BLACKSBURG, Va. — As college football pressed into its second month in a COVID-19 world, perhaps no two schools could serve as better divergent examples of the experience than Boston College and Virginia Tech.
BC couldn’t be more fortunate. They returned for voluntary workouts in June and, after discovering one positive test after the first week, their returns have been spotless. They’ve become a model for how college football can carry on with the proper protocols, and three wins in their first four games under first-year head coach Jeff Hafley have iced the cake.
When the Eagles walked into Lane Stadium on Saturday night to face the Hokies, some things were the same (cardboard cutouts in the stands) and some were different (the crowd of 1,000 friends and family members), but they were staring down a team affected by COVID-19 like no other in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Hokies’ season opener last month was postponed because of an outbreak at N.C. State. Their de facto opener against Virginia was postponed because of their own virus issues. When they finally took the field against the Wolfpack, 23 Virginia Tech players missed the game for COVID reasons. The next week against Duke, 21 were held out, and 15 missed last week against North Carolina.
The severity of the situation hit Hokies redshirt junior quarterback Hendon Hooker hard. After going through screenings for COVID-19 before the season, doctors discovered Hooker had a medical condition — he’s never revealed the details — that needed to be treated before he could play again.
He made his first start of the season Saturday, guiding a depleted team past one that couldn’t stop sabotaging itself.
No. 23 Virginia Tech handed Boston College a 40-14 reality check, Hooker rushing for three touchdowns off the option and throwing a fourth to Khalil Herbert. The Hokies (3-1, 3-1 ACC) racked up 350 yards on the ground, averaging 8.5 yards across 41 carries, with Hooker totaling 164 on 18.
With running back Herbert adding 143 on 18 carries, the two became the first Hokies duo to rush for 100 yards in the same game since Tyrod Taylor and Darren Evans in 2010. The last time two players rushed for 100 yards on the Eagles was 2017, when Lamar Jackson and Reggie Bonnafon did it for Louisville.
“The story of the game was they ran the ball right through us,” BC linebacker Max Richardson said. “So if you can’t stop the run, you can’t win, and I think when they got the run game going, the quarterback got a lot of confidence from that. And so his momentum was going all game.”
The Eagles (3-2, 2-2 ACC), who’d been relatively mistake-free and opportunistic in fourth quarters, committed five turnovers, matching their three total giveaways from the first four games in their first four series on Saturday.
The Eagles were able to get away with the first one, a fumble by running back Pat Garwo at the end of a 14-yard run on their first drive, but the turnovers kept piling up. Phil Jurkovec fumbled a pitch to Garwo on the second drive. Hokies linebacker Alan Tisdale recovered it, and his offense drove for a 41-yard field goal to open the scoring.
The Eagles seemed to pull themselves together when Jurkovec hit Jaelen Gill for a 12-yard touchdown and a 7-3 lead, but it didn’t last. Given the ball on the BC 49-yard line, it took Hooker 119 seconds to get the Hokies into the end zone. On first-and-goal from the 7, Hooker kept it himself on a sweep up the right side for a 10-7 lead.
Jurkovec immediately tried to answer. His eyes got big when he saw Zay Flowers streaking down the field on a deep route, but he ignored the three defensive backs in the same area.
His throw was nowhere near Flowers. Hokies cornerback Devin Taylor hawked it down easily at the 26-yard line for his first interception of the season.
“It’s a huge momentum shift,” said Hafley, whose team was a plus-5 in turnover margin before Saturday, third in the ACC. “And with us playing more defensive plays against a really good offense, the key to the game was time of possession and moving the ball forward and not giving them the ball. And we failed to do that.”
The Eagles put up 435 yards of total offense fueled largely by Jurkovec, who was 28 for 51 passing for 345 yards and two touchdowns, and it all went to waste.
“We came out swinging and running and throwing,” Hafley said. “Just shot yourself in the foot and sent us backwards. We can’t come back from something like that, five turnovers against a good Virginia Tech team.”
After the pick, the Hokies marched 74 yards in seven plays, capped by Hooker’s 29-yard touchdown to Herbert that pushed their lead to 17-7 at the half.
After a three-and-out on defense to start the second half, Jurkovec drove 80 yards in 12 plays, connecting with Hunter Long on a 20-yard touchdown on which Long was initially ruled down at the 1-yard line. That made it 17-14, but BC wouldn’t score again, their next drive ending on a first-play Travis Levy fumble, and their next-to-last on a Jurkovec interception inside the Hokies’ 10-yard line.
The Eagles hadn’t given away the ball five times since North Carolina forced six turnovers in 2009. The last team to squeeze three fumbles out of them in the same game was Virginia Tech in 2015.
“Win or lose, I stress the process, and I stress the importance of getting better every week,” Hafley said. “And I’m sure when we turn on the tape, we’re going to see some things we did really well. But unfortunately in football, if you make big mistakes like we did, you can’t win. So we’ll watch the tape closely and we’ll get better.”