Behind another suffocating effort by the defense and a creatively called (if poorly executed at times) gameplan on offense, the Hokies stifled a FAR tougher than expected opponent - the Arkansas State Red Wolves - 26-7 on Saturday in Blacksburg. But you didn't come here to read that. You already know that. After all, you are a Superfan.
There were some things in this game that were so positive as to make me think the Hokies could win the ACC title this year, and there were some things that were so negative that I am worried about the game next week at Marshall. But before I get into what I saw from Virginia Tech, I'd like to address Arkansas State for a second.
To put it plainly, the Red Wolves are the best team that the Hokies have played this season, and frankly are probably better than half the teams in the ACC. They are substantially better than East Carolina and I know that because the score of the two games was similar but the Hokies played far better against Arkansas State. The ASU defense is undersized but as fast as lightning. And the offensive unit is going to have great success this season, they just happened to run into one of the top 5 secondaries in the country in the Hokies. I just cannot believe how well coached the Red Wolves were. So I looked at the coaching staff bio and it started to become clear. Half the staff has coaching experience in the SEC, including Head Coach Hugh Freeze who was at Ole Miss for several years and was actually their interim head coach at the end of the '07 season. Chris Kiffin is the son of NFL defensive genius Monty Kiffin (and brother of major d-bag Lane Kiffin) and worked for his father in the Tampa Bay Bucs organization. Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack was the defensive coordinator for Georgia Tech when they won the ACC title in '09 and was a two-time nominee for the Frank Broyles award for best assistant coach in the country. I don't know how Freeze recruited a staff of that caliber to the likes of Arkansas State, but that program isn't the perennial doormat from the '90s anymore.
Take that coaching staff and add in a lot of speed and experience and you end up with the Red Wolves that Tech played yesterday. Their defensive line played with incredible leverage all-game, keeping low and preventing the Hokies from getting any real push. The linebackers were undersized but EXTREMELY fast and so was the secondary, and the back 7 always seemed to be in position to make a play. They might not have made it every time as the Hokie skill players were stronger, but they were in the right place to do so. Having 10 seniors on defense will do that for you.
On offense, the Red Wolves would have had a lot more success if VT hadn't already lined up against two variants of the spread offense already this season in Appalachian State and East Carolina. ASU has an NFL-caliber receiver in 6'5" Josh Jarboe and they get their players out in space to make plays. Their QB is very fundamentally sound and does a tremendous job with ball-fakes in the running game and looking off safeties in the passing game. As I stated above, however, all four players in the Hokie secondary are probably first or second team all-ACC caliber players, and they have an All-American at corner in Hosley.
So now that we know how good Arkansas State was, one could understand how excited I was at some of the plays that the Hokies made on Saturday. Let's start with the Hokie defense:
First of all, the 51 yard gain on the first play of the game for Arkansas State ended up being 20% of their entire offensive output for the day. After that mistake on the opening play, biting on the play fake, Kyle Fuller played like a man possessed. He, Jayron Hosley and Cris Hill all had at least 2 spectacular pass breakups each and only allowed a 44% completion with two INTs (both by Hosley). The defensive line - specifically both Hopkins brothers at tackle - ate up the running game all day. The defense forced a safety and had seven 3-and-outs. And in the most important stat of all, they only gave up 7 points. With all that goodness, how could I still be so nervous and irritated at the defense?
Well, the answer lies in the fact that in a later game on Saturday, the Clemson Tigers lit up the defending national champion Auburn Tigers for 38 points in a big win, using a VERY similar offense to what the Red Wolves ran. And there were two repeated mistakes the Hokie defense made, that while against Arkansas State might have just extended a few drives, against Clemson could cost them the game.
The first mistake was that the defensive ends or the whip, depending on the formation, are supposed to keep edge responsibility and didn't. On at least 4 OCCASIONS, the gave up the edge and let an ASU player get outside of them with the ball. JGW gave up the edge on ASU's lone touchdown keeper by the QB which was sickening. But it wasn't just him. James Gayle, Zack McCray and Duan Perez-Means each made the same mistake when it was their job to keep outside. Now I did see McCray and Perez-Means both make the correct play later in the game, so I feel somewhat better, but those lapses in focus will be deadly against a team with far more speed like Clemson. Yes, Arkansas State QB Ryan Aplin is great with the ball fake, but that's no excuse.
The second mistake was uncoordinated pass rushes. I got so sick of seeing both Bruce Taylor and JGW rush around the outside when James Gayle was also beating his man to the outside. This REPEATEDLY allowed the ASU QB, who has good feel in the pocket, to simply step up and deliver a ball with no one in his throwing lane. I couldn't figure out who was supposed to be staying inside but someone damn well should have been. For most of the game, the Hokies kept dialing up pressure and while they had 3 sacks, one of them was for intentional grounding. The QB was able to make a throw most of the time, it was just phenomenal coverage that prevented the Red Wolves from executing well on offense. At the end of the day, the line of scrimmage was controlled by the Hokie defensive middle but they couldn't generate enough pressure despite bringing it all day.
Ironically, this is exactly what happened when the units were reversed and the Hokies were on offense. While the pass protection for VT was very solid for the most part, one of the most frustrating aspects of the game yesterday was the Hokies' inability to get a push at the line of scrimmage in the running game. This offensive line was getting stood up. Now yes, this was an extremely well-coached, senior-laden defensive line they were up against but I still can't believe that with the depth on O-line that they couldn't wear Arkansas State down during the course of a game when VT held the ball for 13 MINUTES more than their opponent. The Hokies didn't get any push at the line of scrimmage all day and that quite simply isn't going to cut it as the level of competition increases.
Having said that, the problems in the running game paradoxically lead me to what I was so excited about with this Hokie offense. With Arkansas State 100% committed to stopping the run with 8-9 man fronts and not backing off of that no matter how much success Tech had passing the ball, I was flabbergasted to see VT actually do the right thing and stay with the passing game. Just as in last week's game, where running the ball late against East Carolina was absolutely what the game called for, against the Red Wolves, Offensive Coordinator Mike O'Cain stuck with the passing game and actually utilized a ball-control passing game that I frankly had no idea the Hokies had in their arsenal. I think the peak of this entire game came for me (and this might be the offensive highlight of the past 4 seasons) at the 12:25 minute mark of the 3rd quarter. Facing 3rd and 1 from their own 44 yard line, the absolutely unbelievable sight of a play action call on this down and distance, something I've been pleading and begging for for at least 5 years, left me looking at the TV like this. Thomas hit TE George George on the seam route with a perfectly thrown ball for a 37 yard gain. It must have caught Arkansas State equally by surprise as George was WIDE open. Now, one could be forgiven for thinking I'm nuts, getting all worked up about a 3rd and 1 play action call. But hold on for a sec. Yes I am nuts, but when was the last time you can recall a play action pass on 3rd and 1 from Virginia Tech? The 4th and goal play action from the 1 early in the game was a nice call and should have been a TD, but I was in denial about O'Cain possibly being a good play caller until this 3rd and 1 choice.
And the other thing that was so exciting about the playcalling on offense was watching the growth of Logan Thomas. Sure he still had some bad plays. That first interception on a ball intended for Marcus Davis would actually have been a touchdown with a better thrown ball. The interception on the ball thrown to Danny Coale was just a bad decision. It was the same play as Thomas hit Coale for a big gainer early in the game, but with the game nearly locked up in the 4th quarter and the Hokies driving for the icing field goal (or touchdown), that was no time to take a shot because they were moving the chains very consistently. But I have made my decision about Thomas, and I am certain that he is the real deal. If you want any further proof, go to ESPN3.com and load up the game to the 5:44 mark in the 1st quarter. On 1st and 10, the Red Wolves dialed up a run blitz again, but it was picked up on the edge. Unfortunately, Andrew Miller, the center, picked up the wrong guy and his man came free up the middle. Thomas felt the pressure and outran the lineman and a linebacker to the sideline and then, while running full speed to his right, he found a man and threw a strike 35 yards downfield back across his body, hitting Randall Dunn in a dead run right in the hands. Should have been a touchdown and Dunn dropped it. Thomas didn't hang his head, came back the very next play and threw a perfect screen to DJ Coles, also hitting him on the run, allowing Coles to utilize a great block from Danny Coale to cash in on a 49 yard touchdown pass play, before my jaw could even get off the ground about the previous play.
When Tyrod Taylor had that miracle play at the end of the Nebraska game on the pass to Dyrell Roberts (big shout-out to Roberts for a healthy recovery from his broken arm in yesterday's game so he can redshirt and come back next year to mentor all of the young receiving talent coming to Blacksburg), I said on this blog, it was a play that 5 QB's in all of Division I-A could have made. I will repeat myself and say that the play Thomas made on that pass to Dunn was one that maybe 5 QB's in all of Division I-A could have made. Thomas again seemed to be very comfortable in game management as far as formations, no delay of game penalties, etc. He will see a lot to learn from on film, but the makings of a special QB are already there.
Special teams shared in this mix-bag-of-emotions type of day. Justin Myer had 4 of his 5 kickoffs either go to the back of or completely out of the end zone for touchbacks which is ridiculously awesome. But Cody Journell was only 1 for 2 on his FG tries and needs to improve his consistency as neither FG he's missed has been a very long one. The Hokies will have some close games coming up where a FG here or there could be all the difference in the world, so I'm nervous about that. And JUST WHAT THE HELL IS COACH BEAMER THINKING, not giving Michael Branthover a shot at the punter's job?!?!?!?! P Scott Demler had a miserable first punt and no really good punts the entire day!!! I was dumbfounded. Just what would Demler have had to do for Branthover to get a chance - turn around and kick the punt backwards out of the end zone for a safety???!?! Damn that made me angry. With this impressive defense, keeping opponents deep in their own end is just the type of edge that can win a game for VT and 35 yards a kick is absolutely not going to get the job done. I can kick a ball 35 yards (ok with like a 2 second hangtime) but I am old and terrible and I've only punted one time WHICH WAS OUT IN THE CUL-DE-SAC YESTERDAY TO SEE HOW FAR I COULD PUNT. Unacceptable and if this continues it's going to get a lot more attention in Hokie Nation. I agreed with giving Demler a chance, instead of having Danny Coale kick, but Demler's had his chance and hasn't delivered. Branthover deserves a shot.
So while 26-7 doesn't look super, Arkansas State is VERY good and the Hokies left 17 points on the board due to a dropped 4th and goal pass, a bad Thomas interception and a missed Journell FG. That's two weeks in a row that the score should have been more, and while these have both been wins, you just have to capture those points when given those opportunities in conference play. That said, the offense looked like it was able to adapt for the 2nd week in a row to what the defense was giving it. Making adjustments in game has been the hallmark of Bud Foster coached defense forever and at the same time been painfully lacking for the offense lo these many seasons and I'd be lying if I said it didn't bring a tear to my eye yesterday seeing that it's possible for this offense to be good without an improvisational magician like Taylor taking the snaps. They haven't arrived by any stretch of the imagination but they're on the right course.
Another road environment awaits these youngsters on Saturday, and it's the final chance to work the kinks out before ACC season starts. But if this team can put all facets together for a game, it feels like they're capable of something very special.