MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Here are five observations from Virginia Tech’s 42-24 upset of No. 14 Miami on Saturday night, a victory that puts the Hokies right back in the thick of the ACC Coastal Division race.
1. It’s time to lay off Logan Thomas. He’s the best quarterback on the roster, and a rallying force for this team.
After a week in which his play was scrutinized like never before, Hokies quarterback Logan Thomas fired back at his detractors the best way he could — with one of the best games of his career. He finished 25 of 31 for 366 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers, taking advantage of a Miami secondary that played a soft zone and left underneath routes open most of the night.
Although it might not have been as spectacular as Thomas’s performance against the Hurricanes two years ago, when he completed 23 of 25 passes for 310 yards and scored five total touchdowns in a dramatic 38-35 Hokies victory — he called Saturday’s win the “most important” of the two.
The play that stood out this time was the third-and-12 play that eventually turned into wide receiver Willie Byrn’s fortuitous catch, run and fumble. The ball somehow landed in the hands of wideout Demitri Knowles for a touchdown.
After Thomas’s helmet fell off for the first time in his career and he headed to the sideline prepared to sit out one play, per NCAA rules, Coach Frank Beamer’s pre-snap decision spoke volumes about his faith in Thomas. Beamer called a timeout to ensure Thomas could be in the game for what, in retrospect, became the crucial play of the night.
“I don’t think it’s because they don’t have faith” in backup quarterback Mark Leal, Thomas said. “I think it’s because it was a pivotal point in the game, and they want their starter in the game that’s been playing well the entire game. I appreciate it, obviously, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The heat Thomas faced this week from outside the program also seems to have become a rallying cry for the entire team. Many have gone on Twitter to say as much.
Said Byrn: “He just confirmed that he’s just the most resilient guy I’ve probably ever met. He hears criticism from fans, the media, everyone. A good amount of it really isn’t his fault and it’s tough for you guys to see that. But he came out tonight, and even in the rain – it’s tough to throw, tough to get a grip on those balls – and he just managed the game perfectly and made plays all night.”
Saturday should have offered definitive proof that Thomas gives this team its best shot to win another Coastal division title.
“Keep saying whatever you want, but I’m going to keep going out and battling with these guys who have never lost faith in me,” Thomas said.
2. It’s no surprise Thomas’s big day coincided with a rejuvenated rushing attack.
Ferrell Edmunds didn’t let his son, Hokies tailback Trey Edmunds, forget where he was playing this week. Ferrell, of course, was an all-pro tight end for the Miami Dolphins, and played five seasons at Sun Life Stadium. He was hoping for something of an encore Saturday.
“He put it in my head that, ‘Hey, you’re going down where I made a name for myself, so I’m expecting a big game out of your team this week,” Trey Edmunds said with a smile. “He was like, ‘You guys got to win.’”
Edmunds answered the challenge. The redshirt freshman finished with 74 rushing yards and became the first Virginia Tech player to score four touchdowns in a game since Ryan Williams did it against Virginia in 2009.
Virginia Tech’s maligned run game churned out 183 yards on the ground, their most in an ACC game this season. “We came out with the mentality to dominate and we did so,” Thomas said. It was appropriate that the Hokies ended the night by running the ball 14 times on a 77-yard fourth-quarter drive that took more than nine minutes off the clock and iced the game away.
“There’s not even a way to explain it,” Thomas said. “The defense has to honor the run, and if they run and we’re able to drop back and throw it, it makes my life so much easier to be able to drop it down and get runs after the catch.”
After relying heavily on the read option in recent weeks, the Hokies appeared to diversify their play-calling, particularly in the red zone. On one of Edmunds’s touchdown runs, Virginia Tech even used 311-pound defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins as a fullback.
Beamer admitted Saturday’s game was how he hoped the offense would play when he hired offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler this past offseason. Thomas said the Hokies’ goal is to throw for 300 yards and rush for 150 yards in every game, and they accomplished that for the first time this season at Miami.
“I thought we did a good job of keeping it mixed up,” Beamer said. “I thought we kept motioning. I thought we kept changing formations and I think we got them on their heels a little bit. And then I thought we ran the ball really hard. I thought our running backs really stuck it in there. But they had a little hole. And that means offensive linemen got a little something and we’re not getting stuffed. . . .
“We’ve called some great games in the past but they didn’t work. But our stuff was working pretty good today.”
As for Edmunds, who has six touchdowns over the past two games, he wasn’t able to speak with his father before leaving South Florida on Saturday night. The two simply made eye contact as Edmunds came off the field. Ferrell gave him an approving nod, Trey said, after a job well done.
With Ferrell’s alma mater, Maryland, on deck for Virginia Tech, Trey expects to hear more from his father this week. He can only hope it has the same effect as Saturday.
“It’s crazy,” Trey said. “He hasn’t said nothing yet, but I know it’s coming.”
3. The Hokies may have been lucky, but they also showed the killer instinct that had been missing all season.
After the game, Miami Coach Al Golden bemoaned how “you can’t spot [Virginia Tech] 21 points” like the Hurricanes did through a series of special teams gaffes. He said his team’s poor tackling led to “egregious” third-down conversions and “really against-the-odds plays” by the Hokies.
To be sure, Virginia Tech caught the sort of breaks it hadn’t gotten the past two weeks. But that doesn’t acknowledge what it did with that luck. For a change, the Hokies were relentless, gaining a season-high 549 yards.
They turned two Miami fumbles on long kickoff returns into touchdowns in the first quarter. They started another drive at Miami’s 17-yard line after officials ruled Hurricanes punter Pat O’Donnell’s knee touched the ground while receiving a snap. Two plays later, Edmunds scored another touchdown.
That doesn’t even account for the fumbles by Byrn and fellow Hokies wideout Joshua Stanford that the Hokies recovered and turned into touchdowns.
“I think you stay in this game long enough, they’re going to bounce against you some and they’re going to bounce for you some. And a couple bounced for us there tonight, that’s for sure,” Beamer said. “But I thought it was great effort to get there. If you don’t have great effort, it doesn’t make any difference if the ball bounces our way or not.”
The second-quarter touchdown by Stanford epitomized that statement.
Facing third and 17, Thomas hit Stanford on a short crossing route and the redshirt freshman proceeded to break three tackles and sprint down the sideline for a 32-yard touchdown, the first of his career. But as Stanford put it after the game, “it was really all Willie,” referring to Byrn’s downfield block on the play.
“I kind of felt someone there and then I heard a [claps his hands together] and then they weren’t there anymore,” Stanford said. “And then I got on the sideline and they were telling me about Willie. I probably would have been pushed out at the 4[-yard line] or something.”
4. Saturday’s game turned on a tackle by punter A.J. Hughes, and it’s about time he got some more recognition.
Beamer announced Saturday that backup middle linebacker Deon Clarke did not make the trip to South Florida and has been suspended indefinitely. Perhaps Hughes can audition for the job — his the tackle that changed momentum in Virginia Tech’s favor suggests he could potentially handle it.
With Miami leading 7-0 after an early 81-yard touchdown catch by wide receiver Stacy Coley, Hughes made a touchdown-saving tackle as Coley embarked on a long kickoff return near midfield. In the process, Hughes’s helmet dislodged the ball and linebacker Tariq Edwards recovered the fumble.
“Perfect form,” defensive end James Gayle said of the tackle. “Couldn’t have been any better.”
It would be a sign of things to come.
“I feel like after that play, everything went in the right direction, so I think it was a big turning point,” Hughes said.
It was the latest strong performance for Hughes, who has been consistently good all year. He entered Saturday averaging an ACC-high 44.9 yards per punt, although apparently that wasn’t good enough to be named a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award, given to the nation’s top punter, earlier this week.
Against Miami, he kicked three punts of 50 yards or more and he has averaged fewer than 41 yards per punt in just one game this season.
“He’s got something to him,” Beamer said. “He likes the moment. He likes being out there. The pressure doesn’t get to him and he’s a tough kid.”
5. Virginia Tech’s lone issue going forward, believe it or not, might be depth in the secondary.
Only a couple weeks ago, Virginia Tech’s defensive coaches worried if there was enough playing time for all the elite defensive backs on the roster. Boy, how things can change.
The Hokies played much of Saturday’s game without seniors Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum, both of whom left with injuries in the first half. Fuller tried to give it a go after missing last week’s loss at Boston College, but he did not play after the first defensive series of the night. Exum, meanwhile, suffered a left ankle injury in the second quarter. He did not return, either.
“We go from having maybe too many guys in the secondary to maybe not having enough,” Beamer said. “Kyle, his thing’s not quite right. Then Antone, he comes out and now we’re scrambling and getting our packages right and so forth. We’ll see who we end up with next week.”
Take out Miami’s touchdown passes of 81 and 84 yards, and Virginia Tech’s defense was its typical stout self. The Hurricanes were held to less than 200 total yards otherwise, including just 28 on the ground. They averaged 3.67 yards on every other snap.
But those big plays through the air will be a concern now that the Hokies enter the final stretch of the regular season. With Fuller and Exum out, freshmen Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson played extensively in the second half.
Kendall Fuller once again played like a veteran, but Facyson appeared to show some rust after missing the last two games due to a concussion. He was beaten on a 27-yard reception by Miami wide receiver Allen Hurns that set up the Hurricanes’ first touchdown of the game and then misjudged a pass by quarterback Stephen Morris that allowed Hurns to score an 84-yard touchdown in the second half.
The injuries also forced Virginia Tech to adjust its nickel package. In the second half, the Hokies used safety Detrick Bonner as a cornerback and had redshirt freshman Der’Woun Greene at free safety. Bonner has been a weak link at times for a secondary that has, for the most part, completely shut down opposing passing attacks.
“You’re changing it around and now he’s playing a position that he hadn’t practiced during the week, and you don’t like doing that,” Beamer said of Bonner. “But that’s a position we’ve got ourselves caught in. But I thought overall they did well. We let a couple balls get behind us, but overall I thought we did well.”
Added Gayle: “It just feels good to come out of here and know we still have a chance to go to the ACC championship.”