– Notes and a post-game wrap: Nicolas shines in new defensive role
– Aaron McFarling column: Hokies have winning feel again
Now, here are five thoughts following the Hokies’ win against the Panthers …
1. It might be boring, but it’s a winning formula.
Aaron touched on this in his column, but I think it warrants mentioning again. Virginia Tech isn’t a particularly sexy team. It’s won three games without topping 20 points. It’s won two games when it has only scored one offensive touchdown. The Hokies kick a lot of field goals and punt a lot. They play defense and prize field position. In this era of flashy offenses moving up and down the field, they are decidedly boring. But they’re pretty dang good at being boring.
And you know what? They’re OK with that. If you think Frank Beamer isn’t fine with controlling the clock, playing for field position, relying on a strong defense and whatever the offense can muster on any given day, then you haven’t been watching this team for the last 20-plus years. This is a style he’s perfectly comfortable playing. And given Tech’s personnel this year — and the time it’s going to take for the new offensive coaches to get the right pieces and enough experienced players in their scheme to really thrive — I think the coaches realize this is the Hokies’ best chance to succeed. It’s not as though this is a new formula. Beamer has relied on Bud Foster‘s defense for a long time, taking whatever the offense could give him from week to week. Heck, the team had eight straight 10-win seasons following that exact blueprint. Why mess with a successful formula?
2. The Hokies might have to deal with the fact that the short passing game is the running game.
There’s probably enough of a sample size now to understand that the Hokies just simply aren’t good at running the football. Yesterday it was a 76-yard effort, the fourth time they’ve failed to break 100 yards on the ground. The last time they had this many sub-100-yard rushing games was 2006, when Tech averaged 3.24 yards per carry and 113.4 yards per game (90th nationally). This year’s group is at 3.25 yards per rush and 117.6 yards per game (104th nationally).
The running backs produced next to nothing Saturday, although again, there weren’t many holes to run through. The fact that offensive line coach Jeff Grimes used seven linemen, rotating in Mark Shuman and Laurence Gibson to the starting five, probably tells you that he’s still trying to find the right mix up front. J.C. Coleman was the Hokies’ leading running back Saturday … with 25 yards. Trey Edmunds had 13, 14 of which — not a typo — coming on one carry.
Tech has tried to offset that by using a short passing game as its running game, moving the ball in short chunks through the air. Logan Thomas completed several short passes to tight end Kalvin Cline off play-action fakes. Willie Byrn works underneath routes as well as anyone on the team. Fullback Sam Rogers and running back Chris Mangus got into the action too. It might not be the way fans are used to things working around here and certainly isn’t the way Scot Loeffler envisioned his offense, but if it’s the only way to move the ball, Tech doesn’t seem averse to throwing it short instead of running it.
3. The front seven provides opponents no break whatsoever.
As if opposing defenses didn’t have enough to worry about from James Gayle, J.R. Collins, Derrick Hopkins and Luther Maddy on the defensive line, Foster goes and adds Dadi Nicolas to the mix as a whip linebacker whose sole role was to crash the line and, on most occasions, go straight after the quarterback. Poor Tom Savage. The result was a banner day for Nicolas, who had three sacks, part of the Hokies’ season-high eight sacks. And honestly, it could have easily been 12. Tech missed Savage in the backfield on a few occasions, although it still affected what he was able to do with the ball.
That’s 27 sacks this year for the Hokies, tops in the nation (although they have the benefit of an extra game compared to most teams). In a 13-game schedule, that’s on pace for 50 sacks. It’s 54 if Tech can play 14 games, which is becoming more of a possibility by the week. That’d be the team’s most since finishing with 58 sacks during the BCS title game season in 1999. (Even more remarkable about that season: those stats are through 11 games, since the NCAA didn’t count bowl stats until 2002). That team had three players with at least six sacks – Corey Moore 19, John Engelberger 7, Cory Bird 6. This year’s group seems well on pace to approach that, even though nobody will come close to Moore’s ridiculous number. Collins has five sacks. Nicolas and Hopkins have four. Maddy has 3.5. Gayle, who might be the best pass rusher of the group, has three.
Nicolas doesn’t figure to play the whip linebacker role going forward. He’s not a coverage guy, so he’s limited in that sense. But Foster at least knows that he can throw a fifth pass rusher on the field when he wants to and simply send him after the quarterback. It’s another nice wrinkle to have, and it’s something that makes this Tech defense that much more dangerous.
4. A.J. Hughes is one of the unsung stars of the team.
Punters don’t get a lot of pub, but Hughes has been pretty good this year. He had a 52.8-yard average on Saturday, the highest single-game average (with at least three kicks) under Beamer. He’s averaged over 40 yards per punt in all seven games this year plus the bowl game last year, tying the longest streak under Beamer. He’s now in the ACC lead with a 45.33-yard average this season, tied with Pitt’s Matt Yoklic. That mark is good enough to put him 11th nationally.
What’s made Hughes so valuable is the number of times he’s been asked to punt. When Beamer said a punt is not a bad play, he wasn’t lying. Hughes has 43 punts this year (Yoklic, by comparison, has 27). Hughes’ 6.1 punts per game are 18th most nationally. This plays into thought No. 1. When you’re boring, you better have a good punter who can help you play the field position game. And Hughes has been a blessing in that department. His average is up 4.7 yards from last year. It’s 8.6 yards better than the Hokies’ disastrous punting situation in 2011. Considering how much Hughes is punting, that’s around 50 yards a game, which can make quite a difference.
5. Tech can’t be in any better shape in the Coastal.
Anybody who thought the Hokies being 6-1 overall and 3-0 in the ACC heading into the bye week wouldn’t be a best-case scenario is lying through his or her teeth. Tech has performed about as well as it could have in the first seven games. Many people doubt the Hokies’ spot in the polls based on the fact that they haven’t beaten any ranked teams. Well, that balances out as the season goes on. And there are plenty of teams in the top 25 without many marquee wins whose best loss certainly wasn’t to the No. 1 team in the country.
Which brings us to the Coastal. Tech is 3-0 in the ACC. Miami is in second with a 1-0 record. Everybody else in the division has at least two conference losses. And the way things are shaping up, it’s going to take at least six wins to take the division, so it’s pretty safe to say it’ll probably come down to Virginia Tech and Miami. The teams have a Nov. 9 tilt at Joe Robbie-Pro Player-Dolphins-Land Shark-Sun Life Stadium-Park that will go a long way in deciding who goes to Charlotte. But the Hokies have a decidedly easier schedule the rest of the way. Before the ‘Canes get to that game, they play Thursday night game at North Carolina this week (say what you will about UNC, but Thursday night games on the road are never a picnic). And the week before Miami plays Virginia Tech, it travels to Florida State. It’s quite possible that that ‘Canes don’t head into that game with a clean ACC record.
Tech’s other ACC games are Duke, Boston College, Maryland and Virginia. If the Terps have quarterback C.J. Brown, they could be a tough game. But Virginia Tech should be favored in each of those contests. If it can simply avoid a letdown in any of those four games, it might be enough to win the Coastal, regardless of how things go in Miami.