– Aaron McFarling column: Virginia Tech is realistic about its identity
– Those notes and more in last night’s post-game wrap: Virginia Tech 29, Marshall 21, 3 OT
Here are five thoughts following the Hokies’ win against the Thundering Herd …
1. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
Luck was on Virginia Tech’s side Saturday, to say the least. The Willie Byrn touchdown catch to tie it up after a Marshall defender tipped it was probably the most glaring example, but some fortunate flags came the Hokies’ way in overtime — the pass interference call Byrn got in the end zone, the non-call on pass interference on Marshall’s ensuing possession, when a Tech defender had a pretty good hold of Tommy Shuler on his route.
But, as many people have said, that’s football. You get some breaks (yesterday). And sometimes they go the other way (the Sugar Bowl). Things tend to balance out over time and even over games (Frank Beamer is still wondering where the block in the back was on Kyshoen Jarrett‘s long punt return). And as quarterback Logan Thomas put it after the game, luck comes to those who make it. “When you keep fighting, you keep bringing the effort every single time — luck doesn’t just appear for no reason,” he said.
So yes, Tech was lucky the Marshall defender didn’t intercept the ball. But Byrn was still in the right spot to make a nice catch. And the Hokies put themselves in a position to score there anyway. You can’t blame a team for taking advantage of a few fortunate bounces.
Now, Tech was undoubtedly playing with fire. And some curious overtime decisions, like trying a 50-yard field goal in the first overtime or playing for a game-winning field goal in the second overtime with a backup kicker who has never made one in a game, got swept aside by the victory. The Hokies can’t count on getting those lucky breaks every week, but they got away with it this time.
2. Logan Thomas made plays to win, but he doesn’t seem like a quarterback fans will ever be comfortable with.
Everybody has seen this show before. Thomas completed a little over 50 percent of his passes (18-for-34), threw a couple of ugly picks, had stretches where he was on point (4-5, 61 yards on the first TD drive) and stretches of mind-boggling struggles (nine straight incompletions after that). And yet, with the game on the line, the Hokies went to him over and over, running him near the goal line to finally get past the Thundering Herd.
Was it a game of beauty? Nope. But it was a win. And without Thomas, I wonder if the Hokies would have been close. He carried it 23 times, one more than Trey Edmunds. While Scot Loeffler said he didn’t want to run his quarterback as often as the Hokies did last year, sometimes game circumstances dictate what you do. Thomas expressed frustration with throwing the ball in the rain. Running it with him was a viable alternative — he is still an offensive weapon, even when he’s not completing passes, after all. It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done.
I hesitate after a game like that to light in to the play-calling. Yes, there were some curious decisions. The read option on fourth-and-1 from the shotgun didn’t make much sense (although I’ll counter that everyone who called for a sneak from the 6-6, 250-pound quarterback were the same ones who bemoaned it as being too obvious when that exact play failed against ECU last week). The Hokies seemed all over the map in terms of whether they wanted to run it or throw it, but I do think the weather played a factor. Sometimes you have to adjust on the fly and call plays you can given the environment. Again, it wasn’t pretty, but it’s not like this offense has been in recent memory. It’s four games into a new coordinator’s tenure. I doubt it’s a finished product. (And it’s here that I’ll point out that Tech did out-gain Marshall 382-361 Saturday in the same number of plays.)
But Thomas will have to be better if the Hokies want to do anything in ACC play. This kind of effort won’t cut it against Georgia Tech, North Carolina or Miami. He’s already thrown six picks this year, one on a horrible decision Saturday and another when it appeared his arm got hit as he released it. He overthrew a couple of simple passes. The one to Sam Rogers out of the backfield in the fourth quarter probably would have gone for a touchdown. But he also made some big throws. The one to Josh Stanford on fourth-and-9 came in a big spot. That seems to be Thomas: love him or leave him.
As for the Mark Leal “Truthers” out there, give it a rest. Change ain’t coming. Read this quote from Beamer in the post-game and tell me if this is a coach who’s going to do something radical with his quarterback: “Couldn’t have a better leader than Logan. Not only tough but smart and competitive. We follow that guy.”
3. The kicking situation is officially a mess.
As if things weren’t bad enough with Cody Journell‘s struggles against East Carolina, he goes and gets suspended for the Marshall game for an undisclosed violation of team rules. That put a punter, Ethan Keyserling, in as the field goal kicker. The results were predictable: he missed his three tries from 36, 50 and 32. That’s six straight missed field goals for the Hokies, if you count the one Journell had negated for a roughing the kicker penalty. I don’t know if there’s ever been a team that’s done that before.
Beamer said it was a one-game suspension, so it seems like Journell could be back for Georgia Tech. That raises a couple questions: 1) Given his history, does he deserve to be back on a team that gave him a major second chance to begin with? And 2) given his struggles against ECU, will this even help the kicking game much? This is still a guy who has made 80 percent of his career field goals, but you have to wonder where his head is at right now.
Keyserling doesn’t seem like a viable option, although that was a tough weather game to make your debut. Mitchell Ludwig is a kickoff specialist, although he didn’t get first crack at field goals, so you wonder about his accuracy. R.J. Warfel is a walk-on true freshman. Michael Branthover seems to have been marginalized for whatever reason. If Brooks Abbott hadn’t of left the program this summer, I have no doubt he’d be lining up for kicks come Thursday.
It’s a messy situation that Virginia Tech was fortunate didn’t cost it the W on Saturday. Against better competition, that won’t be the case.
4. The blocked kicks could signal a mild return of “Beamer Ball.”
No, I won’t trumpet the full-scale return of “Beamer Ball.” I don’t think you’re ever going to see the Hokies block seven or eight kicks in a year ever again. But they got some big plays by their special teams Saturday. Kyle Fuller‘s punt block got things going. He did it against a shield, but Marshall didn’t give great protection (it was a two-man shield but an unbalanced line, which let two guys come free on the right side). But Fuller nearly got another one later in the game, and he’s been close in recent weeks. It’s at least something for opposing teams to think of, which can cause problems for punters.
The second block came on a field goal in overtime. Derrick Hopkins got up in the middle of the line to get a hand on it. I’m not sure if the kick was low or he got some extra hops because of adrenalin, but it came in a big, big spot. If that goes through, the Hokies lose.
What’s amazing is how long it’s been since the Hokies have made those type of plays. Tech hadn’t blocked a punt against an FBS foe since Boise State in 2010. It hadn’t blocked a field goal since Boston College in 2008. I don’t know if these two events are predictive of the future, but the fact that the Hokies ended that drought could signal good things to come on the special teams this year.
5. The best player on the defense right now is J.R. Collins.
As colleague Nathan Warters pointed out, Beamer addressed the defensive end as “Mr. J.R. Collins” as he walked up the steps to the dais at the post-game press conference. If you finish with nine tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, three quarterback hurries and one forced fumble, that’s the kind of reception you get. That’s 22 tackles for Collins this year, with team highs in tackles for a loss (5), sacks (4.5) and quarterback hurries (9). James Gayle gets a lot of attention, and rightfully so, and Dadi Nicolas is the young up-and-comer who makes plays whenever he’s on the field, but Collins has quietly performed better than both. That’s a pretty remarkable turnaround for a guy who’s attitude nearly got him run out of the program last season.
Lest you think I’m exaggerating, check this out:
Under Tech's scoring system, JR Collins recorded the most points ever for a Bud Foster coordinated def. Passing Corey Moore and Cornel Brown— Beamer Ball (@Beamer_Ball) September 22, 2013
As for Foster’s defense, it was a rough start but a strong finish. Marshall scored 21 points in the first 21 minutes then nothing for the final 39 plus overtime. Foster was his usual self afterward, saying the Hokies made no adjustments and insisting they just started executing their plan better as the game progressed. Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato was legit and made some big throws throughout, especially on third down. Shutting him down in the second half was no small task.
It goes without saying that this team will only go as far as this defense will take it. And with opposite extremes of offenses coming up in Georgia Tech (an option team, on short prep no less) and North Carolina (another hurry-up, spread team), Foster and his crew will certainly be challenged by the first week of October. With the offense like it is and the kicking situation a mess, Tech will have to lean on that defense as much as ever. It’s nothing new, and the Hokies have won many games with this formula in the past. Nevertheless, it gives them a very small margin of error.