Here are a few more thoughts following the Hokies’ 35-10 loss to the No. 1 Crimson Tide …
1. Tech’s special teams are in for a needed shakeup.
There’s really not much of another direction to go after a game in which you give up a kick return and a punt return for a touchdown, especially at a school that has prided itself on its special teams play for more than 20 years. Head coach Frank Beamer was unequivocal about what his approach will be in the coming days regarding his coverage units. Asked if he’ll consider using veterans in those roles he’s handed to the many youngsters on the roster, he said simply, “Absolutely.” Veteran cornerback Kyle Fuller said afterward that he’d ask to be on more coverage teams if it helps. I’d imagine he won’t be the only on to do so.
That’s not to say the Hokies will cure their issues immediately. But as commenters have noted on this blog many times in the past, when Virginia Tech was at the height of Beamer Ball, it came when it used its stars in significant special teams roles, not freshmen learning the speed of the game. That’s often a good way to get them used to the college game, but it’s clear, at least after Saturday night, that this team might be a little too young and inexperienced to take that same approach. Beamer said Ryan Malleck and Ronny Vandyke were both on the punt coverage team prior to their season-ending injuries. A few freshmen are in there now, and it showed on the fourth play of the game. That’s an experience drop Tech can’t quite afford right now.
2. Running back Trey Edmunds appears to be the real deal and the offensive line could be much better than anyone thought.
Quarterback Logan Thomas said Tech was so confident in Edmunds’ breakout potential that it’s the reason the Hokies didn’t use him much in scrimmages during August — they didn’t want to get him hurt. Saturday showed why. Edmunds was the tough, physical runner Virginia Tech has lacked lately, but he also showed he’s an explosive runner who can separate himself from the defense in the open field. And he wasn’t just doing that against any old defense. This was the most dominant rushing defense in college football from the last five years. If it’s any indication of what’s to come, the Hokies have found their workhorse who can shoulder the rushing load offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler has in mind.
And it’s in part due to the performance of the offensive line, which exceeded expectations in the opener. The Hokies cleared lanes for Edmunds, who, other than his 77-yard touchdown run, had another 55 yards on 19 other carries. Again, this is coming against a defense that had manhandled opposing offensive lines in the past. Tech’s 153 rushing yards were more than any opponent had against Alabama last year except for Texas A&M (165 yards). What probably pleased offensive line coach Jeff Grimes more than anything was that the Hokies’ linemen brought a physical streak to the field. They didn’t look outclassed in any sense against what was supposed to be a bigger, stronger defensive line. The pass protection looks like it still needs some work, but Tech held its own in the run game.
3. Thomas and the receivers have a lot of work to do.
The Hokies’ passing stats are just plain ugly. Thomas completed only 5 of 26 passes. That’s only 19.2 percent. The receivers didn’t do him any favors, dropping more than a handful of passes, many of them in critical situations. Tech’s 59 passing yards were its lowest since a 48-yard day against Georgia Tech in 2009 (a game Tech won, no less). Finding a lower completion percentage might be impossible. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t the passing performance many hoped to see after an offseason of hearing about how Loeffler had gone about fixing Thomas’ mechanical flaws. That work certainly didn’t show Saturday.
Beamer was quick to defend his senior quarterback in the post-game, saying others needed to step up their games around him. That’s a clear shot at Tech’s receivers, who caught four passes and dropped probably twice that many (Reese Davis called them “garbage” on ESPN’s highlight show). Make some of those catches and Thomas’ numbers look a little better, although they’re still not pretty. In fact, they would look a lot more like AJ McCarron‘s 10-for-23, 110-yard line for Alabama. Again, that’s not great, but against a pretty good defense, it’s at least understandable.
How exactly the Hokies go about fixing these problems is unclear. It’s a young group, and even the veterans (D.J. Coles and Demitri Knowles, to a degree) certainly didn’t look like reliable pass catchers or route runners. Beamer said Tech’s receivers will catch a lot of balls in practice this week, but they’ve been focusing on that all offseason too and the result, at least in the opener, was underwhelming. I said before the season that o-line and receiver were the Hokies’ two biggest question marks. At least after one week, receiver is far more problematic.
4. Bud Foster’s defense might be back.
It’s a shame to see a defensive performance like that not end with a better result. Tech’s defense looked fast, aggressive and mean, the type of things that Bud Foster said he wanted to see out of his group in the first week. Alabama’s 3.3 yards per play tied for the fewest by the Crimson Tide under Nick Saban. Only the Sugar Bowl loss to Utah in 2009 was as bad. In fact, the Tide’s 206 yards were the second fewest under Saban (Tulane held Bama to 172 in 2008).
Most important, Tech looked good in key spots. Linebacker Tariq Edwards, who had a lost 2012 because of injuries, looked like he hadn’t lost a step. Kyle Fuller, over the nagging injuries he had last year, had a great coverage game, finishing with a pick and a couple pass breakups. Safety Kyshoen Jarrett was involved in all sorts of plays close to the line of scrimmage. The freshman cornerbacks Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson didn’t look overwhelmed, even on a big stage like that. And the d-line was active in the passing game and running game, getting contributions that went 7 or 8 deep. It’s noteworthy that Alabama’s two touchdowns came on drives in which defensive personnel wasn’t available (after getting dinged up, Kyle Fuller was out on the drive that ended with T.J. Yeldon‘s touchdown run; Jarrett had cramps in the third quarter, leading to Desmond Frye getting burned deep for a score).
Drawing too many conclusions from one game is often foolish. How good did Virginia Tech look against Georgia Tech in last year’s opener, only to get run over by Pittsburgh two weeks later? But seeing the Hokies be that disruptive, making plays in the backfield and throwing what should be a pretty good offense out of whack for most of the night, was one of the bright spots for Virginia Tech. If this group can avoid any more injuries and can get Antone Exum back in a month, it should be one of the best in the ACC and possibly the nation.
5. For a 25-point loss, Virginia Tech seemed oddly content.
Maybe it was Beamer so frequently putting Alabama on a pedestal in the offseason. Maybe it was that no national pundit gave the Hokies much of a chance. Maybe it was simply the tenor of the game. But I didn’t get the feeling that Tech’s players felt all too terrible about the way Saturday unfolded. That’s not to say they accepted losing. They didn’t. But there wasn’t the brooding anger and dejection that you could easily sense after losses like Pittsburgh and Miami last year. And that is a little odd.
Certainly, there are reasons for encouragement, despite what was a lopsided final score. Tech out-gained Alabama by a small margin. It ran the ball when nobody expected it to. Its defense more than held its own. And if not for the two touchdowns on special teams and the Thomas interception, the game was essentially a draw. (Yes, I know. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?) For those reasons, the Hokies should have hope for the rest of the season.
But the post-game was a striking contrast. Tech’s players felt mostly good about their performance in a loss, while Saban was perhaps the most unsatisfied person in the building. I realize part of that is shtick (the task master is never satisfied), but the Crimson Tide players had a similar outlook. A 25-point win was good, but they felt they needed to play better. That might just be a sign of how the programs are in two different places right now. Or it might just show how the coaches approach things in contrasting styles. Remember, Beamer’s maxim is never to get too high or get too low. That was on display in Saturday’s post-game and might be a result of lowered expectations based on last year’s results, but it’s still an odd thing to see from a Virginia Tech team.