3 Key Plays will return once ACC season starts, but for now let's take a closer look at the Hokies huge win on Saturday against the Mountaineers of ASU: 66-13.
Perhaps the best way to review this game is to look at the 3 big questions that we asked while wrapping up pre-season camp:
1) Is Mike O'Cain an improvement as the offensive coordinator (whatever you want to call him, that's what he is in practice)?
2) Will the lack of depth at rover, free safety or defensive line rise up and bite VT or will these young players come up to speed quickly?
3) Is Logan Thomas ready to demonstrate what he's shown all offseason - that he is a top-flight QB - or will all this pressure and inexperience get to him?
Let's start with the last question first. QB Logan Thomas has a long way to go to answer just how good he can be, but the simple fact is that the pressure and inexperience CLEARLY had no negative impact on his performance. He looked calm, he managed the game flawlessly and he even had a few plays that demonstrated both his athletic ability and his arm strength and accuracy. Unfortunately, Thomas's stat line didn't reflect the level of his performance: 9-19 for 149 yds, 2 TDs and 0 picks.
Now, reviewing that stat line gives me a chance to express the level of frustration I experienced with the drops from the wide receivers yesterday. There were 4 DROPS of Logan Thomas passes. Had those been caught, his line would have read 13-19 for 266 yds and 3 TDs, which is much more reflective of the way he played. I hurt my hand pounding the table on each one of those drops, not because they impacted the results in this game, but because they could play CRITICAL roles in games in the future.
The first drop was by Joey Phillips, the FB, on a 2nd and 9 very early in the game, deep in ASU territory. Phillips caught everything during camp and even earned a scholarship, only to drop his first pass in a game when it counted and the Hokies had to settle for a FG. The 2nd drop was a stunner. Logan Thomas escaped from the pocket and while running to his left, squared his shoulders and fired a 22 yard DART to almost-all-time-leading-receiver-in-VT-history Jarrett Boykin who juggled it along the sideline and dropped it. The third one was a breathtaking ball to WR Marcus Davis who had gotten behind the defense and it hit him square in the hands on a dead run which would have been a long TD. And the 4th was on 3rd and 20 and a scrambling Thomas running to his right, threw back across his body to WR Dyrell Roberts who could have made a catch for the first down but it bounced off his chest.
Now in each case, (except for Phillips) the WR's atoned for their mistake by making other good catches, but these are absolutely must-have catches. The only example I can think of where a WR dropped a key catch in a close game and it didn't lead to a Hokie loss was when Dyrell Roberts dropped that 4th down pass at midfield with 2:30 left left against Nebraska. Ok so we all know how that ended (Miracle in Blacksburg)., but I think everyone would admit that isn't going to happen everyday, so you can probably understand how I hurt my heel kicking my table after these drops. And that was even before WR Corey Fuller got in with the 3rd string and dropped two gorgeous QB Mark Leal throws (I'd be stunned if Leal throws to Fuller any more this season and I'm not kidding about that). So, so frustrating.
Backing on up to the 2nd question about the youth at rover/defensive line, that question also wasn't completely answered on Saturday but the great news about the Hokies playing so well and getting out to a huge lead is that 6 true freshmen got to play meaningful, significant minutes in the game. Players like Luther Maddy and Corey Marshall got to show why they had earned the right to be in the two-deep. And Boye Aromire showed why Coach Gray was so nervous as he played pretty poorly at rover. But again, the defensive coaches got to empty the bench and give everybody snaps. The 2nd stringers got nearly an entire quarter of play and the third stringers each had a series or two. Players and coaches now get to see these players on film in competition for the first time. The players can see their mistakes the coaches will have plenty of teachable moments and it really puts a boost on the learning curve for the young players this season.
And now the big question - was Coach O'Cain an upgrade at offensive coordinator? Before I address that let me offer a rebuttal to all the Monday Morning Quarterbacks who claim that one can't draw many conclusions from this game because of how outmatched Appalachian State was. Admittedly, ASU didn't play very well early in the game against VT, but they have a lot of talent on that Mountaineer squad and frankly I think they'd beat the bottom 20-30 teams in Division I-A. The fact is that the level of execution by VT's offense was in an entirely different league than what we've seen the past few years. I think that Tyrod Taylor was an absolute magician and Ryan Williams/Darren Evans and these same receivers were similarly dynamic. But the offense in the past few years performed solely on the basis of their talent.
Just looking at how many open receivers there were (and yes, Logan Thomas missed several of them which he will see on film and gain an enormous amount from) was something I haven't seen the past few seasons. Also consider that the pace of the offense was crisp, breaking the huddle with 12-15 seconds left on the playclock almost every single play. That is a HUGE aspect of offense that demonstrates how much more smoothly the machinery was running. Play calls were being communicated quickly from the booth, to the sidelines, to Thomas (how many times did we see Tyrod Taylor rolling his hands in frustration trying to get a play call earlier in the play clock last season?). That is important because with a young QB there are shifts and motions that he needs time to let develop before the snap, which helps him and the linemen identify the type of defense and coverage the defense is in. Running the playclock down too low doesn't give those time to materialize. The repetition also helps get the offense in a rhythm, let's the QB mess with the snap count if he wants to to try and draw offsides and it helps reduce penalties (there weren't any procedure or delay of game penalties on the offense).
The mix of running and passing was going to look effective simply because of how successful the plays were, but look a little deeper. The linemen ran the correct way and weren't tripping over themselves or each other. And another fundamental difference that I witnessed was that the defense didn't know what play was coming. How many times last season was a linebacker filling in behind a pulling guard to drag a running back down in the backfield? That doesn't happen due to more or less athletic talent. The linebacker shoots that gap because they know a run is coming and to which side. I only saw that once against the first string offense yesterday (obviously later in the game, runs were far more prevalent). And then there were the aforementioned wide open receivers, some of whom were open in the middle of the field which is actually being utilized by Coach O'Cain and Thomas.
I have openly and publicly railed against Coach O'Cain as a QB coach but I was so overwhelmed with what I saw out of the offense yesterday that I am half-wondering if he wasn't just hamstrung in helping his QB's improve on fundamentals and reading coverages simply because of how sloppy the offense used to be executed. I will withhold judgment on that until I see several more games. Next week the game is on the road against a better team, which will be a completely different environment for the offense to have to execute against so if we see this same level of play if the number of points is less, that will speak volumes. It is already apparent that O'Cain is far more than just a new playcaller. He has developed new plays and the offense looks and feels different. And I've heard that Coach Stinespring actually LOVES this new structure. He was involved in game-planning and film review during the week and he enjoyed immensely being down on the sideline with the team during the game and having more time to focus on recruiting. Titles notwithstanding, I bet he doesn't miss a bit having the offensive coordinator responsibilities on his shoulders anymore.
At the end of the day, it's worth restating that ASU was fast and strong, but the level of execution on defense and offense by Virginia Tech on Saturday was exceptional. If you still have any questions about the level of competition, think back to 2008 or 2009 against teams like Western Kentucky and Furman and how much better the team looked on Saturday. Aside from the punting, it was the most complete game I've seen the Hokies play since the 2009 Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Tennessee. On special teams, Justin Myers was CRUSHING the ball out of the back of the end zone every time and Cody Journell looked very solid at kicker. Jayron Hosley put on a punt returning clinic and about the only weak spot - Scott Demler - seemed to be all nerves because the coaches swear he is super-consistently hitting 40-45 yard punts in practice.
So we learned some things about the team this week, but in the final analysis this was just like getting the first question right on a 12 question exam. It's good to get it over with, but there's at least 11 more to go and they're not going to go your way just because the first one did. That said, the confidence of the team should be high in the first road game and one can be sure that Hokie Nation is going to turn out in droves to support the team in Greenville, NC next week against ECU.