BLACKSBURG — Rushing stats might matter to most football fans, but they’ve never much been something Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente worries about.
Yes, he wants his team to run the ball effectively. But he doesn’t have a yardage total in mind to reach in order for the ground game to be considered a success.
“I think one way that I’ve always felt about running the football is that if you could get to the point where you can force them to play run defense, commit people to the box, which then can, in turn, allow you to maybe make some bigger plays down the field,” Fuente said. “Then you’re being efficient running the ball.”
The No. 16 Hokies (2-0) will try to take the next step in their running game’s development when they travel to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium to play reeling East Carolina (0-2) on Saturday in a 3:30 p.m. game.
Looking at the stats, Virginia Tech had one outstanding game on the ground so far this year (234 yards, 5.2 yards per carry and three touchdowns against West Virginia) and one that left a lot to be desired (81 yards, 2.9 ypc and no touchdowns against Delaware).
Chalk that second one up to the game plan if you’d like — the Hokies didn’t necessarily commit to the run last week against a loaded box in a mostly noncompetitive game against Delaware, nor did they need to pull out all the stops in the 27-0 victory against a lower-division foe — but Fuente still wasn’t pleased with how the team ran the ball as a whole.
“Obviously, we didn’t run the ball very well last week, and there’s several reasons for that,” Fuente said. “We also didn’t make very many plays throwing the ball, as well. They were preordained to line up to commit themselves to preventing us from running the football, and we couldn’t make plays, or not enough plays, to really be efficient in other areas.
“To me, it’s about keeping the other side off-balance. Can you run the ball on some mid-level downs well enough that you feel confident about doing it, and then in turn set yourself up for making some big plays?”
Boy, do the Hokies have a prime opportunity to do that as 22.5-point favorites this week. East Carolina’s had a sieve-like defense so far, allowing 614 yards and 45 points per game.
The Pirates have been especially porous on rushing defense, giving up 310.5 yards per game so far. That included a 410-yard day by James Madison, the defending Football Championship Subdivision champion, but a team from a lower division nonetheless.
Things had gotten so bad for East Carolina that coach Scottie Montgomery reassigned defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson this week, promoting the defensive line coach, former Gretna High and Hargrave Military postgrad coach Robert Prunty to take the lead.
If ever there was a week to get the entire ground game going, especially the tailbacks, this is it. Fuente doesn’t much subscribe to the theory that the running backs, particularly a featured back, need to get all the carries. And so far, quarterback Josh Jackson has taken on a lot of the rushing load, with a team-high 19 carries for 120 yards.
But ideally, Tech would still like to shift some of that workload to the tailbacks. Four Hokies running backs — Deshawn McClease, Travon McMillian, Steven Peoples and Jalen Holston — have combined for 48 carries and 184 yards, a 3.8-yard average.
“Overall, we can be better,” McClease said. “We can break more tackles. We can make things happen, make more people miss.”
A better run game could help Tech in its biggest offensive shortcoming this season: third-down conversions. The Hokies are only 6 for 26 (23 percent) on third downs this year, a figure that ranks 123rd nationally.
“On first and second down, if we run the ball, we have to be able to get 4 or 5 yards,” McClease said. “That’s pretty much it. We just have to be productive on the ground. If we can run the ball, third down is manageable.”
That desire to run still doesn’t change the overall mission of the offense, however. Virginia Tech wants to attack weak points in the defense. If an opponent is stacking the box, the Hokies won’t run into a brick wall all day.
But the goal is still to find some kind of balance in order to be unpredictable, something Tech achieved in the opener against West Virginia but still needs to improve on.
“When you can get to third-and-3 and third-and-5, and the other teams do not know if it’s a run or a pass,” Fuente said, “I think you’re having success running the football.”