When it was announced that Justin Fuente would take over for longtime Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer, the success the 40-year-old produced in Memphis wasn’t predicted to translate this quickly in Blacksburg. Yet five weeks into the regular season, Fuente has the Hokies ranked in the Associated Press top 25 for the first time in more than two years. Fresh off a bye week, Virginia Tech now heads to Chapel Hill to play 17th-ranked North Carolina.
While Beamer’s fingerprints can still be found on the 2016 version of the Hokies — four of Fuente’s coaches were on Beamer’s staff last season and this year’s team ranks thirtieth in special teams efficiency and ninth in total defense — what makes this Virginia Tech iteration unique is that it can get into the end zone so often.
From 2011 to 2015, the last five seasons of Beamer’s tenure, his offenses ranked no higher than No. 6 in the ACC in scoring. This season the Hokies rank No. 4 in the conference and No. 25 overall (40.3 points per contest, 0.1 less than North Carolina), piling up 63.9 more yards and nine more points per game than it did a year ago.
Last season, Virginia Tech amassed 400-plus yards of total offense six times. This year’s team has eclipsed the mark in its first four games. The Hokies’ two wins have come by a staggering 86 points combined — from the same offense that fumbled a nation-leading nine times through their first two games.
“It’s like a Krispy Kreme doughnut when the ‘hot’ sign’s on,” Virginia Tech wide receiver Cam Phillips said of the Hokies’ offense after the team’s most recent win.
Junior college transfer Jerod Evans is one of just 13 quarterbacks this year to throw at least 100 passes and have fewer than two interceptions. He’s completing better than 67 percent of his passes (No. 15 nationally) and ranks No. 4 in passing efficiency.
North Carolina’s objective will be to turn the matchup into a full-fledged shootout — a sound goal considering North Carolina has one of the most atrocious defenses in the country. Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik’s group ranks No. 116 against the run, No. 109 at preventing first downs and No. 77 in the red zone. The Tar Heels have allowed at least 23 points in every game this season, against four offensive units ranked outside the top 20 in total offense. Even James Madison, a Football Championship Subdivision team, amassed nearly 500 yards of total offense against North Carolina in Week 3.
While Virginia Tech’s passing attack has been efficient, the ground game needs work and could decide Saturday’s outcome. The Hokies rank No. 7 in the ACC in rushing offense (195.5 yards per game) and don’t have a running back with more than 212 yards on the season; North Carolina, meanwhile, has two. With the Tar Heels being one of three teams in the ACC to allow more than five yards per carry, Fuente should look to pave avenues for running back Travon McMillian and Evans as much as possible.
Defensively, Virginia Tech holds a clear advantage, allowing less than 18 points in all but one game this season, while producing the nation’s fourth-best third-down defense and the nation’s No. 1 first-down defense.
This week begins an arduous stretch for the Hokies, who will also face No. 10 Miami on Thursday night in Week 7. North Carolina just ended the Florida State Seminoles’ 22-game home winning streak, and is in the AP top 25 for the first time this year. Notching a win over the Tar Heels would put the Hokies in the driver’s seat of the ACC Coastal Division and have Fuente’s group supremely confident as it digs deeper into its conference schedule.