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ALOST Game of the Week: No. 22 West Virginia vs. No. 21 Virginia Tech

Robert Cole/ALOST

 

akoiki-passport2 – by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief

 

LANDOVER, MD — Thousands of fans may have been misled about the “new look” Virginia Tech was sporting at the quarterback position before tonight’s primetime match-up to open the 2017 season. It turned out that Josh Jackson would have everyone watching tonight’s game thinking about quarterbacks of the Hokies’ illustrious past after his performance on Sunday night.

The redshirt freshman quarterback was efficient in throwing for 235 yards while also contributing with big plays on the ground in leading the No. 21 Hokies to a 31-24 victory over No. 22 West Virginia in the season opener for both teams, played in front of more than 67,000 fans at FedExField.

Before the new season started for both the Hokies and Mountaineers, everything about the game had a retro feel between the two former Big East rivals, nothing epitomizing the “blast from the past” tinge to it more than the appearances of the two schools’ coaching living legends, former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer and former West Virginia coach Don Nehlen, who were both present to handle the coin toss. Starting in his first collegiate game, Jackson, the first freshman to start a season opener for the Hokies since Michael Vick in 1999, grew in confidence as the game progressed, throwing for a touchdown while running for another.

Of all of the 15 completions Jackson recorded in the game (on 26 attempts), the most important was his first – a simple sideline pass to Phillips which netted just four yards.

“As soon as I got the first completion, I knew I was good,” said Jackson, the son of former longtime Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson. “That’s all I was really worried about on the first play, just making sure I got a good ball. After that, I just focused and executed as best as I could.”

One of his most impressive drives came at a crucial juncture of the game, as Jackson perfectly engineered a 47-yard two-minute-drill drive before the end of the first half. The drive ended with his five-yard touchdown run up the middle on a keeper to give the Hokies a 10-7 lead with 27 seconds left in the half. Jackson completed all three of his passes on the drive for 40 yards, including a 28-yard pass down the right sideline to Phillips on a third-and-10 from just inside of midfield.

“[Jackson] has been a guy who has done what we’ve asked him to do on a consistent basis,” said Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente. “And he played really well today – on the big stage, against a tough, hard-nosed football team. I was awfully proud, probably more than proud. I was happy for him. Because he’s worked awfully hard, he found a way to be really efficient tonight.”

A cagey first half between the former Big East rivals exploded in a wide-open, see-saw second half, with the teams combining for 676 yards of total offense in the game’s final 30 minutes. Former Florida quarterback Will Grier, who transferred to Morgantown last year after he was kicked off the Gators for failing a drug test and receiving a one-year suspension in 2015, shook off an inconsistent first half and caught fire to begin the third quarter. After a Justin Crawford 17-yard run on the Mountaineers’ first play of the second half, Grier found David Sills V on a slant for 14 yards, then completed a deep ball to Ka’Run White for 33 yards, all of which set up a field goal to tie the game at 10. Two drives later, Grier went 4-of-5 for 69 yards and also added a six-yard scramble for a first down as he led West Virginia down the field 84 yards. The drive was capped with a 10-yard slant to Sills V for a touchdown to tie the game at 17.

On the evening, Grier passed for 371 yards on 31-of-53 passing, with three touchdowns and one interception.

“I think there was a little bit of rust, some plays I want back, start quicker, but we have a lot of things to build off,” said Grier. “I started feeling good. This is the first time a lot of us are playing together. We’re a young team and we’re going to get better as we go. I’m proud of the way we fought.”

Both scoring drives for West Virginia in the third quarter were quickly answered by the Hokies with touchdowns on the ensuing possession. It took four plays for the Hokies to go down the field after the Mountaineers’ field goal, with running back Deshawn McClease going off of right tackle and scoring from 12 yards out to give Virginia Tech a 17-10 lead.

Only one offensive play from scrimmage was needed to give Virginia Tech the lead back after the Sills’ touchdown. James Clark returned the ensuing kickoff 44 yards and the Hokies gained an extra 15 yards on that play for a late hit. From the West Virginia 32, Jackson found Phillips wide open down the left sideline for the touchdown to give the Hokies a 24-17 lead.

After consecutive three-and-outs by both teams, Grier and the Mountaineers’ offense continued to spread the ball to its talented receiving corps, and tied the score on a drive that just lasted two plays early in the fourth. Sills V caught a 14-yard pass to start the drive and, on the second play, Grier found his favorite target on the evening, receiver Gary Jennings, who took a deep post pass and turned it into a 60-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown to level the score at 24 with 12:37 remaining. Jennings ended the night with 13 catches for 189 yards and that touchdown.

Jackson and the Hokies offense once again executed on drives late in a half, and it was the work of the running game that put them back in the lead for good. On the game-winning drive, Jackson ran for 58 of the 82 yards covered on the drive, including a 46-yard jaunt up the middle to the West Virginia two. Two plays later, running back Travon McMillian plunged in from three yards out to give the Hokies a 31-24 lead with 6:30 remaining.

West Virginia went three-and-out on the next possession and Virginia Tech’s offense then went on an eight-play, 52-yard drive in an effort to ice the game. The normally reliable Joey Slye, the Hokies’ placekicker who had already missed from 38 yards out earlier in the contest, pushed a 32-yard attempt wide right to give West Virginia one last shot at the tie with 1:55 left

Grier led the Mountaineers to the red zone, which included his nine-yard scramble on a fourth-and-5 from Virginia Tech’s 37 to keep the game alive and a seven-yard run for a first down to the 15 with nine seconds left. However, Grier’s final two passes, both going into the end zone, fell incomplete and the Hokies defense preserved the victory.

Virginia Tech’s win allows it to retain the Black Diamond Trophy, though the trophy had remained with the Hokies for the duration of the 12 years the two schools had not played each other on the football field. (Virginia Tech won the last meeting prior to tonight, in 2005.) Beamer, who was the head coach when a number of the current players initially chose to commit to heading to Blacksburg, handed the trophy over to Fuente and the rest of the team.

*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from tonight’s game, with all photos taken by our senior photographer, Robert Cole. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are currently 19 pictures in the gallery.

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