Like he does after most games, Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer tried to look at the positives to emerge from the Hokies’ 48-34 loss at North Carolina on Saturday.
Despite three losses in the past four games, Virginia Tech is still in the running to win the ACC’s Coastal Division. And a week after the offense took nearly 25 minutes to pick up a first down against Cincinnati, quarterback Logan Thomas led a touchdown drive on the first possession of the game en route to a career-high day in terms of passing yards (354).
But when a reporter asked if the Hokies are off to their worst start through six games since 1992 because of youth or inexperience, Beamer took a decidedly different tone than he has in the recent past.
“I don’t think it’s time for excuses,” he said. “It’s time for results.”
Indeed, with a 3-3 record and a 5-1 Duke team on the docket next (not to mention Clemson, Miami and Florida State after that), the Hokies are suddenly in uncharted waters. As defensive coordinator Bud Foster noted after the game, not only is the program’s streak of 10-win seasons all but over because the teeth of its conference schedule remains, “we’ve got to play well just to make a bowl game.”
The issues start with a defense that barely resembles the unit that overcame a litany of injuries to finish ranked in the top 10 nationally last year. The Hokies set all kinds of terrible records Saturday, from the most points allowed in an ACC game (45) to the most rushing yards a single player has ever gained against Virginia Tech (Gio Bernard’s career-high 262 rushing yards).
Foster admitted “we’re just not functioning very well” and placed some of the blame on himself. But he also went into detail about the myriad problems that have stung the Hokies in recent weeks.
— On the tackling issues: “We’re not making plays in space. That’s where our defense is designed, and most defenses are designed, to have a free hitter. When you have your free hitter there, you’d like him to make the play. Right now we’re not making that play. We’re missing that and it’s going for big plays after that. . . . It’s what any defense demands, not just ours.”
— Foster laid some of the responsibility on safeties Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner, noting they were both moved from cornerback to safety because of their tackling ability. He added that when he goes back and watches the film, most of North Carolina’s big running plays came when “we’ve got a good fit and a guy is either losing leverage or misses a tackle. I promise you that’s going to be the case.”
“The guys are angry that we’re not performing as well as we should,” cornerback Antone Exum said. “I’ve never thought that we would be considered an average team by any means and that’s not what we’re about. We’ll get it together and we’ll get back to where we’re accustomed to being.”
— Defensively, things really started to go off the rails when Bernard broke free for a 62-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second quarter. The Tar Heels were facing fourth and one on the play, and the Hokies loaded up the line of scrimmage with defenders.
Defensive end James Gayle said after the game North Carolina tricked Virginia Tech by turning to a formation at the last second that the Hokies hadn’t seen all game. When told about that response, Foster called it “a cop-out.”
“Just go execute. Go perform,” he added.
We should note that from up in the press box, it appeared as if the Hokies simply expected a quarterback sneak on the play and got caught off guard when Bernard ran off-tackle. Bernard said as much in his postgame comments when he emphasized “they just came in crashing.”
Regardless, the end result from Saturday’s game was confirmation that Virginia Tech’s defensive woes, and those of the entire team really, run much deeper than anyone originally anticipated.
“We’ve got to go earn our success,” Foster said. “I think what’s happened over the years is we got to be careful that we think it’s just gonna happen. How we’ve made it happen is we’ve earned it, by playing hard. And there’s been teams that are probably more talented than us in the past, but we out-willed them, we out-efforted them, we out-fought them, whatever it may be. We’ve got to get back to those things.”
Added linebacker Bruce Taylor: “I don’t think anybody imagined we’d be 3-3 right now. It’s tough.”
***On the injury front, wide receiver Dyrell Roberts left Saturday’s game in the first quarter with a concussion, Beamer confirmed afterward. Roberts set up Virginia Tech’s opening touchdown of the day with a remarkable 19-yard catch.
The redshirt senior managed to hold onto the ball despite having his helmet knocked off by a hit from North Carolina safety Tre Boston. The Tar Heels were called for a personal foul on the play, and Roberts remained in the game for a few more plays. In fact, the next pass to come his way would have gone for a touchdown but the ball hit him directly in the helmet and fell to the ground.
Roberts didn’t play much after that. In his place, the Hokies turned to redshirt freshman Demetri Knowles, and the Bahamian speedster responded with the best performance of his career. He finished with five catches for 88 yards and also had a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
***Speaking of the passing game, Thomas had success all day through the air. He had touchdown passes of 49 and 66 yards to wide receivers Marcus Davis and Corey Fuller, respectively. Fuller finished with a career-high five catches for 143 yards.
During his postgame news conference, Thomas made it a point to thank his offensive line for providing him plenty of time to throw the ball this week.
“Our offensive line did a great job,” said Thomas, who was sacked just once. “The defensive line for them is extremely strong. They’re extremely talented and fast and it makes it tough on us. But I thought our offensive line did a terrific job of handling them, giving me time to throw and I can’t applaud them any more.”
It wasn’t all rosy in the trenches, though. Virginia Tech’s season-long running woes continued, although part of the fault lies with the deficit the Hokies faced all game. Thomas led Virginia Tech with 20 yards rushing.
The Hokies’ three tailbacks – redshirt freshman Michael Holmes, freshman J.C. Coleman and senior Martin Scales – combined for 32 yards on 16 carries.
“It is what it is,” Beamer said towards the end of his postgame comments. “We’re 3-3 and still figure in on the conference championship. We still have something to play for and that’s what we’ve got to go on right now.”