Hokies’ defense shaky, but Jackson excels in 31-24 win against West Virginia

It didn’t take long for the Virginia Tech-West Virginia rivalry to gain new life after a long layoff.

Tech’s effort was far from perfect Sunday night, and the Hokies’ coaching staff will find plenty of teaching material from the game video, but No. 21 Tech did just enough in FedExField to hold on for a 31-24 win against No. 22 West Virginia in the first meeting of the once-bitter rivals since 2005.

“I don’t know where to start,” Tech coach Justin Fuente said.

“There was back-and-forth, yards were hard to come by early in the game, and then it seemed like there was a spell there in the second half where both teams were moving the ball pretty well — a lot of back-and-forth.”

Running back Travon McMillian pushed his way over the goal line on a 3-yard touchdown run with 6:30 remaining to give Tech (1-0) a final lead it managed to hold onto down the stretch. Joey Slye missed a 32-yard field goal attempt with 1:55 left that would’ve given Tech a two-possession cushion, but West Virginia was unable to capitalize, watching its final drive stall at the Hokies’ 15-yard line.

Quarterback Will Grier took West Virginia (0-1) 65 yards in 12 plays on its final possession before the Mountaineers faced second-and-10 from the Hokies’ 15 with nine seconds left.

He was pressured on second down by defensive end Trevon Hill, but Grier still got off a pass to wide-open wide receiver David Sills in the middle of the end zone. Grier’s pass was slightly underthrown, and Sills was unable to come back to the ball to make the catch.

Looking at third down from Tech’s 15 with two seconds remaining, Grier lofted a pass to receiver Gary Jennings, who had 13 catches for 189 yards and a touchdown. The pass fell incomplete on the right side of the end zone, and West Virginia was called for multiple penalties on the play as the game ended.

Despite the win, Tech’s defense was gouged for 592 yards, led by Grier’s 31 of 51 passing for 371 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, and running back Justin Crawford’s 106 yards on 13 carries. Tech, which got its first win in FedExField in four tries, countered with 469 yards, including 234 rushing yards on 45 carries.

In his first college game, Tech redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Jackson turned in a strong performance. He was 15 of 26 passing for 235 yards and a touchdown to go along with 101 rushing yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.

“I think we just got in our groove (in the second half) and just started connecting,” Jackson said. “We ran the ball well. Coach had great play calls throughout the game.”

Jackson set up McMillian’s game-winning touchdown run with a 46-yard run of his own, moving Tech to West Virginia’s 2. It was the longest run of the game.

Though the second half featured a scoring bonanza, it took the teams a while to find their offensive legs.

After both teams failed to cross their own 40-yard line in the first nine minutes, Tech opened the scoring by finding a little life in its running game on its second possession. Running back Steven Peoples had three carries for 19 yards, freshman wide receiver Sean Savoy added a 5-yard gain on a sweep and Jackson produced 13 yards on three carries to move Tech deep into West Virginia territory.

Jackson highlighted the running on the drive with a 7-yard pickup on a fourth-and-1 draw to get the Hokies to the Mountaineers’ 29.

Striking quickly after Jackson’s run for a first down, Tech lined up and Jackson found receiver Cam Phillips open in the middle of the field on a 28-yard pass play to West Virginia’s 1. Phillips finished with seven catches for 138 yards and a touchdown.

A false start penalty on right tackle Kyle Chung from the 3 contributed to keeping Tech out of the end zone on the drive. Slye booted a 25-yard field goal with 6:10 left, putting Tech up 3-0.

West Virginia threatened to score later in the half when it marched from its own 20 to Tech’s 22 in 12 plays, converting a third-and-8 and third-and-11 via completions from Grier to Jennings in the process. The promising drive ended on fourth-and-2 when Grier was intercepted on the first play of the second quarter by Hill at Tech’s 20.

Grier helped West Virginia take a lead when he spotted receiver David Sills with some room while working against free safety Terrell Edmunds on third-and-8 from Tech’s 11. Grier lofted a pass to Sills’ back shoulder, connecting for an 11-yard touchdown with 5:37 left in the second quarter to give West Virginia a 7-3 edge.

“I know my biggest thing was third down,” said Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster, whose unit held West Virginia to 5 of 19 on third-down conversions, while Tech’s offense was just 3 of 15. “In today’s game, you are going to put up some yards. They made some nice throws and catches. I’m sure that when we look at the film, there are some plays that we could play better, some coverages we could do better, some things we could do in the pass rush game to do things better, but this is all part of it.”

Edmunds appeared to suffer an injury with 10:31 left in the fourth quarter. After struggling to get to the sideline, he was eventually carried off the field by trainers, but Edmunds spoke with media after the game and said he was just cramping.

Sills’ touchdown catch came four plays after West Virginia kept the drive alive on fourth-and-2. Receiver Ka’Raun White got away from cornerback Adonis Alexander on a quick slant. Grier passed to White for an 8-yard gain to Tech’s 25.

Tech would answer Sills’ touchdown before the half. After Tech converted a third-and-10 from West Virginia’s 47 with a 28-yard completion from Jackson to Phillips, and a third-and-9 from West Virginia’s 18 via a 10-yard pass from Jackson to receiver C.J. Carroll, Jackson would put the Hokies up 10-7 with 27 seconds left in the second quarter on a 5-yard keeper. Before running for the touchdown, he faked a jet sweep handoff that West Virginia’s defense bit on.

West Virginia tied it up with 11:25 remaining in the third quarter on a 34-yard field goal by Mike Molina. The scoring pace picked up significantly after Molina’s field goal, which careened off the right goalpost.

On Tech’s next possession, it went 71 yards in just four plays to score a touchdown. Jackson hooked up with tight end Chris Cunningham for a 39-yard catch before running back Deshawn McClease scored on a 12-yard touchdown run with 9:51 left in the third quarter, vaulting Tech into a 17-10 lead.

Tech’s defense continued to struggle later in the quarter. Grier completed 4 of 5 passes for 69 yards on a drive starting from West Virginia’s 21.

He capped the possession with 2:18 left in the third quarter on a 10-yard game-tying touchdown pass to Sills, who got inside the coverage of Alexander on a quick slant.

Tech responded in a hurry. James Clark put Tech in business with a 44-yard return to West Virginia’s 47, but the ball ended up at the Mountaineers’ 32 after West Virginia’s Kenny Robinson was flagged when he tackled Clark out-of-bounds.

On the next play, Phillips was left uncovered on the left side of the field. Jackson found him for a 32-yard touchdown with 2:02 left in the third quarter to put Tech back ahead 24-17.

“If you talk to (Jackson), or you’re around him, he acts much more mature than a freshman,” Phillips said. “So, I wasn’t surprised that he was composed. He made the right decisions, he didn’t try to do too much, but just enough.”

It looked like West Virginia was going to put more points on the board on its next possession, as Grier hit Jennings on a 43-yard completion on the first play to put the Mountaineers at the Hokies’ 32. West Virginia self-destructed later in the drive.

On third-and-1 from Tech’s 23, left tackle Yodny Cajuste was whistled for a holding penalty. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen lost his cool after the holding call and was flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct, suddenly turning a third-and-1 situation into a third-and-26 from Tech’s 48 that the Mountaineers couldn’t convert.

“That’s 100 percent on me,” Holgorsen said. “I got too far out and didn’t say anything, just kind of looked at him in an inappropriate manner, and that’s going to get flagged. Not much I can say about it.”

West Virginia bounced back and took advantage of poor coverage by Tech early in the fourth quarter. Jennings got behind Edmunds on a post route, resulting in a 60-yard touchdown pass from Grier with 12:37 left to tie the game 24-24.

After the game, Fuente looked ahead to how Jackson and the team would respond with one fewer day of game-week preparation than usual for Saturday’s home opener against Football Championship Subdivision foe Delaware.

With a huge hurdle cleared in the opener, staying focused didn’t seem to be a serious concern for Tech’s players.

“I think I’ll be ready,” Jackson said. “No school (Monday), so I’ll have to look at (video) from all day. I’ll probably relax and watch them, so I think I’ll be physically prepared.”

Wood can be reached by phone at 757-247-4642 or Twitter at @normwood

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