At this point, few could argue. Virginia Tech entered Saturday ranked No. 4 in the country in total defense through two games and did little to mess that up in a 15-10 victory over East Carolina on Saturday.
What else stood out? Here are five observations as the Hokies set their sights on next week’s opponent, Marshall.
1) Brandon Facyson ‘is a baller’
Those were the words of Coach Frank Beamer following Saturday’s defensive dominance. Facyson had two interceptions against the Pirates, giving him three over the past two weeks. Perhaps more importantly, his development, alongside fellow freshman Kendall Fuller, has made senior Antone Exum’s recovery from offseason knee surgery a moot point.
“That’s two big-time guys that’s playing great. They’re not playing like freshmen,” Beamer said. “They’ve got skill and they’ve got good football sense, and that’s a good combination to have.”
There was no greater example of that than the sequence that led to Facyson’s first interception of the day in the first quarter.
Facyson said after the game Virginia Tech defensive backs coach Torrian Gray had tipped him off via a sideline phone call from the coaches’ booth about what to look for when East Carolina’s receivers ran dig routes. On the play before his turnover, though, Facyson made a great tackle in open space on Pirates wideout Lance Ray on a bubble screen.
The very next snap, however — with Facyson lined up on the other side of the field — the rangy cornerback saw exactly what Gray told him about. The rest was simply instinct.
“I just ran inside of him and just picked it,” Facyson said.
It could have been a three-interception day, though. Facyson nearly jumped another short route soon after his first turnover, and said the ball actually grazed his hand as he made a diving attempt. East Carolina picked up 21 yards on the play, but Facyson remains undeterred. “Next time, I’m coming for it,” he said.
Added defensive end James Gayle: “He’s reminding me of [former Hokies cornerback and current New York Giants defensive back] Jayron Hosley because Jayron Hosley used to leave with a couple picks every game.”
2) It was an encouraging day for Virginia Tech’s wide receivers.
There were still drops and there’s a good argument to be made that quarterback Logan Thomas’s lone interception wasn’t his fault, as wide receiver Demitri Knowles lost a battle in the air against East Carolina cornerback Adonis Armstrong. But overall, the Hokies’ passing attack made some strides, if only because the Pirates wouldn’t allow offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler to do anything else.
With East Carolina loading up the line of scrimmage to stop the run, Knowles (8 catches, 99 yards, 1 touchdown) and fellow wideout Willie Byrn (seven catches, 63 yards) both had career days. Knowles even earned a game ball for his performance. Senior D.J. Coles, meanwhile, had a touchdown catch after being asked to assume a reduced role since Virginia Tech’s season-opening loss to No. 1 Alabama.
Thomas finished 25 of 43 for 258 yards, the most he has passed for this season. He also went 10 of 11 on Virginia Tech’s two touchdown drives, converted eight third downs through the air and found seven different receivers for the game.
“They have always had it in them,” Thomas said of his receiving corps. “It’s just confidence in themselves, and if they can catch the first one and get themselves going, they’re pretty good.”
3) The Hokies still have faith in place kicker Cody Journell.
Journell had three game-winning field goals and a game-tying kick against Boston College last year, so he took Saturday’s struggles hard. For the first time in his career, Journell missed multiple field goals in a game (38 yards and 40 yards) and added a missed extra point that could have been costly.
They prevented the Hokies from pulling away from East Carolina in the second half, and Journell later called it “probably the worst game I’ve ever played in my career.” He apologized to the entire team in the locker room once Virginia Tech emerged with the victory.
“The first field goal actually got tipped,” Journell said. “Missing your extra point, obviously that gets in your head. But when you go out, get ready and drill the next one and it gets tipped, you’re just like, ‘What can I do?’ ”
Journell said the issues were “definitely mechanical” and not related to the lower back pain that limited him in practice during the week. He told teammates they “pulled through this game, but you’re gonna need me in another one, so I’m gonna make sure I’ll be there for you guys.”
Journell was relieved to find out nobody had lost confidence in him given his track record. He hit 20 of his 25 field goals last year and was named all-ACC honorable mention in 2011.
“He’ll bounce back.” Thomas said of Journell. “He was like, ‘Just a miserable day.’ I told him: ‘Yeah I’ve had a couple of those every now and then. You’ll hear it, but just block it out.’ ”
4) It’s still hard to tell which Logan Thomas will show up from play to play.
Thomas was leaps and bounds better Saturday that he was two years ago in his first-ever road start at East Carolina. But the redshirt senior remains maddeningly inconsistent, capable of living up to his NFL hype one play and making a mind-boggling decision the next.
In that regard, this game was typical Thomas. He was masterful on Virginia Tech’s two touchdown drives and showed great poise in several third-down situations. But in addition to his one interception, Thomas nearly gave the game away.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Thomas threw an ill-advised screen pass to running back Chris Mangus that should resulted in a pick-six interception for East Carolina. Defensive end Montese Overton pulled back into coverage and Thomas admitted he “didn’t see him.” Overton, though, couldn’t corral the pass on Virginia Tech’s 35-yard line and the Hokies avoided disaster.
“He made a good play, but thankfully he didn’t make the best play possible,” Thomas said.
Thomas noted after the game that a few potential big plays were negated by some breakdowns in Virginia Tech’s protection package, particularly in the red zone. “Maybe that was my fault,” he added.
Despite his up-and-down afternoon, Thomas seemed relieved to have gained some confidence in the passing game. He felt the Hokies finally found a rhythm in the second half, and his third-down proficiency was the result of a better grasp of Loeffler’s offense.
“It’s kind of just me learning the progression system that we have now. They walled away a couple things, which left something else open and that’s how I have to be and how I have to get better,” Thomas said. “I thought I did a good job today. Obviously there’s some things I can work on, a lot of things I can get better at, but coming off the field right now, I’m pretty happy with the way we played.”
5) If Virginia Tech is going to be a factor in the ACC, it will be because of the defense.
It has become a familiar refrain for Hokies fans over the past decade, but it appears as if Virginia Tech’s season will go as far as its defense will take it. Though Thomas and the offense have made some progress in recent weeks, it has become clear they remain a ways off from being the dynamic group Loeffler envisions.
But Virginia Tech’s defense looks every bit as good as advertised after sacking East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden seven times, forcing three turnovers and allowing just 30 yards in the second half. The Pirates crossed midfield just twice after their 75-yard touchdown drive to start the game, which was aided by a late-hit penalty on Virginia Tech linebacker Jack Tyler.
Aside from the defensive line, which combined for 4.5 sacks and seven tackles for a loss, the re-emergence of linebacker Tariq Edwards has been a huge boon for Foster and company. The redshirt senior, who missed most of last season with a shin/knee injury, was credited with 1.5 sacks and an interception against the Pirates.
“I think even [Carden] knew that we weren’t the same front he’d seen the previous two games,” defensive end James Gayle said. “We were gonna get after him, and I feel like we were able to take them out of his rhythm and the whole game.”
The next test comes Saturday when Marshall’s high-flying offense comes to Lane Stadium. The Thundering Herd have scored 52 and 55 points, respectively, during their first two games of the 2013 season. They face Ohio on Saturday night.