Black Diamond Trophy Up For Grabs As WVU – Tech Clash on Sunday
This past season, it was out of the frying pan for West Virginia football coach Dana Holgorsen as he put together a 10-win season and earned a new 7-year contract, but now it’s back into the fire for him as he faces a Top 25 team in Sunday’s 2017 opener.
The heat couldn’t be turned up much more than to leave the friendly confines of Milan Puskar Stadium for a neutral site meeting with No. 21/22 Virginia Tech at FedExField in Landover, Maryland, at 7:20 p.m.
This is the revival of a regional rivalry that was put on hold back in 2005, with the prize being the Black Diamond Trophy.
WVU leads the rivalry, 28-22-1, but lost the last meeting at home, 34-17, in a series that has been dominated by the Hokies over its final 17 games, with Tech winning 12 of them and outscoring the Mountaineers 335-148 in those 12 victories.
Because of the break in the rivalry, brought about because of the breakup of the Big East with Tech going to the ACC and WVU finding its way to the Big 12, Holgorsen has never been involved in the battle for that Black Diamond Trophy.
As with all openers, both teams will need to not only overcome jitters but any number of unknowns, headed by each team being operated by a new quarterback.
WVU’s Will Grier, of course, is the far more heralded, having won a national prep high school player of the year award in North Carolina, then opening at Florida by winning his first five starts before being suspended for inadvertently taking a banned substance.
Grier missed half of his redshirt freshman year as his suspension and then sat out a season after transferring to WVU, but everyone expects him to pick up where he left off.
“I don’t have any statistics or anything like that, but I’m very confident in Will and the coaches and the rest of the team are very confident that he’ll have a great game on Sunday and a great rest of the season,” said wide receiver David Sills V, a former quarterback himself.
“He’s proven it in practice. He’s proven to be a leader for the team. He’s done everything you would expect in a great quarterback. So, I think he’s going to have a great season.”
The biggest question for Grier is how he will handle Virginia Tech’s aggressive pass rush. The Hokies, under defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who has 31 years on the job there, have 791 sacks, more than anyone in the nation, since 1996.
Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente, entering his second season after a 10-4 year, had a battle for the quarterback spot, but Josh Jackson emerged with the starting job. He is the first true or redshirt freshman to start a game for the Hokies since Tyrod Taylor opened against Ohio University a decade ago.
He also is the first true or redshirt freshman to start an opener for the Hokies since a fellow named Michael Vick in 1999.
Jackson beat out junior college transfer AJ Bush and freshman Hendon Hooker.
“He’s continued to improve in terms of his ability to deliver the ball on time. He’s got a pretty good understanding of what we’re trying to get accomplished, (and) like I said, a great demeanor,” Fuente said.
“There’s competitive spirit there — not that there’s not with the other ones, but the word that comes to my mind is, day in and day out, he’s been the most consistent in terms of the things that we talked about, the kind of three criteria that we talked about before this camp started that we were looking for — taking care of the ball, expected outcomes and then how we feel. In those three categories, we feel the best about Josh.”
But, it is the Virginia Tech defense that causes WVU the most concern, Foster actually saying it could be among the best he’s ever had at the school.
“Back when I was a young coach and hadn’t done anything in this profession, you would still follow Bud Foster as far as what he did,” Holgorsen said. “Their defense is good. I know they’ve been rumored that this may be his best unit from what I understand. If you watch them, they have all their guys coming back and they were an incredibly good defense last year. So, it’ll be a challenge.”
Holgorsen and his new offensive coordinator, Jake Spavital, have been in charge of trying to find holes to attack in that defense.
“The one thing about it is we have a lot of video to watch going back 30 years. He’s been pretty good for a long time, so we have lots of video to watch,” Holgorsen said, only half joking.
WVU has had some thinning of the ranks at the wide receiver position to attack Virginia Tech with Jovon Durante transferring and Marcus Simms suspended for this game, but Holgorsen believes in Ka’Raun White, David Sills V and Gary Jennings he has three solid receivers.
Holgorsen also is willing to take the wraps off freshman receiver Reggie Roberson Jr. and plans to make use of running back Kennedy McKoy as a receiver.
Of course, if the passing game isn’t yet up to 100 percent, Holgorsen has an option with Justin Crawford, the leading returning rusher in the Big 12 after a 1,184-yard first season and with depth behind him in McKoy, Martell Pettaway and freshmen Tevin Bush and Alec Sinkfield.
The WVU unknown is a defense that doesn’t return a lot of starters but does have a lot of experience and, in coordinator Tony Gibson, someone who knows what he wants and how to get it.
The whole defensive line is new starters, but there are a pair of potential All-American types at safeties in Dravon Askew-Henry, back after missing last season with knee surgery, and Kyzir White, brother of Ka’Raun and former WVU star receiver Kevin.
If there is one area in which WVU holds its breath, it’s special teams, where the Mountaineers have had troubles over the years and where Virginia Tech is always among the nation’s finest.