Coach Frank Beamer has never started a season 0-2 in conference play during his coaching career. That is the most meaningless stat I think I’ve ever read. The number of circumstances that go into one’s own team, the schedule of who you play the first two conference games of any season, injuries (and the list goes on), means that it’s impossible to glean anything useful from that stat and apply it to the game on Saturday against Miami.
What matters against Miami and whether the Hokies will win or not can be determined by considering three areas:
1) Special teams play
In this phase of the game the Hokies have been dominant in games against the Canes going as far back as I can remember. Whether it’s limiting/eliminating big plays in Miami’s return game, outkicking them on field goals, blocking Miami punts, the Hokies have always had a big edge in this department against Miami.
Not this year. This year, placekicker Cody Journell is still learning to get consistent, while Miami’s kicker, Jake Wieclaw is 4-4 on his attempts. The Hokies best returner, Dyrell Roberts, is out for the season with a broken arm while Miami averages 22.6 yds/return. And since you’re reading this, it’s very likely you are a Superfan, and therefore you already feel all the pain and suffering about the punting game that I do. Scott Demler has the worst average of any punter with more than 20 punts in the past 5 years at any school at the Division I-A level. Coach Beamer has lost his mind on this one. Football is about performance. I don’t care who you have sitting on the sidelines, they cannot do any worse than Scott Demler and therefore they deserve a chance. Ethan Keyserling, Michael Branthover, Danny Coale, someone else needs to be punting. I think this game will be close and I honestly believe that poor punting could literally be the difference in the game.
2) Which Miami team shows up?
This has been the question every year since Randy Shannon took over as coach of the Canes. With new coach Al Golden there, I am rather certain that this characteristic of Miami teams will go away and in a year or two he is going to have an extremely tough and talented team taking the field that will play much more consistently. But old habits die hard and with this many seniors on the Canes who have ridden so many ups and downs during their career not the mention the Nevin Shaprio disaster, their Jekyll and Hyde nature continues this season. They have looked alternatingly dominant (2nd-3rd quarter vs. Ohio State) and clueless (first quarter against Bethune Cookman). The talent for Miami, as always, is there, but despite being extremely fast on defense, they don’t always play their responsibility. And despite being massive up front on offense, they don’t always execute the cleanest running plays. And of course, there’s Jacory Harris who can look like a Heisman trophy candidate or an interception machine depending on the day. We’ll see which Miami team shows up on Saturday but because their play on the imaginary “Focused Team” spectrum can range from “As tight as Rush on the album Exit Stage Left” to “As messy as Joey Chestnutt at an all-you-can-eat-sloppy-joe-buffet”, it is impossible to make a confident prediction in the outcome of this game.
3) Will the Hokies grow-up on offense?
I find myself defending Logan Thomas early in his career the same way I defended Tyrod Taylor early in his but for different reasons. Tyrod Taylor was an incredible football player who, during the 2007 and 2008 seasons was mired in the most poorly-run offense I have ever seen. The growth he experienced during that time which allowed him to become such a star in 2009 and 2010 was due solely to his ability to scramble, improvise and throw extremely accurately. The offensive playcalling and schemes didn’t improve later in Taylor’s career, but rather he learned to flourish from experiencing constant chaos on the football field.
Logan Thomas is a special player, in whom I also see NFL-caliber talent. He is in a much better designed scheme and one that is called more appropriately on gameday than Taylor could have dreamed of. Thomas’s problem is lack of reps. Where Taylor was a QB his whole career, Thomas has literally been asked to play high level QB only since he got to Tech. He was always a receiver or TE, and even when playing QB at Brookville High, he was mainly a weapon pulling the ball down and running with it. But Thomas is a quick study and he is learning the nuances of the game as well as the different types of throws. And he will continue to get better and more accurate the more reps he gets. So while I like Mark Leal and feel very comfortable with him as backup QB, Logan Thomas is a special talent and these calls by fans for benching him or saying that he’s not good are beyond ridiculous, preposterous and I say they mostly come from a place of pain that the fans feel after losing so badly on national TV to Clemson.
But I do agree with Coach Beamer (at least in this area). Football is about a few key plays. It really and truly is. And the outcome of those plays makes all the difference in the final score of a game. Think back to Miami 2003. The Hokies won that game 31-7, but imagine if the Miami TE had caught that easy touchdown on the fake field goal at the end of the first quarter and gone up 7-0. Who knows how the rest of that would have unfolded because the Hokies couldn’t move the ball at all against Miami in the first quarter of that game. But the Canes became unraveled. The same thing happened to the Hokies early in the game against Clemson last week and they never were able to refocus on offense and execute their entire way down the field. And it’s going to come down to that on Saturday as well – offensive execution.
So yes, Logan Thomas was partly responsible for that interception to Jarrett Boykin, but he didn’t fumble the ball on the next possession and he didn’t false start at the Clemson 2 yard line. The entire offense – including Thomas - has to grow up and execute each play at a high level. But at least the offense makes sense to me now. I finally have the feeling that players know what they are supposed to do on a given play, and while I saw some missed blocks by both linemen and receivers (I’m looking hard at you right now DJ Coles), I only really felt like there were two or three playcalls I didn’t agree with. Can we stop for a second and appreciate how enormous a difference that is from offenses gone by? I know that the results still sucked but at least I have hope. If the Hokies can actually execute these plays, I think O’Cain can avoid being an obstacle to victory (something Stinespring was terrible at). I also believe that losing like they did to Clemson made it very real for these Hokies in terms of what happens if the players don’t focus like they know they are supposed to. You can hear yelling and screaming from the coaches, but feeling the pain of that loss is the best teacher of all.
I know that injuries might jump out to some of you Superfans as a key area, but frankly, both teams have lost key players so I view this as a wash. Hokie WR Jarrett Boykin and WR Marcus Davis are battling injuries but will play. Yes superstud DT Antoine Hopkins is out, but the Canes are also minus their starting tackle Marcus Forston (Coach Wiles would call that guy their “bellcow”) and their starting middle linebacker Ramon Buchanan. So injuries don’t look like they’ll swing the game one way or the other.
To tie everything into what I opened this post talking about, the far more important stat than how you open conference play is what your record is in conference play at the end of a season, and in that department, Coach Beamer has been extremely successful. The team knows how big of a game this is. I mean it’s Miami, it’s in conference, and it will speak volumes about the directions that each team is headed. The Hokie defense this year is very stout and if the Hokies grow up on offense and catch some sporadic play by the Canes, they could turn this into a romp. Conversely, if the Canes play up to their talent level and the Hokies don’t improve on their execution on offense, it could be another ugly loss. We’ll all find out what is what Saturday afternoon. Until then,