– Notes and a post-game wrap: Hokies handle UNC’s QB switch
– Aaron McFarling column: Virginia Tech’s Coles lines up as a play-maker, mentor
Now, here are five thoughts following the Hokies’ win against the Tar Heels …
1. You can dismiss the notion that the Hokies’ offensive weakness is the passing game.
The book on Virginia Tech after Alabama completely shut the it down in the opener was this: stuff the run and the Hokies won’t be able to beat you through the air. It’s safe to say that notion is dead. Saturday was the fourth game Tech topped 220 passing yards and the third game that it went almost entirely to the air to win. The Hokies followed a model similar in their wins against East Carolina and Georgia Tech: the defense was trying to take away the run, so they passed at will. The results are starting to show that this isn’t the Keystone Cops operation that dropped about 10 passes in the opener.
Logan Thomas continues to look more comfortable throwing the ball. He had his second interception-free game and completed 67.9 percent of his passes, tying a career-high in touchdown passes with three. If you take out the Alabama disaster and the Western Carolina patsy (the toughest and easiest games on the schedule), you start to see a clearer picture of what kind of passer Thomas has been this year: the senior is 81-for-130 against ECU, Marshall, GT and UNC, a 62.3 percent completion rate, about in line with his preseason goal. He has seven touchdowns, three picks and is averaging 238.25 yards per game in that span. Those are pretty solid numbers. And he appears to be gaining comfort in Scot Loeffler‘s system every game, standing in the pocket longer, going through reads, making checkdown passes.
His receivers have helped, making more plays down the field. So has the line, which has pass blocked well. It seems like enough to dispel the notion that you can stack the box to beat the Hokies. “I think as long as we keep catching the ball, getting open and making plays, eventually it will stop,” receiver Willie Byrn said. “And if they don’t stop, just keep gashing them.”
2. You can also dismiss the notion that the Hokies’ offensive strength is the running game.
For every good with the offense there seems to be something bad, however. And this week, and in the few previous weeks, it’s been the running game, which simply hasn’t gotten into gear. Some of that has to do with how many defenders opponents are putting up near the line. But Tech still hasn’t done a very good job of running the ball even when it does have advantageous numbers. Saturday against UNC, tailbacks Trey Edmunds and J.C. Coleman combined for 53 yards on 22 carries. Thomas finally had a game in which he didn’t shoulder the rushing load, with nine carries for 2 yards (two of those were sacks, which ate into his yardage). When the Hokies wanted to grind the clock out after getting a big halftime lead, they couldn’t do it. And that’s a problem for a team that doesn’t necessarily have an explosive offense.
Bigger picture, this team simply hasn’t looked like the one that matched Alabama physically up front in the opener. The Hokies have been held to 60 rushing yards or less three times already this year (48 vs. UNC, 55 vs. GT, 53 vs. ECU). That hasn’t happened since 2006, when Tech had four games in which it failed to reach 60 rushing yards. The Hokies are averaging 3.5 yards per rush, their lowest mark since that ’06 season when they moved the ball only 3.2 yards per carry.
Something is off up front, from a blocking standpoint, from a running standpoint, from a schematic standpoint. Frank Beamer alluded to some missed blocks by the line afterward. Scot Loeffler mentioned that fullback Sam Rogers‘ absence in the second half with a leg injury affected what type of running plays the Hokies ran. Nevertheless, Virginia Tech wasn’t necessarily running at will in the first half, and this was against a UNC defense that came into the day giving up 234.3 yards per game on the ground, one of the worst rushing defenses nationally. For a team that needs to play ball control and will probably have to win some close games down the stretch, this will need to change for them to continue winning.
3. It’s a tossup among D.J. Coles, Demitri Knowles and Willie Byrn for who is the Hokies’ most valuable offensive weapon not named Logan Thomas.
All three receivers are playing at extremely high levels, albeit in radically different ways. Coles, as Aaron wrote in his column today, is almost a red zone specialist. His knee prevents him from playing a full complement of snaps, but he’s a big target in the end zone for Thomas and has 11 catches this year, five of which going for touchdowns. For a team that hasn’t finished drives as much as it has wanted to, Coles plays a huge role. Knowles showed once again that speed is such a valuable commodity in football, getting behind the defense for a 45-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter. Anybody who can take the top off a defense like that can have an effect on everything else going on in the game. And Byrn has come out of nowhere to be the Hokies’ most reliable pass catcher. He had four grabs for 123 yards Saturday, making him the Hokies’ first 100-yard receiver in a game this year. He’s not a blazing speed guy like Knowles, but he knows how to work a route, find the open space in the field and catch it once Thomas throws his way (even though he lamented his one drop from Saturday).
Ir’s a good complement of receivers to have. Coles is big-bodied guy. Knowles is a speedster. Byrn is a strong route runner who gets open frequently and can make a juke in the open field. (“Everyone keeps being surprised,” Byrn said. “I think I’ve made a few people miss as this year’s gone along. I’m pretty confident in my YAC ability.) Add in Josh Stanford, who has made some big third-down catches, and it’s turning into a decent receiving corps.
4. The numbers might not have been as impressive as other games, but this was still a good defensive performance.
A lot of people are going to say that since Bryn Renner didn’t play, UNC’s offense wasn’t going to be at its peak form. Well, I thought Marquise Williams played pretty well, and if he’s the future for the Tar Heels at quarterback when Renner is gone, they’re in pretty good hands. The thing Williams brought was mobility. The Hokies had to deal with the read option and Williams was elusive in the pocket for most of the day. Honestly, if Renner was back there with a bum foot, I think he would have been a sitting duck. As it was with Williams, the Hokies had only two sacks. I think you could have probably doubled or tripled that with an immobile quarterback in the backfield.
The stats will say this was Tech’s “worst” defensive performance. I use quotation marks because the Tar Heels still only gained 376 yards, which was below their season average. And honestly, 89 of those yards came on the final drive when North Carolina was already trailing 27-10. The Hokies were in some pretty soft coverages at that point. But except for a few pass plays that broke deep, Tech did fairly well against a team that put up 48 points and 533 yards on it last year. I only remember one gadget play that went for a big gain: Quinshad Davis‘ 40-yarder on a bubble screen. The Hokies gobbled those up quick after that. They sniffed out pretty much all of the end arounds and reverses UNC tried. And they held the Heels to 99 yards rushing, with 56 of those coming from the QB (running backs T.J. Logan and A.J. Blue combined for 36 yards).
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster still thinks UNC is one of the more dangerous offenses out there. “I’m proud of my kids,” he said. “I can’t ask any more out of them.” Virginia Tech has still not allowed an opponent to top 400 yards in a game since last year’s UNC game, a streak of 13 games. In today’s era of explosive offenses, that’s pretty impressive.
5. This team is in great shape in the Coastal Division right now.
Coming into the season, there were four teams considered to be viable contenders in the Coastal Division race. Virginia Tech was among them. And the Hokies have already beaten two of the other three — Georgia Tech and North Carolina. Pittsburgh, which has beaten the Hokies four straight times dating back to 2001, is on tap in Blacksburg next weekend. At 2-1 in league play, the Panthers should be viable competition, even though their two league wins have come against Coastal cellar dwellers Duke and Virginia. But looking forward — and this is something Beamer avoided doing in his post-game presser, deftly side-stepping a big picture question like a seasoned veteran — the game at Miami on Nov. 9 is shaping up to be one that could decide who represents the Coastal Division in Charlotte come December. The ‘Canes are 5-0, fresh off a 45-30 win against Georgia Tech. But their only other quality win was against Florida, so there’s still some questions about just how good Miami is too.
Virginia Tech plays Pittsburgh and Duke at home and Boston College on the road before going to Miami (that contest at BC has trap game written all over it, by the way). Miami’s got UNC on the road, Wake Forest at home and Florida State on the road before the game against the Hokies. So this could conceivably be a matchup of an 8-1 Hokies team against a 7-1 Hurricanes team (assuming Miami, like Maryland, doesn’t have the horses to run with FSU, which might not be true). Again, that’s getting waaaaay ahead of things, but that Nov. 9 game is going to loom very large in the Coastal race no matter what. Either way, the Hokies have put themselves in the best spot they could have imagined at the midway point of the season.