The Miami game last week was the one of the top 5 Hokie football games I've ever seen. But the Hokies 38-17 victory over Wake Forest on Saturday in Winston Salem was Tech's best performance of the season. The way this entire team played from the 2nd quarter until the end of the game was phenomenal. If they can play at that level the remainder of the season, then competing for an ACC Championship is definitely possible. Unfortunately, they also showed in the first quarter that they are capable of being as flat as a pancake and as unfocused as my 3 yr old. If they play like that, they are also capable of losing the rest of the games on their schedule. But before I go through some of the details of the game, I'd like to highlight a coming of age moment that may not have been plainly obvious at the time how big it was, both in terms of the outcome of the game and maybe even the course of the season.
If you've ever played a sport you understand why momentum is such an enormous factor in determining who wins and loses. It has to do with psychology. Even in games where one team has more talent or ability or is better coached, over the course of one game, momentum can determine the outcome. The reason is that a sequence of three or four positive events in a row can lead one side to have more confidence in themselves while at the same time causing the other team to lose some of their confidence. The combined effect of these two changes in confidence or mental projection often builds on itself until the next thing you know, one team comes roaring back from behind, or an underdog finds a way to beat a favored opponent. One of the harder things to do is face down a run of these positive events and create a few of your own to recapture momentum.
For YEARS, the Hokie defense and special teams have been the units that have had to make the plays to recapture the momentum whenever the Hokies have had to have it. A team will make a run on Tech, and it will be a huge sack, or a big punt return, or a blocked kick or a forced turnover and suddenly the momentum is back on the Hokies' side. The offense was just there to capitalize on these huge plays and limit the mistakes of their own. I'n not saying the offense never made these plays, but it was usually the defense or special teams.
Last week, of course, the offense responded time and time again to beat Miami, which was a sight to see. And then came this week's gut-check. After a SCREW-UP of epic proportions (on special teams of all units), gave Wake another shot at 4th down and then a poor play on defense, the Deacs scored a TD and climbed back to within 28-17. The ensuing kickoff was mishandled by David Wilson and he only made it out to the 10 yd-line and then on top of that RB Daniel Dyer committed a ridiculous block in the back pushing the Hokies back to the 4 yd line. After a 3 yd run by Josh Oglesby, it came to 2nd and 7 and you could feel the momentum shifting to Wake Forest as their crowd got back into it. If the Hokies went three and out here, even with a good punt, Wake would have the ball near midfield at the beginning of the 4th quarter trailing by only two scores and all the momentum back on their side.
Logan Thomas proceeded to stare down Big Mo' as he calmly dropped back and delivered a perfectly thrown ball to WR Jarrett Boykin for 26 yards to the Tech 33 yd-line. Three plays later he rushed for 10 hard earned yards on 3rd and 10. And three plays later he threw a strike to DJ Coles that, as Coach Beamer correctly described it, Coles had no choice but to catch almost out of "self-defense" as the ball would probably have embedded itself in his chest it was thrown so hard. On that throw in particular, you can see the defensive back get extremely frustrated after the play, as he had great position on Coles, but he couldn't get his hand on the ball it was thrown so hard. And then of course the way to cap all of that off was another perfectly thrown deep ball to Marcus Davis on 3rd and 9 from the Wake 30 yard line for the touchdown, capping the most magnificent 96 yard drive you'll see.
Just like the winning drive against the Canes last week, the plays made on that 96 yard drive in the face of Wake's momentum are like deposits in the "confidence bank" for this offense. They now know that they are capable of playing at that level and given tough situations later on this season - and there were certainly be some - they can make a withdrawal when needed and respond.
Of course, back to the cold water for a second, there will be a LOT of tough situations if they come out in the first quarter like they did against Wake and act like they don't know what this oblong leather thing is and hey who's that guy wearing a different color jersey? I mean, talk about ineptitude! While the defense was busy missing tackles on backup RB Brandon Pendergrass (I heard that Jim Grobe himself had to pull Harris aside in the pregame locker room and tell him he wasn't playing, so I was wrong about that one), the offense couldn't get a first down. As in 8 yards and zero first downs for an entire quarter!! As great as they came together later in the game, that sort of sleepwalking on offense just isn't going to get it done.
In addition to missing tackles, the defense was lined up wrong, Antone Exum was all over the place pre-snap and to top it all off, Jayron Hosley tweaked his already sore hamstring on Wake's deep touchdown pass. If I'm Coach Beamer, Hosley sits against Boston College so that he can get back to full. Just look at what that week off against Marshall did for Jarrett Boykin when he tweaked his hamstring.
Now, once the defense settled down, they really played unbelievably well. You can always count on Bud Foster to throw some MadJay Fever at those guys on the sidelines and to make some nice in-game adjustments. I think bringing the extra man pressure from different places really threw Tanner Price for a loop. He had time initially but the heat was coming from the edge sometimes and up the middle sometimes and Price looked very uncomfortable the final three quarters of the game. At one point the defense forced Wake into four straight 3-and-outs and in fact held the Deacons to just 1-13 on third down conversions for the game, moving them up to 13th in the nation on 3rd down defense. DE Tyrel Wilson is still ineffective in the run game due to this size, but he has a ton of heart and a lot of quickness which lets him put pressure on the QB in passing situations. It is very telling to me that Wilson is the backup for Gayle here instead of Zack McCray who is so big and fast. But by all accounts, McCray just doesn't have the wick turned up high enough to get much playing time for Coach Wiles. If he had Wilson's intensity, McCray would be a budding star right now on defense. Alonzo Tweedy who had me so very nervous heading into the matchup still played like a deer in headlights at times, BUT he was only on the field for 20 snaps or so due to the heavy amount of nickel the Hokies played. I think that was less about Tweedy than it was about the offensive personnel Wake was using. And there was one running play where Tweedy showed he can also run like a Deere (product placement, much?), bursting through the line and bringing Pendergrass down for a big loss. Tweedy needs more reps and he'll likely get all the reps he can handle next weekend against run-heavy BC, which will be good for him.
So the defense settled in and the offense began clicking and that's good. But let's give a quick shout-out to a huge difference maker in P Michael Branthover, who earned the special teams gameball from the team on Saturday. He was the guy who pinned Wake deep at the end of the first half where they subsequently threw that costly interception. He was the guy who kicked a 58 yarder that was almost downed inside the 5 yard line. THIS is what Branthover brings to the game. His punting helped the Hokies win the field possession battle on Saturday, averaging 42 yds/kick and downing 3 punts inside the 20 yd line. That extra 9 yards/kick over what the Hokies had been averaging in the PB era (Pre-Branthover) is almost an entire additional first down the opponent has to get. Just huge. Shop S-mart indeed.
From an intangible standpoint, I like how the team has come together. They have confidence and when they aren't making mental mistakes, they obviously have the ability to move the ball and shut down the opponent. I think the most interesting development, shown further in the game against Wake is the execution in the passing game. One thing I did get right in the preview was that Drager was a dagger against the Wake blitz. But the credit here goes to Thomas to know to look there and then get him the ball. I always felt Tyrod Taylor was like a magician when he ran the offense. Lots of smoke and mirrors and leave it to Taylor to pull a rabbit - and just about every other damn critter you can imagine - out of a hat, which he was able to do more often than not. But with Thomas, you can watch him progress through his reads, guys are getting open and he is putting the ball on the money, particularly on third down. The key here is that the routes make sense to him, he's checking to the right plays (that first big throw to Boykin in the 2nd quarter was a check when Thomas recognized the coverage and sent Boykin long) and as I said in the preview the players are being used in a way that takes advantage of their strengths. Sure Thomas has pulled it down a few times and what a weapon he is when he gets a head of steam running with the football. But as he learns about throwing the ball away when nothing's there to avoid a few of those terrible sacks he's taken (the one against Wake was really bad because he had so much time), he is going to keep getting better and more dangerous. And that's a great thing for Superfans everywhere.