BLACKSBURG, Va. — Before this season began, Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer didn’t need to temper expectations like he normally does. The Hokies were coming off their worst season in 20 years, and with an overhauled offensive staff, he realized progress would come gradually.
But Beamer never expected to play a record amount of freshmen this year. Nor did he think Virginia Tech would be held to less than 80 rushing yards in four of its first six games, particularly because fixing the ground game was his main priority during spring practice and fall training camp.
And yet heading into their first bye week of the season, the Hokies find themselves back in the national rankings with their only blemish coming against No. 1 Alabama. Beamer still sees flaws, but the potential is becoming more and more apparent with each passing game.
“We’re not good enough right now, but . . . to sit here at 6-1, I give a lot of credit to our coaches and players. That’s pretty significant,” he said. “Every game has been hard for us. Every game has been tough. It’s gone right down to the fourth quarter.”
What stood out about Saturday’s 19-9 win over Pittsburgh, the first Virginia Tech has scored over the Panthers since 2000? Here’s five observations from the game:
1) Dadi Nicolas can be a dynamic defensive weapon.
Virginia Tech has not allowed redshirt sophomore Dadi Nicolas to speak with reporters since his arrest for larceny when he stole a bike on campus back in June 2012, but he made his presence felt loud and clear Saturday. The defensive end finished with career highs in both sacks (three) and tackles (seven), spearheading a dominating Hokies defense that finished with a season-high eight sacks.
But it was the manner in which defensive coordinator Bud Foster deployed Nicolas that could make him a serious pass-rush threat the rest of this season. Linebacker Jack Tyler said the Hokies’ defensive coaches noticed how Virginia linebacker Max Valles finished with 2.5 sacks at Pittsburgh two weeks ago and figured Nicolas could fill the same role as a pass-rushing outside linebacker.
“We felt like Dadi Nicolas could get a mismatch on the tight end blocking and get a lot of pressure, and I know he will be wanting to get some more reps at that spot,” Foster said.
Tyler said after the game that he and linebacker Tariq Edwards spent much of the afternoon shouting “Dadi left” and “Dadi right” to tell him where to go pre-snap. Because of Nicolas’s background as a defensive lineman, and the fact that he only began playing organized football extensively as a senior in high school, the Hokies couldn’t use him in pass coverage.
“He might not have everything going for him mentally when it comes to football. He’s still learning because he hasn’t played football that long,” said Tyler. “You know credit to him, because he has come such a long way from where he started. Because when he started, you couldn’t get him lined up. You couldn’t do anything because he’s only been playing for so long. He doesn’t really understand positions . . . and now he’s kind of found his niche.”
Nicolas, who was not made available to reporters after Saturday’s game, tweeted afterwards that, “I have a lot to learn about football and looking forward to growing as a player.” Right now, though, he has provided Virginia Tech’s already powerful pass rush another dynamic weapon.
“If they keep him at that position, it’s gonna be a problem,” defensive end James Gayle said.
Added Beamer, “He’s a force back there and got a real talent for rushing the quarterback.”
2) Virginia Tech has found a formula for success that can work the rest of the season.
After every one of the wins the Hokies have reeled off during their current six-game streak, Beamer has begun his postgame news conference with some variation of what he said Saturday: “Don’t always play great, but we play hard.”
This, though, only underscores what Virginia Tech has come to realize about itself over the past month. It just doesn’t have the pieces to be an explosive offense this year, but armed with one of the nation’s best defenses, the Hokies don’t really need to be.
Instead, they seem to have embraced the same philosophy Beamer has favored throughout his coaching career.
“With the way the defense is playing, it kind of changed the way we play on offense a little bit,” quarterback Logan Thomas said. “We know if we take care of the football and do what we got to do, the defense is going to do a great job. We just got put a couple points, a couple touchdowns on the board and let them do their thing.”
On Saturday, that strategy worked like a charm. Though the Hokies failed to convert long drives into touchdowns, they dominated the time-of-possession battle in the second half and didn’t turn the ball over for the third consecutive week. They even won the field position tug of war, as punter A.J. Hughes averaged a career-high 52.8 yards per kick.
The defense took care of the rest, and with each triumph it appears the Hokies are gaining more and more confidence that Foster’s unit can put them in position to accomplish feats few thought possible when Virginia Tech was struggling to even qualify for a bowl last season.
“Obviously we don’t want to just rely on the defense. We want to put points on the board,” Thomas said. “But when you get to the situation that you go up two scores, you just expect for the game to be over with the way they’re playing.”
3) The Hokies’ anemic running game cost them around the red zone against Pittsburgh.
Virginia Tech’s inability to run the ball effectively on a consistent basis has been an issue all season, but Saturday it played a big role in why the Hokies had to settle for five field goal attempts by place kicker Cody Journell (he hit four of them) and scored just one touchdown.
With the ball inside Pittsburgh’s 30-yard line, Virginia Tech mustered just seven yards on 10 rushing attempts. As a result, three of the five drives that ended near the red zone came on third-down plays in which the Hokies had to pick up seven yards or more.
For the game, the Hokies only had 78 rushing yards and their tailbacks accounted for just 50 of them.
Thomas credited the Panthers’ defense and also pointed out that during the latter part of the second half, Virginia Tech got conservative and simply wanted to go ahead by two scores. But this offense isn’t good enough to waste opportunities near the end zone, and it could cost the Hokies down the line.
4) It was an encouraging afternoon for Cody Journell, missed chip shot notwithstanding.
After a turmoil-filled start to the season that included missed field goals, a one-game suspension and anonymous threats on his cellphone, Journell had a weight lifted off his shoulders Saturday.
The redshirt senior hit a career-long 48-yard field goal in the first quarter and also had another 42-yarder in the second half. He had four field goals after halftime, which was the difference in the game.
“It felt great to just go out there and drill the opportunities that I had, especially in a game where you really needed them,” Journell said.
It wasn’t a flawless afternoon, as Journell hooked a 33-yard attempt wide right to start the fourth quarter. But considering his recent issues — after hitting 36 of his first 44 field goal attempts to start his career, Journell missed three of his four field goal attempts against East Carolina and North Carolina — on Saturday had to be a relief for Hokies faithful.
5) Virginia Tech is in prime position to challenge Miami in the ACC Coastal Division heading into a bye week.
Maybe you already have, but circle Nov. 9 on your calendars.
That’s when the Hokies travel down to South Florida to face Miami, and it looks almost certain that game will decide what team represents the Coastal Division in the ACC championship game in December.
Virginia Tech has a home game against Duke and a road trip to Boston College before then, but after Saturday’s action, the Hokies and Hurricanes are the only Coastal Division teams without two conference losses already. If that’s not a collision course, what is?
But perhaps the best sign yet of how last year’s 7-6 regular season has influenced this team’s mind-set going forward came from Gayle during his postgame news conference. The Hokies may be cruising like few expected so far, but they aren’t ready to rest on their laurels.
“When we lost, it was more because I kind of expected to come in and win. This year, you’re practicing and you’re like, ‘There’s a lot riding on this game,’ ” said Gayle. “Every game is big. You’re not just gonna win by showing up.”