BLACKSBURG — Everything’s different now that Virginia Tech can run the ball.
The ceiling gets higher. The defense stays fresher, plays nastier. The receivers have more space to roam. The quarterback has more time to throw. Bud Foster has less pressure to be perfect on Bud Foster Day.
The missing piece from last season and the early part of this one has been found. And it’s made this team competitive, made it more cohesive, made it more pleasant to watch in all phases.
In Saturday’s 36-17 upset victory over No. 22 Wake Forest, the Hokies eclipsed 200 rushing yards for the third time in four games. The exception over that span — last week — came when Notre Dame schematically denied the run by stuffing obscene numbers in the box. The Hokies knew they were going to have to throw out of that quagmire, and without their starting quarterback, they struggled to do so.
That wasn’t a problem Saturday. Hendon Hooker was back behind center, and the running game worked much like it has since he took over after the Sept. 27 loss to Duke.
The Hokies averaged 4.8 yards on their 48 rushing attempts for a total of 228 yards. And that was the master key to defeating a Wake Forest team that came in with the nation’s No. 7-ranked offense.
“It’s very difficult to go throw the ball 50 times a game and not turn it over,” Tech coach Justin Fuente said. “I think a good running game helps everybody. It helps field position. It helps on the other side of the ball. It helps your quarterback play and your receivers.
“It’s been crucial. It’s been one of a couple things that have helped us in the last couple weeks. Obviously having Hendon in there is another one. He continues to play pretty well.”
He does. The redshirt sophomore quarterback carried it 15 times for 69 yards and a touchdown. Those are solid numbers, but the mere threat of his running is more crucial than the production itself.
Hooker is now 4-0 as Tech’s starting quarterback. Even when he misses on a few passes, he always seems in control.
“We all start clicking whenever Hendon’s rolling, because Hendon’s got a swagger to him that not a lot of people have,” Tech wide receiver Tre Turner said. “He’s communicating with everybody — O-line, wideouts, running backs, tight ends. We’re all comfortable with him when he’s in a groove.”
Tech’s opening drive was a fine example of the newfound rushing attack at work. The Hokies drove 64 yards in 19 plays — a dozen of them runs — before a mishandled snap forced them to settle for a field goal.
The Hokies wanted seven points there, of course, but that drive gobbled a whopping 9 minutes and 27 seconds off the clock. You don’t do that when you’re throwing the ball more than half the time.
In all, Tech held the ball for more than 36 minutes in this game. Think that might have been a factor in the Hokies shutting out Wake in the fourth quarter?
“That was big-time,” Tech linebacker Dax Hollifield said of his team’s ball-hogging ways. “Just limiting their possessions was big time for us. Getting the defense off the field and wearing down their defense.
“The second half, you saw us really do a lot of offense. I think they were just worn out.”
Tech’s leading rusher actually was a receiver — Turner, who finished with 73 yards. Tailbacks Deshawn McClease and Keshawn King combined for 94 yards on 24 carries.
Perhaps most impressive? All four of Tech’s touchdowns came on the ground, and all originated from inside the 10-yard line. That’s a credit to both the offensive line and the play-calling. It’s doubtful that in Week 2 the Hokies could have muscled their way into the end zone multiple times when the field shrank on them.
“Really, the front five are just making that happen,” Hooker said. “The tight ends, as well. The backs and receivers are hitting the holes and big plays are happening.”
And the Hokies are winning more games. As they’ve known all along, that’s hardly a coincidence.