When it was over, and Virginia Tech had held off Georgia Tech for a 17-10 win Thursday night, Coach Frank Beamer seemed more relieved than anything.
He talked about the fortitude his Hokies have developed through three razor-thin victories in 12 days. He praised his staff, which had to prepare for the Yellow Jackets on a short week. He sought out an ACC official after his news conference was over and asked that Virginia Tech never be forced to play with such a quick turnaround again. He even danced.
But when he spoke with reporters, Beamer was also realistic.
“We were 1-0 in the conference last year after the Georgia Tech game, so there’s a lot of football to be played and I like this football team,” he said. “I like how they battle. I like their mental toughness and their physical toughness. But we understand, too, we were 1-0 last year and it’s a long ways from over now.”
What else stood out? Here are five takeaways from Virginia Tech’s ACC opener.
1. Virginia Tech’s defense is good enough to carry the Hokies all season.
Lost in all the praise for Logan Thomas’s gutsy performance Thursday night was the sobering fact that the Hokies still managed just two touchdowns against the Yellow Jackets, and didn’t score one in the second half. They haven’t scored more than two touchdowns against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent since a win over Duke last October.
Thus far, though, it hasn’t mattered much with a defense that appears to be one of the nation’s best, and defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s group authored a gem Thursday night. Virginia Tech held Georgia Tech to just 129 rushing yards, more than 200 yards less than its season average. In fact, it was the third-fewest yards Georgia Tech has gained on the ground under Coach Paul Johnson since he took over the program in 2008.
Linebacker Jack Tyler talked after the game about how Foster seemed to be one step ahead of Johnson the entire night, and went on to call his coach “brilliant” for some of the adjustments made after Georgia Tech scored its lone touchdown of the night in the third quarter.
“That’s probably unheard of for that kind of offense,” linebacker Jack Tyler said about Virginia Tech’s rushing defense. “Things we thought they would do to get me, they did. Coach Foster, he’s brilliant. He really is. He knows what he’s doing.”
More notable were the three fourth-quarter stands and three turnovers that helped seal Virginia Tech’s victory. A year ago, this defense suffered through several late meltdowns (Cincinnati and Florida State come to mind). On Thursday, the Hokies wouldn’t budge in the fourth quarter, something of a pattern now.
Virginia Tech hasn’t allowed a point in the fourth quarter or overtime the past seven games dating to last season.
“Usually you want our defense on the field if they need a touchdown. Last year it didn’t work a couple times, but these guys are a year older and a year better,” Beamer said.
2. Logan Thomas and Scot Loeffler have found a rhythm together, and it should be a boon for the offense.
Loeffler had a “gut feeling” at the team’s pregame meal, Thomas said, the second time in as many weeks he’s had such a premonition.
Against Marshall on Saturday, Loeffler’s hunch resulted in a key fourth-down conversion in which Thomas hit wide receiver Josh Stanford on a crossing route to move the chains. On Thursday night, Loeffler’s inkling led to wide receiver D.J. Coles’s 21-yard touchdown catch early in the first quarter.
“As soon as he caught it, I looked up and D.J. was running wide open,” Thomas said. “He’s two for two on his gut feelings this year.”
It was further evidence of the growing comfort between Loeffler and Thomas through five games, and it appears Loeffler has a much better handle on what his best options are going forward. After spending the offseason telling reporters he didn’t want Thomas’s body to take a beating, Thomas has 41 combined carries the past two weeks despite playing through an abdominal strain.
On Thursday, Thomas’s run-heavy playbook was partly due to the hip injury that slowed tailback Trey Edmunds, but it also showed Loeffler understands exactly what his quarterback, and his unit, do best right now.
“We’re gonna be who we are and what we’re best suited to do, and I think the offensive staff did a good job of saying, ‘Okay, what are we capable of doing? What’s our strengths right now, and let’s play to those,” Beamer said.
Thomas’s supporting cast also showed improvement, but it took a hit at the same time. Starting tight end Duan Perez-Means did not make the trip to Atlanta and Beamer confirmed after the game that he has decided to leave the program for personal reasons. Freshman Kalvin Cline will be asked to fill that void.
Wide receiver Willie Byrn, meanwhile, suffered a sprained MCL Thursday to go along with his four catches for 44 yards. Byrn promised to be ready in time for next Saturday’s tilt with North Carolina. But Beamer was simply satisfied that Thomas was able to connect with eight receivers against the Yellow Jackets.
“He had pretty good protection, didn’t have any dropped balls and when you do that, it’s easier to play quarterback,” he said. “I think the people around him played better, too.”
3.The development of freshmen cornerbacks Brandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller could make Detrick Bonner’s rough night a moot point.
One of the few negatives for Virginia Tech’s defense was the play of safety Detrick Bonner. With senior Kyle Fuller at whip linebacker, Bonner was often left in single coverage on wide receivers DeAndre Amelter and Darren Waller and the Yellow Jackets picked on him. The redshirt junior gave up two long receptions and committed two crucial pass interference penalties, and his miscues led directly to all of Georgia Tech’s points.
“In my eyes, I feel like somebody is gonna make a play,” Bonner said. “I just got to get better, so they won’t. Period.”
But after another eye-popping performance by freshmen Brandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller, Bonner’s slip-ups could be forgiven. In the first quarter alone, Facyson recovered a fumble and had a spectacular diving interception that landed at No. 7 on “SportCenter’s” top 10 plays. He’s now tied for the national lead with four interceptions through five games, and Thomas declared he has the best ball skills on the team. Fuller, meanwhile, closed out the game with his second interception in as many games.
“He’s not a freshman. He’s just not. He’s so far ahead of most freshmen at that point,” Tyler said of Facyson. “If he keeps getting better, oh wow, he’s gonna be one of the best corners in the country quickly.”
What Virginia Tech does with its secondary going forward will be the most interesting subplot. Senior Antone Exum (knee) hopes to be cleared by Monday and has been told he will return to the starting lineup once healthy. The question, though, is given Bonner’s shaky play Thursday and the consistent excellence of Facyson and Fuller, would the Hokies consider moving Exum back to safety in order to field the best defensive backfield possible?
There’s been no indication to suggest that’s going to happen, although Exum was a safety his first three years on campus. But decreasing Facyson or Fuller’s playing time with Exum back in the fold will be a tough decision considering how well the two have performed in their first season in the program.
4. Place kicker Cody Journell could be a wild card the rest of the season.
Beamer took a chance allowing Journell back into the fold after a one-game suspension considering his track record, but Journell was unable to repay the favor Thursday night. He missed a 25-yard field goal that would have likely put the game away in the fourth quarter.
Journell has now missed four of his past eight kicks if you include one field goal at East Carolina that was negated by a penalty, although Beamer didn’t pile on the embattled senior after Thursday’s game.
“What you worry about is when it’s a bad miss,” he said. “Cody said he thought he had it, so I guess it was just to the left of the bar.”
Considering he had hit 36 of his 44 career field goals prior to this slump, Journell’s issues appear to be more mental than anything. But Virginia Tech has now won three straight games by relying on its defense to make fourth-quarter or overtime stands because of an inability to make field goals.
Virginia Tech has been up for the challenge so far, but that sort of luck will run out eventually. And the guess here is, with a somewhat limited offense, this wasn’t the last close game the Hokies will be involved with this year. They need Journell to return to form.
5. The Hokies suddenly find themselves in an enviable position within the ACC’s Coastal Division.
Byrn said Thursday Virginia Tech felt disrespected not being mentioned in the conversation about teams contending for the ACC’s Coastal Division title. Well, Thursday’s win thrust the Hokies directly into the mix as the calendar turns to October.
After winning three games in 12 days, including two road contests, Virginia Tech now will play three straight Coastal Division games at Lane Stadium beginning Oct. 5 against North Carolina. Georgia Tech, meanwhile, is suddenly staring at Coastal Division irrelevance with a game against Miami looming next week — the Yellow Jackets have lost four straight to the Hurricanes — and a road trip to Clemson down the line.
Given the limitations of his offense, Beamer is preparing for plenty of nail-biters over the coming months. For the time being, though, the Hokies are comfortable with the fact that they’ve positioned themselves for another run at the conference title.
“This is how you get to the ACC championship. You’ve got to beat these guys,” Thomas said. “I think it gives us a lot of confidence going into the rest of the year.”