Nobody who watched Virginia Tech’s 24-21 victory over North Carolina Thursday night would call it a masterpiece. The Hokies fumbled the ball four times — including the first play of the game — were outgained by the Tar Heels and allowed two fourth-quarter touchdowns that made the contest closer than it really should have been.
But No. 9 Virginia Tech didn’t collapse in the end, and though there’s plenty to dissect from this one, the biggest topic of discussion afterward revolved around the Hokies’ next opponent — Virginia. Would Virginia Tech like the Cavaliers to beat No. 23 Florida State on Saturday and turn next week’s battle for the Commonwealth Cup into a division championship game? Opinions varied, and most answers featured long pauses as players tried to avoid providing bulletin board material.
But quarterback Logan Thomas wasn’t shy about his feelings.
“I think all of us want to play every game like it means something. We want to play the biggest games possible. I think playing in the big games gets you prepared for bigger games down the road,” Thomas said. “I don’t know about the rest of the guys, but I’d like to see [Virginia] go out there and win and make it mean a lot more next week.”
The last time this in-state rivalry decided the Coastal Division was in 2007, when the Hokies scored a 33-21 victory. Coach Frank Beamer emphasized that no matter what happens Saturday in Tallahassee, the Hokies won’t need any sort of motivation.
“That Virginia game is a big game for us regardless,” Beamer said. “If they beat Florida State, it gets a whole lot bigger.”
Beamer added that the team had no plans to view Saturday night’s game together, but “I imagine a whole lot of us will be watching it.” His starting tailback, however, might not be one of them.
“I’m not putting it on my list to watch the game. I hope they have a great game and we’ll go up to U-Va. regardless of the situation,” running back David Wilson said. “I like playing under pressure, but it really doesn’t matter. . . . It’s the Virginia rivalry. We’ve been holding the Commonwealth trophy for awhile now and we don’t plan on giving it up.”
Safety Antone Exum had a similar thought process, but then a reporter asked if he’d like it if Virginia lost so the Hokies would have the Coastal Division title clinched and a berth in the ACC championship game secured while they prepare for the Cavaliers.
“That would be great but we don’t have a problem with that game being to win the division either,” Exum said. “We’re not really concerned about what they do because we’re gonna approach the game the same way. We’re gonna play with the same intensity if they win or they lose.”
One thing seems certain: a lot of eyeballs will be glued to televisions around the state of Virginia come 7:30 p.m. Saturday. And if the Cavaliers do manage to upset the Seminoles, this reporter (and perhaps others, too) will be more than happy to see this annual state rivalry get some extra juice with a title on the line.
***Now for some analysis of Thursday’s game, starting with the offense. Virginia Tech saw its streak of five straight games with more than 400 yards of offense come to an end as the Hokies gained just 340 yards.
Early on, Virginia Tech’s offensive line struggled mightily and Thomas could never get settled in the pocket on the Hokies’ first two drives of the game. On the first play of the game, the quarterback was sacked and stripped, which led to North Carolina’s first touchdown of the game. During his postgame news conference, Beamer attributed the mistake to a “misalignment.”
The Hokies turned to a lot of bubble screens to their wide receivers as a result, with senior Jarrett Boykin as the main recipient. He finished with a career-high 10 catches for 106 yards. Wilson, meanwhile, was held to a season-low 82 yards rushing (33 of them came on one carry in the second quarter). Following that run, the Hokies were on North Carolina’s 1-yard line and the coaches decided to hand the ball off to Wilson two times.
I wondered if that was in response to some of the recent stories written about Wilson’s candidacy for postseason awards — and specifically his lack of touchdowns compared with other elite running backs — especially because the 6-foot-6, 254-pound Thomas has been so successful in short-yardage situations. Virginia Tech ended up settling for a field goal, but did convert on its only other red zone opportunity when Thomas found wide receiver D.J. Coles on a pretty four-yard fade route in the end zone.
Coles said during postgame interviews that Thomas actually changed his route on that play at the line of scrimmage before the snap, just another example of how the redshirt sophomore has grown up before our eyes the past few months.
Speaking of Thomas, let’s focus real quick on something Wilson said about him after the game: “It was a drastic change to the Clemson game to the Miami game to the rest of the season after that. Now he looks like an all-American quarterback to me. He’s just making plays left and right when we need them.”
The statistics prove Wilson right. After the Clemson game, Thomas had completed 56.8 percent of his passes for 886 yards, scored five total touchdowns (four passing, one running) and thrown five interceptions. In the six games since, Thomas has completed 63.3 percent of his passes for 1,452 yards, scored 20 total touchdowns (12 passing, eight running) and thrown just two interceptions — both of which came at Duke.
***As for Virginia Tech’s defense, it was the second straight week defensive coordinator Bud Foster decided to shuffle his lineup. Redshirt freshman Detrick Bonner started at whip linebacker, while safeties Eddie Whitley and Exum reversed roles — Whitley played free safety and Exum moved over to rover or strong safety.
Foster had hinted at using Bonner as a linebacker this week, especially because Alonzo Tweedy missed a third straight game because of a high-ankle sprain. But the safety decision was made this past weekend, Whitley said after the game, largely because of how well he played against the Tar Heels a year ago when he was a free safety.
“They knew I read things pretty quickly and knew what was going on, but we had so much film sessions to get everyone right and get everyone knowing what’s going on,” said Whitley, who had an end zone interception against North Carolina last season. “It was crazy at that first practice, but we got it right.”
The move worked out well as Whitley and Exum tied for the team lead with 12 tackles Thursday night. But it was a bit of a roller-coaster ride for the defense, which gave up a touchdown in the first three minutes of the opening quarter after Thomas’s early fumble.
The Tar Heels had a chance to go ahead by 14 later in the first quarter, but Exum forced North Carolina running back Ryan Houston to fumble at the 5-yard line and defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins recovered. That changed the entire momentum of the game, as Thomas soon led Virginia Tech on a 95-yard scoring drive.
“We were just trying to hold them to a field goal, but we were fortunate enough to get the turnover,” Exum said.
The Tar Heels made things interesting late after being shut down for much of the second and third quarters, most notably when wide receiver Erik Highsmith broke free down the left sideline for a 64-yard catch that set up Houston for a touchdown run to cut Virginia Tech’s lead to three.
Whitley explained that because North Carolina was in a hurry-up offense, the defensive coaches got the play call in late and the Hokies secondary couldn’t communicate assignments fast enough.
“But that was very disappointing to give up two touchdowns back-to-back,” Whitley said.
***Injury update: Starting center Andrew Miller sprained his right ankle in the first half of Thursday’s game and did not return. He was replaced by utility offensive lineman Michael Via, who has also played guard and tackle during his Virginia Tech career. It is unknown at this point whether Miller’s injury will force him to miss next week’s game against Virginia.
That’s all I’ve got for now. Virginia Tech is now 24-2 in November against ACC opponents since joining the league in 2004. The team’s 16 seniors, meanwhile, have a 22-3 record at home and could go down as the winningest class in school history if they manage two more victories this season. And if things fall right, the most important of those games could come next week in Charlottesville.