There were signs that Virginia Tech’s offense wasn’t ready for prime time through four weeks of the season, whether it was 91 yards passing at East Carolina in Week 2 or not capitalizing on enough scoring opportunities in relatively easy wins over Arkansas State and Marshall.
But to be held without a touchdown in a home game for the first time since 1995, against a Clemson defense that came into Saturday’s game giving up an ACC-worst 6.3 yards per play, was not what anyone expected in the Hokies’ ACC opener.
But even though new play caller Mike O’Cain bristled at a question suggesting his team struggled throwing the ball at times this year, he admitted it might be time to re-evaluate things after quarterback Logan Thomas was held to just 125 yards passing against the Tigers.
“We just have a setback here or there now and then and we’re not able to overcome that,” O’Cain said. “We need to go back and look at why. It may be me; it may be the play calling. I’ll go back and analyze what we did and see if we’re making sure we’re putting the guys in a good position, opportunity to have success, and if we are, why are we not having success.”
“I think our offense is very good. When we’re hitting on all cylinders it’s pretty daggone good,” he added. “I didn’t think we’d come out here and score three points, and I think we played better than three points.”
Though he emphasized it was hard for him to analyze what went wrong in the immediate aftermath of this loss, O’Cain said he never got in a good rhythm play calling. In regards to the passing game he said the Hokies “probably need to throw the ball down the field more than we did,” but that “the times we threw the ball downfield we weren’t getting past them. We weren’t getting behind them.”
Virginia Tech was able to run the ball effectively against Clemson as running back David Wilson gained 123 yards on 20 carries. But without an effective passing attack, the Hokies are just inviting defensive lines to pin their ears back and attack quarterback Logan Thomas, something the Tigers did to great success in the fourth quarter.
Thomas had no answers, responding “I couldn’t tell you,” to a question about how to improve the passing game.
Coach Frank Beamer and O’Cain were more concerned with the team’s inability to convert in the red zone. After an interception by cornerback Jayron Hosley midway through the second quarter, Virginia Tech had first-and-goal from the 5-yard line and couldn’t punch it in for a touchdown after left guard Greg Nosal was called for a false start on third-and-goal from the 2.
Thomas said that penalty was due in part to the loudness of Virginia Tech’s own band, which was set up on the north side of Lane Stadium, and the Hokies eventually settled for a 24-yard field goal by place kicker Cody Journell. Virginia Tech failed to score in the red zone during the fourth quarter, although if they game had been closer the Hokies likely would have settled for a field goal.
Virginia Tech has now had 26 opportunities inside an opponent’s 20-yard line and come away with 18 touchdowns and five field goals. Combined with two more turnovers Saturday — the Hokies have eight giveaways through five games compared to 13 all of last season — and it made for one frustrating evening.
“We just kind of keep shooting ourselves in the foot in the red zone. We’re beating ourselves right now,” wide receiver Danny Coale said. “The turnovers, the missed opportunities, we just can’t have that.”
***The Hokies defense, on the other hand, showed just how far they’ve come since last year, holding Clemson to a season-low 323 yards of total offense. It was just the second time offensive coordinator Chad Morris has been held below 28 points during his 18-game career in the collegiate ranks.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd, meanwhile, had his worst game of the season statistically. He went just 13 of 32 for 204 yards and an interception. But he avoided several near-sacks by Virginia Tech’s aggressive defensive line and came up with some big third-down conversions, including that 23-yard reception to wide receiver Sammy Watkins that set up Clemson’s first touchdown of the game in the second quarter.
The Tigers entered Saturday’s game with a third-down conversion rate of 53 percent and went 6 for 12 on third down against the Hokies.
“He probably didn’t have his greatest game, but he made plays when they needed him to,” said linebacker Bruce Taylor, one of three Virginia Tech defenders who finished with double-digit tackles. “We just got to do a better job of getting off the field on third and longs. … Hopefully we’ll see them in the ACC championship game.”
***The one glaring mistake by the Hokies defense came on Clemson tight end Dwayne Allen’s 32-yard touchdown reception. He beat safety Eddie Whitley, who had a team-high 12 tackles, on the play and I asked him to explain exactly what happened.
“I knew he was doing a wheel [route] and I was playing high on him,” Whitley said. “But unfortunately he got underneath me and by the time I turned my back it was right there in his lap.”
That’s all I’ve got tonight. Virginia Tech’s national championship aspirations might be finished, but as Beamer mentioned during his postgame news conference, the Hokies could get Clemson again if they make a run to the ACC championship game.
To do that, though, Virginia Tech will have to answer a lot of questions — especially offensively — in a short amount of time.