BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech football emptied out the bench in the fourth quarter on Saturday leading 35-7 against Middle Tennessee.
It was one of the things coach Justin Fuente was most excited about after the game.
“It was good to get some guys in the game.,” Fuente said. “We needed really good work, we got some situational work on the defensive side of the ball down there in the red zone. I wish we could have kept them out, but it was good to get that work for all those guys. We played a bunch of people.”
Tech played a total of 38 players in the opener (not including anyone who exclusively played special teams) against North Carolina and 33 of them played at least 10 snaps, according to Pro Football focus.
On Saturday, the Hokies played 55 players and 49 of them played at least 10 snaps (including all 28 defenders). The team had 22 defenders play at least 20 snaps.
Tech had 12 scholarship players make their 2021 debut against Middle Tennessee including four true freshmen (wide receiver Jaylen Jones, running back Malachi Thomas along with defensive ends Cole Nelson and Mattheus Carroll).
True freshman Jalen Stroman, who played special teams in the opener, played 20 snaps at free safety.
The full second-team defense was on the field for Middle Tennessee’s final 13-play, 86-yard drive that ran 4:40 off the clock. The group included C.J. McCray at defensive end and Wilfried Pene at defensive tackle.
McCray, a Marshall transfer that signed with Tech this year, spent fall camp at linebacker and just changed positions two weeks ago. Pene was expected to be at the position as well — he was at tight end in the spring — but the Hokies were down to four scholarship players at defensive tackle.
Pene’s size — he’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 253 pounds — made him a perfect fit to add some depth to the interior.
The two defenders that stood out during that stretch were middle linebacker Keshon Artis and nickel Ny’Quee Hawkins.
Artis, a special team standout, got his longest stretch of playing time on defense in his career. The fourth-year sophomore had four tackles (three solo) with one tackle for loss and a pass breakup. Defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton blitzed Artis multiple times on the drive and he helped stuffed two plays at the line of scrimmage.
He was frustrated with himself for not coming away with an interception on the pass breakup, but the ball went through his hands.