Quarterback Logan Thomas may be improving every week as the starting signal-caller for No. 11 Virginia Tech and the Hokies are averaging more yards (430.3) and points (34.8) per game this season than the record-setting unit Tyrod Taylor led in 2010. But all is not well with Virginia Tech’s offense, especially now that the competition is about to ramp up with No. 13 Clemson coming to town Saturday night.
The Hokies rank 88th in the country in terms of red zone efficiency, with 14 touchdowns and four field goals in 24 trips inside an opponent’s 20-yard line this season. But those numbers don’t tell the full story of just how many points Virginia Tech has left on the field in recent weeks.
Over the past three games – wins over East Carolina, Arkansas State and Marshall – the Hokies have crossed midfield 12 times only to come away with zero points. That figure does not include drives that ended because time expired on the half.
“That’s been hard to fathom at times, and it’s been frustrating beyond belief,” offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring said Tuesday.
Stinespring added that most, if not all, of those missed opportunities are the result of “self-inflicted mistakes,” and upon further review he’s mostly correct.
Of those 12 drives that ended in the opposition’s territory without any points, three were the result of Thomas interceptions, two came courtesy of fumbles by running back David Wilson, and another three were caused by missed field goals from place kicker Cody Journell.
Maybe more troubling, though, is Virginia Tech’s struggles in short-yardage situations of late. Though the Hokies rank 33rd in country with an overall third-down conversion rate just better than 47 percent, they went 9 for 17 when facing a third- or fourth-and short situation (three yards or less) against Arkansas State and Marshall.
That’s not exactly something to write home about for an offense with a veteran offensive line and a powerful running game.
“Self-inflicted mistakes,” said Wilson, reiterating the phrase he’s heard in the meeting room this week. “False starts, trying to make a bigger play than what it is [instead of] just getting two yards. . . . There was a time I could’ve got a one-yard push for the next yard and I tried to bounce it outside around my blocker.”
It’s consistency, not prolific plays or drives, that has evaded Virginia Tech’s offense through four games. The Hokies have had 22 plays go for 20 or more yards and 11 that have resulted in at least a 30-yard gain. They also rank second in the country behind option-oriented Army in terms of time of possession.
Stinespring said Tuesday he expects Clemson’s defense to be “aggressive,” especially on the outside where the Tigers play a lot of man-to-man press coverage. This, combined with some poor tackling, is also why Clemson’s defense has given up more plays of 30-plus yards than any other team in the country through four games.
“They’re telling you that on take-off routes down the field that they’re gonna be in your pocket enough that you have to throw a terrific ball and you have to make a good play on the ball,” Stinespring said. “Deep balls are hard enough in and of itself, and now you’re in press. But if it is a great throw and you do get over top, you got a chance for a big play, too. Florida State hit a couple.”
Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney has said multiple times this week regarding Virginia Tech offense, “If they run the ball on us, it’s probably gonna be a long night.” But Stinespring said he’s wary of trying to force the issue downfield just because the statistics indicate that’s where the Tigers are susceptible.
“If they can get you into a lot of foul balls and you’re facing second and 10 or third and eights because of it, you’re playing into their game, too,” he said. “It’s going to be important to run the ball to take pressure off the quarterback and throw the ball when you’d like to, not because you have to.”
More important to Stinespring than any sort of game-planning, though, is eliminating the sort of miscues that have held up Virginia Tech from converting yards into points at times this season.
“I think we’ve shown this year we have great capabilities. We’ve shown that we can score quick. We’ve shown that we have the ability to sustain drives and go the distance on you, he said. “The key for us in this game Saturday is to do it for four quarters throughout a game.”