Nevertheless, the cold, hard number was jarring. Virginia Tech’s 40 rushing yards were the team’s lowest since the season opener in 2007 against East Carolina.
“Disbelief, to look at the stat sheet and see that few yards,” running backs coach Shane Beamer said. “That’s not how we’ve won games here. And it’s not going to be how we win games here. We’ve got to be able to run the football.”
Tech, which has built its reputation as being a hard-nosed running team, has struggled to get that facet of the offense going this year. The Hokies are 91st nationally in rushing right now and eighth in the ACC, averaging 131.33 yards per game.
Those stats are buoyed by decent running efforts against Austin Peay (187 yards) and Bowling Green (246), however. Against teams from BCS conferences, the Hokies have averaged 88.75 yards per game, topping 2.8 yards per carry only once (4.71 ypg against Cincinnati). Saturday, they averaged a season-low 1.6 yards per carry — the stat that really irked Shane. (Even removing the 19-yard loss on a bad snap, Tech averaged a paltry 2.45 yards per carry.)
Tech has averaged 3.9 yards per rush this seaosn, a half yard worse than last year and a full yard worse than 2010. The Hokies’ average hasn’t been this low since getting 3.8 yards per carry in 2008, which pre-dated the run of future NFL backs in Darren Evans, Ryan Williams and David Wilson.
So what’s wrong with the running game?
“I’d like to tell you that there’s a singular panacea right now, but it’s a group effort,” offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring said. “It’s little things. … The toughest thing about running the football, I can tell you, is … you can’t afford to have many mishaps in there.
“If a defensive end makes a nice play on your guard, you’ve got a problem. If a tight end doesn’t do his job, that defensive end, he’s on scholarship. He’s going to make a play. Now how many times are you going to have your tailback be Houdini, grab a rabbit of his hat and make a couple guys miss? And that’s hard at the line of scrimmage. So you know, it’s not just been one area. It’s been a growing experience for all of us. But it’s been all of us. …
“We’ve just got to be more consistent, do a better job of getting hats on hats and advancing the ball.”
The question is: does Virginia Tech have the personnel to play a physical, smashmouth-brand of football?
Shane expressed confidence in his backs to make something out of nothing, even if the offensive line doesn’t execute its blocks perfectly, which has been an issue with this group. But Tech doesn’t appear to have that workhorse back that it has had in recent years, one capable of consistently running between the tackles.
“To say that J.C. Coleman and Tony Gregory can line up and run the ball inside like Ryan Williams and Darren Evans did consistently, probably not,” Shane said. “That’s not necessarily their deal. … To be totally honest, I don’t know from an offensive line standpoint and from a running back standpoint that we’re necessarily built [like that] right now.”
The Hokies have had some success running the perimeter, using their speed to beat teams to the edge. Running inside has been less successful but has still had its moments.
Tech did it in the fourth quarter against Cincinnati with Michael Holmes. Even Saturday, despite the final stats, the Hokies had a few runs up the middle that went for decent gains. There just weren’t a lot of them.
Martin Scales, who at 5-foot-11, 222 pounds is the biggest of the tailbacks, thinks the Hokies should get back to what he termed “Virginia Tech football” and downhill running.
“That’s the best way to play football,” he said. “You smack somebody in the mouth, eventually they’re going to lay down or both y’all will be bloody. … I believe that’s why they recruit the people they recruit. If they weren’t capable of doing that, I don’t think they’d be here.”
The coaches tend to disagree, saying that Tech isn’t set up to simply run downhill at will with this group. Because of their personnel, they’d like to continue to attack the edges with Gregory and Coleman and hit the middle with Holmes and Scales, trying to find success with that diversity.
“I like to think that we can keep teams off balance and do them both,” Shane said. “But [we're] probably not the downhill team consistently that we’ve been in years past. At least not to this point. We’re getting there, though.”
Here are some more notes and quotes from Monday night’s post-practice interviews …
- Shane said running back Tony Gregory (knee) went through the entire practice Monday, even though it was indoors on turf. He’s missed the last two games with a bothersome left knee. Shane asked Gregory on Monday morning to rate his knee on a scale from 1 to 10. Gregory gave it a 9.
- Shane picked his interview seat carefully today post-practice, avoiding the chairs he sat in before the Cincinnati and North Carolina losses. Superstitious much? “When you’re 3-3 you are,” he said. “I’m going to try this side of the room. Hopefully I can stay here for a while.”
- He called Holmes’ fumble in the third quarter disappointing. UNC linebacker Travis Hughes ripped the ball out of his hands at the end of a run near midfield, a big turning point in the game. “It was a great play by that guy,” Shane said. “You look at it, though, on contact he got low on contact, Michael did, he got two hands on the ball. The guy just wrestled it away from him. It’s disappointing. That can’t happen, but not concerned about him and his ball security.” Holmes has had two fumbles this year that have led to touchdowns for the other team.
- Scales said moving back to do some work at fullback now that Riley Beiro is out for the year because of upcoming shoulder surgery is no big deal. “I haven’t forgot it,” the converted fullback said. “That physical switch is always right there.” Shane likes the idea of having Scales do some fullback work. “You can do different things with him,” he said. “It’s another way to get him on the field, because I feel like he certainly brings some physicalness to the running game. No question about it.”
- Stinespring was pleased with the passing game, which the coaches felt going in was the best was to attack UNC’s secondary and coverages. He lamented six drops by wide receivers, though.
- I got some stuff about Demitri Knowles, who I’ll probably be writing a feature on at some point this week. He had a kick return for a touchdown the other day, although didn’t necessarily follow the plan. “Demitri is a little bit like David [Wilson],” Shane said. “You can design the return to go a certain way and you don’t really know. It can line up from one sideline to the other sideline, so I’ve kind of just learned with his speed, he can turn a right return into a left return and it can be successful.”
- Shane said Knowles liked the heat in North Carolina. He told him it reminded him of the Bahamas, where he’s from. Weather in Blacksburg on Monday was a rude awakening then. “This probably wasn’t his deal,” Shane said. “We were indoors at least, so it wasn’t bad. He didn’t like this. You can tell these warm-weather guys, when the weather turns, they’re bundled up.”
- Here’s a look at the white helmet with an orange VT logo that the Hokies will be wearing against Duke this weekend. Thoughts?
- Scales on being 3-3: “It is must-win. And that’s how we’re practicing. From a player’s standpoint, I know it’s more intense. I feel like I always practice intense. I’ve gotten flack for that a couple times, but it doesn’t matter. That’s how I play. I feel we’ll be better this game. It is a must-win and we’ll play like that.”
- And briefly, from the Former Hokies File, Ryan Williams of the Arizona Cardinals will miss the rest of the season because of a shoulder injury that will require surgery. That’s two season-ending injuries in two years for the former Virginia Tech star, who just doesn’t seem to have much luck in that regard.