From the moment spring practice began, and Virginia Tech started the arduous task of replacing ACC player of the year David Wilson, the Hokies’ running game has been a point of concern. What few realized then, or even in the days leading into the season, was that Virginia Tech’s struggles on the ground would be so pronounced.
The Hokies currently rank in the bottom half of the ACC in rushing offense, averaging less than four yards per carry for the first time since 2008 – before the trio of Darren Evans, Ryan Williams and Wilson came to Blacksburg. Even worse, just like the rest of the team, the Hokies’ rushing attack is on the verge of breaking some new ground. And it’s not flattering.
Back in 2007 – the last time Virginia Tech’s rushing offense finished ranked worse than third in the ACC in rushing offense – it took six games for a Hokies player to finish with more than 100 rushing yards in a game. Six games into this season, Tony Gregory’s 68-yard performance against Bowling Green last month remains the high-water mark.
The only time under Coach Frank Beamer that the Hokies have gone seven games without a 100-yard rusher was 1989. So if nobody goes over 100 yards Saturday against Duke, some new history would be set – at least for the Beamer era.
But statistics aren’t the only indication this isn’t the typical power rushing attack Virginia Tech has fielded under Beamer. Just listen to the coaches.
“To say JC [Coleman] and Tony Gregory can line up and run the ball inside like Ryan Williams and Darren Evans did consistently, probably not,” running backs coach Shane Beamer said Monday night. “To be totally honest, I don’t know from an offensive line standpoint and from a running back standpoint, we’re necessarily built right now.”
That’s not to say Virginia Tech hasn’t been successful running the ball at times with its committee of four tailbacks. The coaching staff felt starter Michael Holmes got in a rhythm running downhill between the tackles during the second half against Cincinnati, and senior Martin Scales had similar success against North Carolina this past weekend.
The Hokies have also had some positive gains running outside with option plays and jet sweeps, particularly when they racked up 187 rushing yards against Austin Peay and 246 rushing yards against Bowling Green.
“That’s the best way to play football. You smack somebody in the mouth, eventually they’re going to lie down or both y’all will be bloody,” Scales said. “I believe that’s why [the coaches] recruit the people they recruit. If they weren’t capable of doing that, I don’t think they’d be here.”
For the most part, though, the run game has been hit-or-miss without any semblance of consistency. Virginia Tech mustered just 40 yards rushing against the Tar Heels, its lowest total since a 2007 loss to East Carolina. Shane Beamer called the figure “shocking,” and the Hokies are now averaging less than 89 rushing yards per game against BCS foes.
“I’d like to say there’s a singular panacea for everything right now, but it’s a collective group effort. It’s little things,” offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring said. “The toughest thing about running the football, you can’t afford to have many mishaps in there.
“If a defensive end makes a nice play on your guard, you’ve got a problem. If a tight end doesn’t do his job, defensive end, he’s on scholarship. He’s gonna make a play. How many times are you gonna have your tailback be Houdini and pull the rabbit out of his hat, make a couple guys miss? That’s hard at the line of scrimmage, so it’s not just been one area. It’s been a growing experience for all of us and it’s been all of us.”
“We just need to do a better job of getting hats on hats and moving the ball.”
As Stinespring alluded to, under the surface of these woes is an offensive line that has struggled with the physicality necessary to open up running lanes inside. Though Virginia Tech had an “encouraging” afternoon passing the ball and protecting quarterback Logan Thomas against North Carolina, play-caller Mike O’Cain said, the offensive line never could keep the Tar Heels’ defensive line out of the backfield.
As Shane Beamer put it: “Looking back at Saturday, it’s hard to fault the tailbacks. You can’t go back and say, ‘You should’ve done this on that play.’ I think they made the right cuts and the right reads on all of them.
The situation could get worse, too. Offensive line coach Curt Newsome did not sound optimistic about left guard David Wang, who re-aggravated an ankle injury this past Saturday. Backup center/guard Caleb Farris also missed practice Monday with an ankle injury.
But even though Virginia Tech’s offensive staff has altered its plans for the running game, utilizing the edges more often than ever, Newsome believes there is a place for between the tackles yardage if his unit cooperates. On Monday, he pointed to the zone-read play the Hokies like to run with Thomas and the tailbacks as a running play “where we have to have success.”
“That’s a downhill play and we’ve got to approach that as a downhill play, as far as being very physical,” he added. “There hasn’t been enough consistency. You’ve got to run the football to help your protection. It opens up everything. I think these last six games, we’ve got to improve in that area.”