After a week of build-up, Saturday’s Commonwealth Cup game between Virginia Tech and Virginia ended in predictable fashion. The Hokies put together their most complete effort of the year and steamrolled past the Cavaliers, 38-0, which tied for second-biggest margin of victory for Virginia Tech since this series began in 1896.
“To come in here and be able to win in the fashion we did, I think everyone associated with Virginia Tech football is satisfied,” said Coach Frank Beamer, the closest he came to rubbing it in during his postgame news conference.
Now attention turns to No. 18 Clemson, which the Hokies will face next Saturday in Charlotte in the ACC championship game with a chance to earn a berth to the Orange Bowl for the fourth time in five years. The Tigers, as I’m sure you’re well aware, dealt Virginia Tech its only loss of the season back on Oct. 1 in Blacksburg.
This, though, is a much different Hokies team than back then, according to Virginia Tech’s coaches and players after their latest victory.
“We’re a lot better,” said wide receiver Marcus Davis. “I don’t think we were really prepared to go into that battle at that time.”
Davis was specifically referencing the Hokies’ offense, which was held to a season-low 258 yards and three points against the Tigers’ defense. Quarterback Logan Thomas, who was nursing a sore left shoulder that forced the coaching staff to shy away from designed runs, finished with just 125 passing yards.
But he says that game taught him some valuable lessons, and as we’ve gone over already in this space, the statistics bear this out.
“Leaps and bounds is how I would describe it,” Thomas said when asked to gauge his progress since that game. “I kind of panicked throughout that game and wasn’t completely focused. But after that game I learned a lot about myself and I think I’ve gotten better throughout the weeks. My main thing is taking care of the football and I think if we take care of the football we’ll be just fine.”
Said Beamer: “I would hope we’re better offensively now. I feel like we can play a better offensive game this time around.”
***As for today’s game, let’s focus on a couple unheralded players to this point, as well as a wide receiver who took over the punting duties this afternoon. We’ll begin on defense with linebacker Jack Tyler’s huge fourth-down stop in the first quarter.
Tyler, a former walk-on from Oakton High playing in place of injured starter Bruce Taylor, said the Hokies’ defensive coaches had alerted the unit a all week that Virginia likes to run the same isolation play near the goal line and almost always brings in a new fullback for said play.
So when Virginia Coach Mike London decided to go for it on fourth and two at Virginia Tech’s 6-yard line (instead of kicking a gimme field goal at home), Tyler noticed a new fullback coming into the game and knew exactly what to do, ignoring a lot of movement by the Cavaliers’ three tight ends before the snap
“Everything was right and I kind of figured, ‘They’re probably gonna run right,’ ” Tyler said. “My job there is just to basically knock out the fullback and the running back kind of tripped over the pile and it was a big momentum swing.”
Here’s what London had to say about the play during his postgame news conference: “It was the opportunity to send a message to our guys up front that if you’re going to win championships, if you’re going to win games, you’ve got to be able to knock people off the ball and gain a yard, particularly when you’re favored in run-play. They did a good job of defending it, and we didn’t get it. It set the tone for them to go the other way.”
The next time Virginia got into the red zone, just before halftime, Tyler ended up recovering a fumble by Cavaliers quarterback Michael Rocco following a sack on a called blitz by cornerback Kyle Fuller. In the second half, two Virginia Tech players — defensive end J.R. Collins and cornerback Detrick Bonner — snagged their first career interceptions.
Defensive end James Gayle, meanwhile, had his best game since coming back from that ankle injury that forced him to miss a couple games last month. Gayle had two sacks Saturday.
“It goes back to Coach Foster,” said Tyler, who finished with six tackles. “He can throw anybody into my position and they can do well. You just do what he tells you and he is right 100 percent of the time.”
*** On offense, Thomas (13 of 21 for 187 yards and three total touchdowns) and running back David Wilson (153 yards rushing, two touchdowns) will draw the headlines but it was wide receiver Marcus Davis who jump-started the Hokies. He caught a 36-yard pass on the very first play of the game and later caught a 52-yard bomb early in the second quarter to set up Virginia Tech’s second touchdown.
For the day, Davis finished with a team-high 118 receiving yards, the most he’s had since Virginia Tech’s season-opening win over Appalachian State. Thomas said after the game that the plan all along was for the Hokies to test Virginia’s cornerbacks on the deep ball, and Davis was the biggest recipient.
He’s Virginia Tech’s best deep threat with his combination of size, speed and athletic ability, but too often this season Davis has been erratic, whether it be running routes or blocking on the outside. Saturday, though, seemed to be a breakthrough performance for him.
“I just tell Logan to have faith in me. I think I’m starting to gain his trust and I’m glad we’re starting to click,” Davis said.
***On special teams, wide receiver Danny Coale took over the punting duties for freshman Michael Branthover, a move Beamer said he made because of Coale’s experience in big games. But the fifth-year senior, who hadn’t punted since the Hokies win over Marshall in September, said he didn’t find out from Beamer that he would be kicking until pregame warmups.
His first punt of the day was from Virginia Tech’s end zone, but Coale boomed it 52 yards. He averaged 47.5 yards on four punts. Not bad for a guy who also started at wide receiver and returned punts with cornerback Jayron Hosley on Saturday.
“Don’t shank it,” Coale said of what went through his head as he stood in the end zone for his first punt. “My thought was just get it off, don’t get it blocked, don’t hit it off the side of your foot and just hit it straight. It doesn’t have to look pretty; just get it out.”
That’s all I’ve got from Charlottesville, but we’ll have plenty more this week as the Hokies get ready for their rematch with Clemson in Charlotte next Saturday.