The offseason unknown was the same for both sides of the West Virginia–Virginia Tech rivalry, renewed this season for the first time since 2005: Could the newcomer under center settle in fast enough to lead an offense effective enough to back up a preseason top 25 ranking?
On Sunday night, Will Grier and Josh Jackson answered that question emphatically in the affirmative, as Jackson led the Hokies through four quarters of recurring gut-checks to a 31–24 win over Grier’s Mountaineers at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
What started as a testy defensive slugfest turned into a succession of home run swings taken by the two newcomer quarterbacks, as both offenses started stringing together big plays and productive drives. Jackson, who became the first redshirt freshman QB to start a Virginia Tech season opener since Michael Vick, finished with 256 yards and a touchdown through the air and another 101 yards and a score on the ground; Grier went 31-of-53 for 371 yards and three touchdowns (with one interception) and added 52 rushing yards of his own.
But look past the stats, go back and watch the way each QB continually rose to the level of his counterpart down the stretch, extrapolate out how they might grow over the next thee months under the direction of two widely respected offensive-minded coaches in VT’s Justin Fuente and WVU’s Dana Holgorsen, and understand this: Both Grier and Jackson are going to be a serious problem.
After leaning on the running game in the early going, Jackson stepped into some critical downfield darts that brought the Hokies’ offense to life, keeping a West Virginia defense breaking in several starters on its heels with his mobility. Grier slung the ball around with the confidence that helped him go 5–0 in his previous stop at Florida, and after making a handful of early off-balance throws that won’t make it into any quarterback textbooks, he seemed to find his range, an encouraging sign for the future of Holgorsen and coordinator Jake Spavital’s attack.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Jackson set up the go-ahead touchdown with a 46-yard keeper straight up the middle after fooling the defense by pulling the ball out of a jet sweep read play. Grier rose to the occasion one last time on his final chance to respond, leading the Mountaineers down to the Virginia Tech 15 in the final two minutes with a 14-play, 65-yard drive that he extended with a fourth-down scamper of his own, but his final heaves for the end zone just missed their mark.
Both have some enviable weapons around them. Virginia Tech’s running back trio of Steven Peoples, Travon McMillian and Deshawn McClease all found room to run, and senior receiver Cam Phillips terrorized the Mountaineers with several big-boy catches downfield on his way to 138 yards and a touchdown. After a few early misfires, Grier finally locked in with speedy junior Gary Jennings and began to gash the Virginia Tech secondary for big gains—Jennings finished with 13 catches, 189 yards and a touchdown of his own to tie the game in the fourth quarter.
West Virginia and Virginia Tech may not have the horses to crash the playoff discussion themselves this year, but on Sunday night it became clear that they are almost definitely going to get in the way of a contender that had been en route to the final four. Grier will go toe-to-toe with Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph (Oct. 28) and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield (Nov. 25); Jackson will take on the defending national champs Clemson at the end of the month and ACC Coastal rival Miami in early November. Those big names better be ready to match the poise both QBs showed with the Black Diamond Trophy on the line.