Almost from the start of fall practice, Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer has promised improvement from a team exceptionally young in so many areas. The amount of progress the Hokies have made, especially on offense, will be measured precisely during an ACC stretch run of five games that begins tonight in Atlanta against Georgia Tech.
"Every game is a statement game," offensive tackle Jon Dunn said.
At 5-2 overall and 2-1 in conference play, the No. 22 Hokies would move into a third-place tie with Virginia and to within a victory of clinching their 12th straight bowl appearance by beating the Yellow Jackets (4-2, 3-2). Tonight's game offers a gauge of how far the offense has come in about a month, because the Georgia Tech defense reminds Beamer a lot of North Carolina State's.
N.C. State's blitzes confused the Hokies and were the major reason quarterback Bryan Randall was sacked 10 times during the Wolfpack's one-point upset in Blacksburg. Blitzing requires lots of quick thinking from everyone on the offense.
"If you're in maximum protection," Beamer said, "it's on the offensive line. But it also could be a back on a linebacker if you're trying to throw down the field. It could be a sight adjustment [between Randall and the wideouts], meaning you let the defender come but hit the receiver before the guy can get to you. So the whole offense has to function."
Randall was more specific, saying, "Any time you win up front you'll have a successful day."
The Yellow Jackets' defense has been stunning the past two games. In victories over Maryland and Duke, it allowed a total of just 266 yards and improved from 64th in the country to 18th. After only three sacks in the first three games, the defense has 17 in the last three and 12 in the last two.
By contrast, the Hokies' offense has gotten inside the 20-yard line a total of 13 times against N. C. State, West Virginia and Wake Forest but scored only three touchdowns. However, Randall and the offense know that blitzing defenses also are vulnerable.
"If you get the proper pickup and get them in the coverage you're looking for," said backup flanker David Clowney, the Hokies' fastest receiver, "you might be able to hit a good one on 'em."
Virginia Tech has been in this position the last two seasons, ranked shortly after midseason only to falter badly. Expectations were higher those seasons, especially last year when the Hokies were considered at least dark-horse contenders for the national championship. But the Hokies lost three of their final four games while compiling a 10-4 record two years ago and slumped to 8-5 after a 7-1 start last season.
The major problem those two seasons was a defense that allowed gobs of yards and was embarrassed all too frequently by long plays at critical times. The turnaround so far this season has been spectacular, the defense ranked second overall in the ACC and seventh in the country while allowing an average of 265.4 yards.
"We're better up front," Beamer said of a defensive line that returns redshirt sophomore end Noland Burchette after a one-game absence because of a shoulder injury. But the Hokies have just 18 sacks, seventh in the league and two fewer than the Yellow Jackets. Also, Georgia Tech has allowed just 11 sacks, half as many as the Hokies.
The improvement on the front four comes from more depth, which allows the linemen to stay fresh, and the return this season of pass-rush specialist Jim Davis from a torn pectoral muscle. Consistent pressure has helped force 10 interceptions, two of which have been returned for touchdowns.
"I think last year sometimes people started pressing a little bit, trying to make plays rather than playing their position," defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. "Now everybody's playing their position, knowing the guy in back of 'em, next to 'em and in front of 'em is going to do their very best job."
The defense is most concerned about Georgia Tech tailback P. J. Daniels, who as a sophomore last season led the ACC in rushing with 1,447 yards and is averaging 4.8 yards per carry this season. At 5 feet 10 and 210 pounds, Daniels, a former walk-on, reminds Foster of former West Virginia standout Quincy Wilson. Daniels showed versatility in his most recent game, against Duke, with a 13-yard touchdown pass.
As Beamer and his staff know, some of the reasons for the Hokies' optimism during the final games this season cannot be measured.
"The seniors have done a great job of taking control of the team," senior free safety Vincent Fuller said. "I know that doesn't automatically [mean success]. But it just feels different. We know we have a special opportunity ahead of us."