Virginia Tech vs. North Carolina: Pieces falling into place for Hokies


Demitri Knowles was one of nine Virginia Tech players to catch passes against North Carolina. (Joel Hawksley/AP)
October 5, 2013

Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer was the first one to admit that Saturday’s game was anything but a masterpiece for the Hokies. But he seemed just fine with the notion that his team will have to “grind” out wins the rest of the season, slogging it out in the same manner it did in a 27-17 victory over North Carolina.

In fact, Tar Heels Coach Larry Fedora, a man known for his fast-paced, no-huddle offense, couldn’t help but appreciate “the mojo” these Hokies have operated with this season after his players experienced it firsthand.

Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas “is doing what they are asking him to do,” he said. “They manage the game with him and they win with defense.”

That’s the identity Virginia Tech has forged through six games and it has propelled the Hokies to five-straight wins. What stood out about Saturday’s latest victory? Here are five observations:

1) Virginia Tech’s WRs have rebounded nicely from a disastrous season opener.

Remember all those JUGs machine drills Virginia Tech wide receivers coach Aaron Moorehead had put his troops through since the Hokies’ drop-fest against Alabama a month ago? They seem to be paying off, and the latest proof came Saturday.

Nine Hokies caught passes from quarterback Logan Thomas, and Virginia Tech gained a season-high 293 yards through the air. Sophomore Demitri Knowles looked sure-handed and used his speed to burst past North Carolina’s secondary for an early 45-yard touchdown. Junior Willie Byrn had a career-high 123 receiving yards.

Perhaps more importantly, sophomore Josh Stanford recovered from an early drop to haul in a crucial third-down conversion that iced the game in the fourth quarter.

“Logan has confidence in us and that gives us confidence to go out there and try to be as good as we can be,” Stanford said. “We get better the more we play.”

The Hokies have also figured out the best way to utilize senior D.J. Coles given the limitations his balky knee imposes in terms of extensive playing time. Coles had two touchdown catches Saturday, and appears to be Virginia Tech’s most potent red zone option.

“At the snap of the ball they just disappeared. That’s the easiest touchdown I’ve had all season right there,” Coles said about his first touchdown. “I’m taking that role. [Twenty five yards] in, that’s where they’re giving me more plays, calling my number more, so I guess I can be a red zone threat now. I’ll take it. That’s where you make your money.”

Coles has just 11 receptions through six games this season, and five of them have been touchdowns. Stanford and Byrn both praised Coles’s leadership skills after the game, and Byrn even mentioned Coles helped him play through his own MCL sprain this week.

“We all follow behind D.J.’s lead,” Stanford said. “He sets the tone for us.”

2) Logan Thomas has found his stride in Scot Loeffler’s offense.

The passing numbers say more about Thomas’s comfort with Virginia Tech’s first-year offensive coordinator than anything. After going 10 games without completing better than 60 percent of his passes — a span that dates to last season and also included 14 interceptions — Thomas has gone 38 of 53 for 514 yards, five total touchdowns and no interceptions the past two weeks.

He may have walked out of Lane Stadium with a noticeable limp, the result of the sprained foot he suffered last week at Georgia Tech, but Thomas also left with the knowledge that he and Loeffler are in sync.

“Over the past two weeks it’s just been clicking pretty well. We’ve gotten comfortable in the pass game. We’ve gotten comfortable with calls that are being made,” Thomas said. “I think we can all start to expect what Coach [Loeffler] is thinking. You know, that’s huge for me, knowing what he’s looking at, what he sees out there. Hopefully we keep progressing the way we are.”

Coach Frank Beamer used part of his postgame news conference to once again talk about Thomas’s potential as an NFL signal-caller, noting the number of times Thomas had to adjust at the line of scrimmage given North Carolina’s stretegy of loading the box to stop the run. Loeffler cooed after the game that Thomas is “really coming into his own, and that’s what a fifth-year quarterback is supposed to do.”

Despite the second-half struggles — Virginia Tech mustered just 64 yards after halftime — Thomas seems buoyed by his recent production.

“We can’t be one-dimensional, so if they’re gonna load the box, it gives me more room to throw,” he said. “I guess it’s a challenge towards me, but whatever I got to do.”

3) Even with the stacked defensive fronts, Virginia Tech’s running game woes are troubling.

The numbers aren’t pretty for the Hokies’ once-vaunted rushing attack. Following an encouraging start to the season, Virginia Tech’s ground game would best be described as 2.4 yards and a cloud of dust.

Over the past four games, the Hokies have gained just 357 rushing yards on 148 attempts and won every contest.

The first three contests could perhaps be forgiven, considering East Carolina, Marshall and Georgia Tech all rank within the top 16 in the country in rushing defense this year (although part of their success has been because of Virginia Tech).

But the Tar Heels entered Saturday allowing more than 234 yards per game on the ground and still managed to hold the Hokies to a new season low. Beamer believes the issues are tied to the fact that defenses are committing extra players to stop the run.

“If they’re gonna gang up on you, you’ve got to be able to throw it and I think we’re getting closer and closer to that,” he said. “It’s not just a gimme that you can load the box and stop the run, and I think we’re getting closer to being able to be productive in both the run and the pass. . . . We’re never gonna give up the run, but I think you’ve got to be smart.”

The holes simply aren’t there, tailback Trey Edmunds added, because the running lanes are clogged with defenders. So even with speed option J.C. Coleman back in the mix — he rushed for 26 yards on eight carries — the running game never could get going.

Loeffler noted the Hokies were also left short-handed in the second half when fullback Sam Rogers didn’t return from a leg injury, and it affected his play-calling.

The question, though, is whether defenses will ever loosen up, because chances are Thomas and his inexperienced wide receivers are due for another clunker before this season ends. Virginia Tech will need a run game if, or when, that should happen.

“It is kind of frustrating at times, but then again, as long as something is working on the offense, you’re happy,” said Edmunds, who had 27 yards on 14 carries Saturday.

4) Virginia Tech’s defense just keeps humming along.

Maybe the best sign yet of how well Virginia Tech’s defense has played through six games is that North Carolina’s 376-yard, 17-point showing Saturday was its worst performance of the season. And the Tar Heels gained 89 yards and scored a touchdown on their final possession of the afternoon, with the contest already decided.

This latest triumph saw defensive coordinator Bud Foster adjust on the fly when North Carolina went with mobile sophomore Marquise Williams at quarterback because of a foot injury to starter Bryn Renner (West Springfield). Safety Kyshoen Jarrett said the team was aware Renner had been wearing a walking boot during the week and prepared a separate game plan in case Williams did play.

“Overall, I think we did a pretty good job of keeping him contained,” said Kyle Fuller, who came up with a clutch fourth-down interception in the fourth quarter. “He had a couple runs, but that’s gonna happen.”

The Hokies entered the weekend ranked first in the nation in tackles for a loss and second in sacks. They left Saturday with the national lead in interceptions (13) after Fuller and Jarrett both snagged Williams’s passes out of the air.

Not bad for a secondary that was still without senior cornerback Antone Exum, who held himself out of the lineup as he continues his recovery from offseason knee surgery.

5) The Hokies are one win away from making the Coastal division a two-team race.

Beamer was in no mood to reflect on what Virginia Tech’s 5-1 record start to the season could mean down the line, not with a Pittsburgh team that has beaten him four consecutive times looming next week.

But the Hokies have begun to distance themselves from the pack in the ACC Coastal Division, and combined with losses by the Tar Heels and Georgia Tech on Saturday, they appear to be on a collision course with Miami. The two teams don’t play until Nov. 9 in South Florida.

The Panthers have just one loss thus far, to Florida State in their season opener, but another one would likely end their ACC championship game hopes. That would leave Virginia Tech and the Hurricanes at the top of the heap, a place many conference observers didn’t expect the Hokies to return to this year.

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