If you missed our coverage from yesterday, here is it:
– Aaron McFarling column: Virginia Tech’s offense has work to do
– Notes: Freshman Facyson keeps making plays
– Those notes and more in last night’s post-game wrap: Virginia Tech 15, East Carolina 10
Here are five thoughts following the Hokies’ 15-10 win against the Pirates …
1. I feel safer saying the defense is legit after Week 3.
It’s only three games into the season, and I don’t like to put a ton of stock into a small sample size of statistics, but these are some pretty impressive numbers so far: the Hokies are second nationally to Michigan State in total defense (190.7 ypg), second in pass defense (106.3 ypg) and 10th in rushing defense (84.3 ypg). And they’ve only played one tomato can in their first three games. Plus, those numbers look even better after seeing No. 1 Alabama roll up 568 yards and 49 points against Texas A&M. The jury might be out on East Carolina as a team this year, but that offense is going to put up some numbers, and Tech made the Pirates look clueless after that opening drive.
The challenges don’t stop for Tech. The next three games feature Marshall (QB Rakeem Cato led the country in passing last year), Georgia Tech (Paul Johnson‘s spread option is tough to prepare for, especially on a short week) and North Carolina (a team that ripped the Hokies for 533 yards last year in Chapel Hill). I had my doubts about whether or not that first week performance against Alabama was just a function of having an offseason to prepare for one team, but now I’m starting to think this might be the defense Bud Foster hoped last year’s group could have been. There aren’t many weaknesses.
2. Particularly impressive is Tech’s pass defense.
Alabama’s AJ McCarron looked out of sorts against Virginia Tech in the opener. He threw for 334 yards and four touchdowns against Texas A&M. East Carolina’s Shane Carden looked equally good coming into yesterday’s game (615 yards, 7 TD, 0 INTs) and similarly perplexed going up against the Hokies (19-for-31, 157 yards, TD, 3 INTs). Those are two very good passing games that the Hokies more or less shut down.
It’s a safe bet that Foster’s teams are going to limit the run. It’s his primary goal every week and something Tech has done routinely in years past. But with spread offenses taking root across college football and teams getting athletes the ball in space, it’s becoming harder and harder to effectively shut down everyone’s passing games. But the Hokies have been very good in this regard so far this year. I think the two big keys here are 1) the pass rush has been outstanding and 2) the freshman cornerbacks haven’t been overwhelmed.
Tech had seven sacks against East Carolina, matching its total against Duke last year. You have to go back to the Duke game in 2006 to find a time when the Hokies had more. That pass rush, led by a deep, quick defensive line that’s getting tremendous play out of ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins, kept Carden uncomfortable all day. It was aided by some coverage that I don’t think anybody thought would be this good this soon, considering Antone Exum‘s absence. Cornerback Kendall Fuller got most of the hype coming in, but fellow freshman Brandon Facyson has been just as good, if not better, so far. They’re playing like seasoned vets and they only have three games under their belt. With Exum nearing a return, it’ll be interesting to see what Foster does to get everybody on the field (a great problem to have). Tech’s nickel package is probably its best group. The Hokies used to prefer that teams not spread things out, having had so much success against pro-style attacks. But given all the defensive back personnel they can get on the field to go up against a three-wide look, it seems like it’d be almost preferable right now to be in that nickel.
3. Everyone might have been premature in assuming the run game was all the way back.
After two weeks of showing a hard-nosed, physical running game, Tech took a step back Saturday. East Carolina was dedicated to committing enough players to the run to shut it down and force the Hokies to the air, and it worked pretty well. Trey Edmunds, the darling of the first few weeks, had 21 carries for 42 yards, finding no room to run. The other running backs contributed little else. Some credit should go to East Carolina, which surprisingly has given up only 82.3 rushing yards per game, one spot ahead of Virginia Tech in the national rankings.
But part is on the Hokies’ o-line. Right guard Andrew Miller didn’t mince words afterward. He thought the offense played “terrible” and said it wasn’t acceptable. “We weren’t creating enough space on the zone, getting to our aiming points right and climbing to the linebackers,” Miller said. “They were backdooring us a lot of times, so we’ve just got to be better at that, creating space down the line with this wide zone.” Translation: there’s still plenty of work to do. Obviously, that’s the case, especially with Brent Benedict just now supplanting Laurence Gibson as the right tackle, which may or may not be the case next week. This line was going to be a project all year, and perhaps the small dose of success against Alabama skewed those expectations. Regardless, Tech still needs this running game to be consistent in order to be a factor in the Coastal Division, and it stars with the offensive line.
4. The Pirates dared Logan Thomas to beat them through the air, and he was good in bursts.
There is good Logan, the one who went 10-for-11 for 117 yards on the two touchdown drives, who was clutch on third down, completing eight passes to move the chains. And there is bad Logan, the one who was fortunate not have a few more passes picked off, especially a pick six he gift-wrapped in the flat that ECU linebacker Montese Overton dropped. It would have altered the fourth quarter finish drastically.
This might just be what you get from Thomas at this stage of his career — a quarterback who will drive you crazy one moment and look like an NFL caliber one the next. Teams are certainly going to want to try to find out. The Pirates loaded up on the run, wanting to see if Thomas could beat them through the air. For the most part, he did a good job. He got the team in scoring position several times, even if field goal misses prevented the Hokies from putting the game out of reach.
The third-down numbers (10-for-18, 129 yards) had to be particularly encouraging for offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler. Numerous times Thomas checked down to a third or fourth option. He hit Willie Byrn on the crossing route underneath on almost an endless loop. “That’s kind of just me learning the progression system that we have,” Thomas said. “They walled away a couple things, which left something else open. That’s just how I have to be and how I have to get better.” It’s a progression system that doesn’t appear as though it was emphasized much under the previous offensive staff, which might underscore some of Thomas’ developmental problems as a quarterback in the last couple years.
There’s plenty of room for improvement. His goal of throwing five interceptions or fewer might not make it out of the non-conference portion of the schedule. He’s still yet to compete 60 percent of his passes in any game this year (and for nine straight games going back to last season). This offense, through three games, still ranks 107th nationally (my small sample size concerns exist here too, if you’re wondering). You’re probably not going to see the Hokies and Thomas lighting up scoreboards anytime soon, but Tech needed him to make some big throws in tough situations Saturday and he did it. The Hokies wouldn’t have won without them. That counts for something.
5. Cody Journell had a bad day, which isn’t a big deal … for now.
Entering Saturday, Journell had missed only 11 kicks in his college career — three extra points and eight field goals, five of which were from 40-plus. That’s pretty reliable, which only emphasizes how out of sorts the senior was against East Carolina, missing two field goals and an extra point and having another field goal miss negated by a penalty. That’s a pretty bad day, and it happens with kickers from time to time. The real concern comes if it happens again.
Kicking can be a head game. And while coaches trying to ice the kicker by calling timeouts in a big spot is usually ineffective (and a waste of time), struggling kickers can certainly get in their own heads. Journell said great kickers always want another chance, even when they’re not right. His biggest regret was not getting another opportunity to kick through his problems Saturday, work out the kinks with whatever was wrong mechanically or mentally. Now it becomes a thing until he gets back on the field in a game. You wouldn’t think that someone who made 81.8 percent of his field goals prior to Saturday would all of a sudden lose his way. But, as any golfer can tell you, sometimes you get the yips for no reason whatsoever. This will be a big week for Journell to get that out of his mind.