Making the first start of his career, Virginia Tech quarterback Josh Jackson exhibited poise belying his youth in directing the 21st-ranked Hokies to a 31-24 win against No. 22 West Virginia Sunday night at FedEx Field.
The redshirt freshman amassed 336 yards of total offense and accounted for two touchdowns to spark a second-half offensive surge in the opener for both teams. Included in Jackson's 101 rushing yards was a 46-yard burst that set up Travon McMillian's touchdown run from the 3-yard line for the winning points.
In the first meeting between the contentious border rivals since 2005, Virginia Tech players celebrated wildly in front of the announced crowd of 67,489 after Mountaineers quarterback Will Grier threw incomplete as the clock expired.
"Awfully proud of our guys," Virginia Tech Coach Justin Fuente said. "I thought it was a well-played football game from both teams. It was back and forth. Yards were hard to come by early in the game, and then it seemed liked there was a spell there in the second half when both teams were moving the ball pretty well. I thought a bunch of people across the board contributed to this victory."
The Hokies finished with 469 yards of offense, including 138 receiving yards and a touchdown on seven catches from senior wide receiver Cam Phillips. Virginia Tech accumulated 304 total yards in the second half.
Grier, meanwhile, completed 31 of 53 passes for 371 yards and three touchdowns, leading West Virginia to 592 yards of total offense, 372 of which came following the break.
The longest play of the game was a 60-yard touchdown pass from Grier to Mountaineers wide receiver Gary Jennings Jr. that tied the game at 24 with 12:37 to play. Jennings caught the ball at the 20-yard line and broke cornerback Adonis Alexander's tackle attempt to reach the end zone.
James Clark's 44-yard kickoff return late in the third quarter plus an unnecessary roughness call for a tackle out of bounds set up Virginia Tech at the West Virginia 32. On the next play, Jackson connected with Phillips for a touchdown down the left sideline for a 24-17 advantage with 2:10 left in the quarter.
"I think I handled things well," Jackson said. "Obviously our crowd was very big and very loud. Add on to that they were behind us the whole game. That was pretty awesome. I felt pretty calm with it. I thought it was just another game. That's all I was thinking about."
West Virginia had drawn even at 17 on an eight-play, 79-yard drive that ended when Grier found wide receiver David Sills on an inside slant with 2:18 left in the third quarter for a 10-yard score.
A four-play drive that covered 71 yards allowed Virginia Tech to take a 17-10 lead with 9:51 to go in the third quarter. Tailback Deshawn McClease finished it off with a 12-yard run, breaking multiple tackles on the way to the first touchdown of his career.
"I thought McClease came in and gave us a spark," Fuente said. "He had the nice touchdown run, where he kind of ran through an arm tackle there. That kind of gave us a little burst where we were sputtering a bit."
The Hokies' three-point halftime lead didn't last long. West Virginia drew even on its first possession of the third quarter thanks to place kicker Mike Molina's 34-yard field goal that grazed the inside of the right upright.
Virginia Tech went into intermission ahead 10-7 on the heels of Jackson's five-yard run with 27 seconds to play. Jackson burst through a gaping hole between the guard and center after faking the handoff on an end around.
Jackson became the third quarterback in as many seasons to start an opener for Virginia Tech after winning the job early in training camp, beating newcomers AJ Bush and Hendon Hooker.
Jackson held an advantage ahead of the competition, given he traveled with the team last season and was able to study record-setting quarterback Jerod Evans and become familiar with Fuente's system.
"He made the plays when the team needed him," Phillips said of Jackson. "That is what I expect of him."
The Mountaineers also debuted a new quarterback. Grier, a redshirt junior, began his career at Florida, becoming the starter in the second game of the 2015 season after coming off the bench in the opener. He led the Gators to a 6-0 record, completing 106 of 161 passes for 1,204 yards with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions.
The season ended abruptly when the NCAA suspended Grier in October 2015 for testing positive for a banned substance. Grier said the positive test resulted from an over-the-counter supplement.
With his starting status with the Gators uncertain, Grier transferred to West Virginia, where he had to sit out last season.
"For someone who hadn't played in two years, live snaps, I thought he played really well," West Virginia Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "I mean he's a ballplayer. Everything we thought he was, he is."