With new coach, Virginia Tech rolling

It isn’t just a souped-up offense that is different about No. 14 Virginia Tech in its first season following the retirement of legend Frank Beamer. It’s the pancakes.

New coach Justin Fuente has changed up the menu for pregame meals, Hokies wide receiver Isaiah Ford reported this week. Under Beamer, Hokies players ate from a buffet. Now, they have a choice of pancakes, spaghetti or a baked potato. Ford opts for pancakes, even for night games.

“I could eat breakfast anytime of the day,” Ford said.

Dieticians might debate it, but the bigger change to the Hokies, who play Georgia Tech on Saturday in Blacksburg, Va., is indeed the offense. Averaging 5.6 more plays per game than last season, the Hokies are gaining almost 60 more yards per game. They are close to the school-record average for total offense, piling up 444.4 yards per game.

Through nine games, the Hokies have hit 51 plays of 20 yards or more this season, eight shy of their 13-game total from last year and more than the full-season totals in 2013 and 2014.

Fuente’s arrival initiates a new era in the rivalry, which has often decided the Coastal Division championship and also typically been low scoring. In the eight games in which Beamer and Jackets coach Paul Johnson squared off, the winning team averaged 25 points. On Saturday, the Hokies may prove more proficient at unmasking weaknesses in the Jackets defense than they have in the past.

“You’ve got to pick and choose and hope you guess right and hope somebody makes a play,” Jackets defensive coordinator Ted Roof said.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe, whose Blue Devils lost 24-21 to the Hokies last weekend, deems it a more aggressive scheme.

“Yeah, I don’t think there’s any question,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re using their weapons well is what I would say. That’s one of coach Fuente’s trademarks.”

With its strength long resting with defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s unit, the Hokies now have an offense that can match the pressure that their defense applies. The combination has spurred the Hokies’ 7-2 record. Following North Carolina’s loss to Duke on Thursday night, Virginia Tech can clinch its first ACC title-game berth since 2011 with a win over the Jackets.

Ford, who was held out of spring practice, recalled his excitement watching the offense come together under the leadership of Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen. Fuente was hired from Memphis following Beamer’s retirement after 29 seasons coaching the Hokies.

“I think coach Cornelsen and coach Fuente have done a tremendous job in utilizing every weapon on our roster, and make it a pick-your-poison type of deal instead of keying on a few players deal,” Ford said.

Having Ford, who led the ACC in receiving yards per game (89.5) and touchdown receptions (11) last season, helps. He’s averaging 78.9 yards per game, fourth most in the ACC.

Johnson said that the offense has similarity with North Carolina with its formations and plays, playing out of the shotgun, using zone reads and bubble screens.

“They spread you out a little more than maybe they used to and take a few more chances than maybe they used to,” he said.

Georgia Tech, of course, is vulnerable. The Jackets gave up 636 yards of offense to North Carolina last week, the second-highest total in school history. Georgia Tech is giving up 6.09 yards per play, 94th in FBS.

“The final chapter has not been written,” Roof said. “We’re going to continue to work and we’re going to hang together and get ready to play our best football game this Saturday.”

It would appear a successful transition in the replacement of a legend. Fuente said he didn’t feel the need to change much culturally, given how successful Beamer had been. The old coach comes by occasionally, Fuente said, but “he’s also gone out of his way to make sure that we know he’s not looking over our shoulder, judging our every move.”

Saturday’s game will be Virginia Tech’s first against Georgia Tech that Beamer won’t coach. Beamer’s first was in 1990, the Jackets’ national championship season. The last was in 2015, a 23-21 Hokies win at Bobby Dodd Stadium, an emotional contest that was Beamer’s first after announcing his retirement. He was 9-4 against Georgia Tech.

Fuente knows a little about the Tech-Tech rivalry, which has largely gone the Hokies’ way, but has been decided by an average of 5.1 points in Johnson’s tenure. Given how it has often been an Thursday night ESPN broadcast, including last season, Fuente has seen it plenty.

“Our coaches know, our kids know what kind of dogfight it is every single year,” he said.

Ford said he misses Beamer’s care for him, how “he would always check up on me and see how I was doing, see how my family was doing, things like that.”

The Hokies have not been in the Associated Press Top 25 this late in the season since 2011. They’ve got a clear path to likely playing Clemson for the ACC title. Plus, Ford gets pancakes. It would seem a worthwhile exchange.