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Virginia Tech football’s final push to salvage season begins with No. 3 Clemson

Virginia Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker leads the Hokies into Saturday's game against No. 3 Clemson. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

Somehow, after weathering the absence of several dozen players for two games, opt outs and schedule shuffling because of the coronavirus pandemic, plus injuries to starters and significant contributors, the Virginia Tech football team remains within reach of a winning season.

And what a flourish it would be if the Hokies manage to win the final two games and avoid finishing below .500 during the regular season for the first time since 1992.

The final push begins with Saturday night’s showdown against third-ranked Clemson at Lane Stadium, with Virginia Tech (4-5, 4-4 ACC) seeking to end a three-game slide and beat the two-time College Football Playoff champions at home for the first time since 2006.

“We have a chance to feel really good at the end of this season,” Virginia Tech defensive tackle Jarrod Hewitt said. “We’ve had a tough couple weeks. We have a chance to pull off an upset which nobody thinks we can do, and we’ve got our instate rival Virginia coming at home, so it can be a very memorable last two games.”

Before turning their attention to winning back the Commonwealth Cup from Virginia in the regular season finale, the Hokies must contend with two Heisman Trophy contenders on the ACC’s top-ranked scoring offense (45.5 points per game) in quarterback Trevor Lawrence and tailback Travis Etienne.

Lawrence, the presumptive No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft, leads the ACC in total offense (330.9 yards per game) and passing efficiency (178.7) and is second in passing touchdowns (19), playing in two fewer games than North Carolina sophomore Sam Howell, who has 24.

Lawrence had 403 passing yards and two touchdowns without an interception during Clemson’s 52-17 thrashing of Pittsburgh last week despite leaving the game early with the Tigers firmly in control.

It was the first game in more than a month for the junior, who tested positive for the virus Oct. 28, forcing Lawrence to sit out two games. First, he missed a 34-28 win against Boston College at home Oct. 31, and a week later he did not play in Clemson’s only loss, 47-40 to Notre Dame on the road in double overtime.

“Every now and again you come up against a guy or you see a guy or you get a chance to coach a guy that you really say there’s nothing this guy can’t do,” Hokies Coach Justin Fuente said of Lawrence, praising his ability to run when needed as well as his leadership skills.

Etienne, meanwhile, ranks second in the ACC in all-purpose yards (148.2 per game) and is third in the conference in total touchdowns (15) even though he has come out of many games early with the outcome well in hand.

Last weekend the senior had 11 carries for 58 yards and three catches for 20 yards, matching his fewest receiving yards in an ACC game this season. The dual-threat game-breaker has been a major part of the Tigers’ passing attack, twice amassing more than 100 receiving yards in a game this season.

“Very dynamic in both the run and pass game,” Hewitt said of Etienne. “We’ve got to be alert for him peeling out of the backfield and those sorts of things.”

Hewitt is an anchor on a defense that had its second worst outing of the season in its most recent game, giving up 556 yards of total offense to Pittsburgh in a blowout road loss, 47-14, on Nov. 21. The only school to accumulate more yards this year against Virginia Tech was North Carolina (656).

The Hokies are coming off an open week, and Fuente gave some of the older players a few days of welcomed rest over the Thanksgiving break in what has been a trying season.

The latest blow came when reserve quarterback Quincy Patterson II, a third-year sophomore, informed Fuente he would be entering the transfer portal. Wide receiver Darryle Simmons also entered the transfer portal during the off week.

Patterson hurt his right (throwing) hand in Virginia Tech’s last game and would have been doubtful against Clemson, expediting his decision to seek a transfer, according to Fuente, to have an opportunity to play on a more consistent basis.

Patterson competed for the starting job in each of the past two seasons but wound up third on the depth chart. This season he was behind Hendon Hooker and Braxton Burmeister, who Fuente said is fully healed from three broken toes that kept him out most of last month.

“Quincy knows how I feel about him and his folks,” Fuente said. “We stand ready to help him in any way we can moving forward. I’m sure when the news hits his phone will be blowing up with a lot of people trying to find out about him, and our phones will be blowing up, too. We’ll have nothing but great things to say about him moving forward.”

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