NEW ORLEANS — Virginia Tech defensive line coach Charley Wiles is never one to mince words when his unit plays poorly. But as he flailed his arms in the air to emphasize a point Friday afternoon before the Hokies’ third Sugar Bowl practice at the Superdome, he made it clear Virginia Tech’s matchup with Michigan will be a referendum of sorts for this defense – whether he likes it or not.
“I’ve discovered that, I guess, it’s based on your last game,” Wiles said. “It seems like in this business it’s only a big game if you lose. Going to Georgia Tech, Carolina, if you beat those teams it doesn’t matter anymore. Beat Virginia 38-0, who cares? It seemed like it wasn’t a big game. It was going in, but it ain’t coming out when you beat their butt. That’s just the way it is. That’s just the business.”
It’s also indicative of the kind of pressure the Hokies’ entire defense is under heading into Tuesday’s game. By all measures, they improved dramatically from a year ago, finishing the season among the top 20 nationally in scoring defense (seventh), rushing defense (16th) and total defense (15th).
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster confirmed as much when he told reporters Friday morning that “we’ve made big strides” even though three opening day starters (linebackers Bruce Taylor and Jeron Gouveia-Winslow and defensive tackle Antoine Hopkins) have all missed significant time with season-ending injuries.
And yet as Wiles said, most people simply remember the three touchdowns Clemson scored in less than five minutes in the ACC title game – easily the Hokies’ worst defensive showing of the season. That it came on such a big stage took some of the shine off of Virginia Tech’s promising campaign and left the defense “embarrassed,” according to Wiles.
“For a moment, it just made it feel like everything was all for nothing, but you can’t feel like that because we’ve got another game,” linebacker Tariq Edwards said recently. “You can’t stay down about that game. You’ve just got to move on. To have this next game, it just gives us a shot to prove ourselves, to prove that we’re worthy against bigger opponents, and I think we’ll be able to do so.”
Wiles noted that Clemson exposed the Hokies on the perimeter and he expects Michigan to try and do the same with quarterback Denard Robinson. But as Foster noted Friday, “if you’re focused on Denard, then [running back Fitzgerald] Toussaint’s going to expose you.”
It also helps, Wiles said, that Michigan has an offensive line that features four fifth-year seniors and a fourth-year junior.
“They’re good, they’re tall, they’re lean. Not fat guys,” Wiles said. “They’re a good-looking group. They have a lot to do with why they’re good and why they’re rushing for [235 yards per game]. . . . We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Still, Robinson seems to present challenges these Hokies have never encountered. Foster and Wiles both talked of how Robinson is a better thrower than the mobile quarterbacks Virginia Tech has faced in the past. Most of his runs come on designed plays, not scrambles – although the Hokies’ hope to stop the run and force Robinson to become one-dimensional.
Defensive backs coach Torrian Gray said there was nobody on Virginia Tech’s scout team equipped to simulate Robinson in practice this past month.
“I always wondered what it would be like to play against Tyrod Taylor,” Gray said. “The four years he was quarterback, I never really played against anybody like Tyrod. I always wanted that, and this guy’s Tyrod and faster.”
But no matter the signal-caller, this game is about redemption for the Hokies’ defense. Wiles said Coach Frank Beamer has brought up the Clemson game frequently. Gray described the unit’s pre-bowl practices as “a little more edgy” coming off the Clemson loss, and that the coaches wanted it that way.
After all, this is the first time since 2005 the Hokies will play a bowl game coming off a loss to end the regular season.
“I do think every last game leaves an impression on you,” Beamer said. “And our last game is not a very good impression on who we are.” . . .
Injury Update: Beamer said he doesn’t expect any players to miss Tuesday’s game because of injury, but there are a few Hokies nursing ailments here in New Orleans.
Senior cornerback Cris Hill was in a blue jersey (limited work) and wearing a heavy brace on his right knee during Friday’s practice. Wide receiver D.J. Coles was also in a blue jersey because of an ankle injury, but Beamer said he’s “planning on playing.” In addition, fullback Joey Phillips is recovering from a hamstring injury and linebacker Nick Dew suffered a sprained ankle during practice Thursday.
Starting whip linebacker Alonzo Tweedy, who missed three games this year with an ankle injury and was limited to only special teams snaps during the ACC championship game, is also expected to play.
“I don’t think he’s totally 100 percent, but I think he’s close enough to be back to the old Tweedy,” Beamer said.