Virginia Tech’s win against Duke on Saturday wasn’t a sign that all of its problems are fixed, but it’s a whole lot more calming than a loss for a fan base that was on edge. Read my post-game wrap here.
Now for five more thoughts about the game:
1. J.C. Coleman looks legit.
It was a breakout performance for the true freshman, who ran 13 times for 183 yards, giving the Hokies a big-play threat on the ground for the first time this year. Coleman had touchdown runs of 45 and 86 yards, but his other runs were impressive too. He had six runs of six yards or more. On one play in the third quarter, he kept the pile moving after getting hit initially. Despite only being 5-foot-8 (which is very generous), 192 pounds, he’s a low-to-the-ground physical runner. Tech has been looking for that.
Now, there’s been a rush to anoint a new featured running back after every flash of potential this year. (Logan Thomas even made fun of us for that after the game.) We media types did it after Tony Gregory ran for 68 yards against Bowling Green and when Michael Holmes had what was essentially one good drive against Cincinnati. But this feels different with Coleman. He was explosive and powerful, a good combination. And considering the Hokies hadn’t had a 100-yard rusher until he went off, it would make sense for them to continue to ride that hot hand. After all, this was the only game Coleman got more than seven carries this year. I’d expect him to continue to get a large share of the carries.
2. The offensive line looked better, but it’s going to have to adjust once again because of an injury.
Coleman’s big day coincided with the offensive line pulling its weight and opening some holes. Granted, this was against Duke, a team it should be able to do that against, but for a line that hadn’t cleared the way for the running game against decent competition this year, it was an encouraging showing.
But now they’ll have to regroup. Center Andrew Miller fractured his left ankle and it would be shocking if he’s not out for the rest of the season and beyond. (UPDATE: Miller is out for the year with a fractured fibula.)
The Hokies were already short-handed on the interior line, with backup center Caleb Farris out with an ankle injury and starting left guard David Wang out because of his knee/ankle. The combo of Michael Via (LG), Miller (C) and Brent Benedict (RG) looked like a solid group for most of the game. Now Via will have to slide to center if Farris can’t go, with Matt Arkema at left guard and Benedict at right. Via had some snap issues but should get them ironed out this week with more work with Thomas. The problem is Tech can’t afford another injury in there. Beyond those players, Laurence Gibson, a guard-turned-tackle-turned-guard, is the only other viable option. The Hokies need Wang and Farris to get healthy quick.
3. The pass rush finally lived up to its preseason hype.
Remember in the preseason when the defensive line was hyped as the strongest unit of the defense? Well, it finally played that way Saturday. The Hokies had five sacks, eight tackles for a loss and five quarterback hurries, harassing quarterback Sean Renfree for the final three quarters. End James Gayle played perhaps his best game of the year, with nine tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss and a sack. He came close to a couple other sacks. Tackle Luther Maddy, who struggled with an ankle injury the last few weeks, looked like he did against Georgia Tech, with two sacks and a fumble recovery. The Hokies needed that push from their interior.
This group will need to continue to be disruptive for Virginia Tech to succeed going forward, particularly at Clemson. Everything the Tigers do is based on timing. A lot of their plays take time to develop, but the quarterback also makes lots of quick reads in rhythm. The Hokies will need to be on Tajh Boyd like they were Renfree for Tech to have a chance. The encouraging sign for Virginia Tech was that it wasn’t just the first-team line that was producing. Near the end of the Duke game, Tyrel Wilson and Dadi Nicolas got in on sacks. If the group can produce that far down the line, it’s a positive sign.
4. Is the nickel here to stay?
Remember all week when we heard that Tech might go away from its nickel look so it can do more blitzing? Yeah, that didn’t quite work out. From my recollection, the Hokies played almost exclusively nickel against Duke up until the end, with safety Michael Cole (3 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FR) being on the field far more than whip linebacker Ronny Vandyke (3 tackles, 1 FF). Reporters did not have a chance to talk to Bud Foster after the game, but my guess is the Blue Devils had enough multiple wide receiver sets that Tech simply had to match speed with speed in the secondary (and having Detrick Bonner covering the slot gives the Hokies more speed than Vandyke).
Will it continue vs. Clemson? Maybe. Duke is more of a true spread team that throws the ball more. The Tigers’ offense is known for its stars in the passing game, especially Boyd, Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins, but the foundation of Chad Morris‘ offense (and of his mentor, Gus Malzahn‘s) is a power running game. And Clemson has a strong runner in Andre Ellington (597 yards, 6 TD) who would be perfectly content cramming it down your throat. Let’s put it this way: the Tigers average 201.6 yards per game on the ground. North Carolina averages 210.6. There are a lot of similarities between the two, and if you don’t stop the run against either, you’re in trouble. That’s why I wouldn’t close the door on Vandyke having a significant role against Clemson, even with the Tigers talented stable of receivers.
5. The Coastal Division will come down to Tech’s game at Miami.
North Carolina did Virginia Tech a solid by handing Miami its first conference loss. With the Tar Heels ineligible, Georgia Tech a mess and Virginia in a freefall, the Coastal Division really comes down to Miami (3-1), Virginia Tech (2-1) and Duke (2-1). I think everyone got a good sense that the Blue Devils are still not quite there yet. I think they can get that one more win to be bowl eligible (at Georgia Tech maybe?), but I don’t envision them competing for the division title.
That leaves Virginia Tech and Miami. After a 4-1 start, the ‘Canes have come back to earth with losses at Notre Dame (41-3) and vs. North Carolina. (18-14). They have Florida State up next, the same Florida State that put up 649 yards in a 51-7 rout of Boston College. So I’m guessing the ‘Noles will have not have trouble there, giving Miami its second ACC loss.
That becomes crucial. Honestly, I don’t think Virginia Tech will win against either Clemson or Florida State. I’m not saying it’s impossible, just not probable for this year’s team. I do think the Hokies will beat Boston College and Virginia. That makes the Miami game critical. Assuming all of the stuff I just mentioned happens, a win at Miami would make Tech 5-3 in the division by the end of the year, with a head-to-head tiebreaker over the ‘Canes. If Miami loses to FSU and VT, that would give it three losses too, so the division would go Tech’s way. Lose that game to Miami and the Hokies are looking at an uphill battle, needing to leap the ‘Canes by a game in the standings to make the ACC title game. Either way, it looks like that game in Sun Life Stadium on Nov. 1 has a pretty good chance of deciding who makes it to Charlotte from the Coastal.