con­tin­ued to bat­tle. They found a way to keep the two streaks alive.”

In ad­di­tion to the bowl streak, Vir­ginia Tech’s vic­tory over Vir­ginia in the 11th game of the sea­son gave the Hok­ies their 15th straight vic­tory over the Cavaliers.

“I think it teaches them a great les­son about per­se­ver­ance, ded­i­ca­tion and to­geth­er­ness,” Fuente said of his young play­ers.

Vir­ginia Tech needed to play and win Satur­day’s game be­cause its game sched­uled for Sept. 15 against East Carolina was can­celed in the wake of Hur­ri­cane Florence.

Mar­shall’s Sept. 15 game at South Carolina also was can­celed, mak­ing Satur­day’s game pos­si­ble, along with some se­ri­ous in­duce­ments for the Thun­der­ing Herd — $300,000 for Satur­day’s game, plus a game with Vir­ginia Tech in Hunt­ing­ton in 2023 and in Blacksburg in 2024.

The Hok­ies led 31-6 at half­time, and Mar­shall was done. Tech played per­haps its most com­plete game of the sea­son, cer­tainly in the sec­ond half of a sea­son that was in dan­ger of be­com­ing its worst since 1993.

In­stead, the Hok­ies have fin­ished the reg­u­lar sea­son with two strong per­for­mances.

They are what their record says they are, 6-6. Still, they’re bet­ter now than they were at 4-6.

“Win­ning makes a dif­fer­ence, I’m not kid­ding you,” se­nior de­fen­sive tackle Ricky Walker said. “There’s more swag­ger in the locker room.”

Fuente is in his third sea­son in Blacksburg, and things have gone in an in­ter­est­ing di­rec­tion. His first team was 10-4 and played in the ACC cham­pi­onship game. Then came a 9-4 sea­son and now this 6-6 year with ei­ther a 7-6 or 6-7 end­ing ahead.

This also has been an un­usual sea­son. Early en­tries into the NFL took some of the Hok­ies’ best de­fend­ers. In­juries side­lined or se­verely lim­ited sev­eral play­ers on of­fense and de­fense. Other play­ers have trans­ferred and one de­fen­sive starter was dis­missed from the team.

“This sea­son, we faced tons of ad­ver­sity — peo­ple quit­ting, not do­ing right, get­ting hurt,” quar­ter­back Ryan Wil­lis said.

Satur­day, Tech’s start­ing de­fense con­sisted of nine play­ers with lim­ited ex­pe­ri­ence: a true fresh­man, three red­shirt fresh­men, one true sopho­more and four red­shirt sopho­mores.

Re­gard­less of the out­come in the bowl game, the ex­tra weeks of work will be sig­nif­i­cant for the play­ers and coaches. It’s es­sen­tially an early spring prac­tice.

“We need the time in the weight room when we’re not prac­tic­ing,” Fuente said. “The ex­tra de­vel­op­men­tal time is go­ing to be huge for us. Get­ting the chance for those guys to prac­tice and stay to­gether, and I re­ally do think this group en­joys each other’s com­pany. Some­times when you go through hard times, it uni­fies peo­ple or di­vides them.”

Fuente sees a more uni­fied team each week.

Vir­ginia Tech’s young de­fense has paid a high price in mis­plays, break­downs and losses this sea­son.

Some­times, though, you pay that cost now to earn div­i­dends later. The Hok­ies should be among the fa­vorites to win the Coastal Divi­sion of the ACC in 2019.

And bar­ring another nat­u­ral dis­as­ter, the Hok­ies shouldn’t need to add a game next year to keep their bowl streak alive.

MATT GEN­TRY/THE ROANOKE TIMES

Quar­ter­back Ryan Wil­lis of Vir­ginia Tech threw four touch­down passes be­fore half­time in the Hok­ies’ 41-20 vic­tory over Mar­shall at Lane Sta­dium. It was the Hok­ies’ sixth vic­tory of the sea­son, mak­ing them el­i­gi­ble for a bowl game.

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