BLACKSBURG, Va. — When Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring this week watched the film of the Hokies’ 23-3 loss to Clemson two months ago, he knew it wasn’t going to be pretty. But the mistakes he saw still made him do a double take.
His first-year starting quarterback looked rattled; his normally reliable offensive line was anything but; his corps of veteran wide receivers broke off routes or ran the wrong ones altogether; and as a result the Hokies were held without a touchdown in a home game for the first time since 1995.
“There were a lot of wows, and they’re not good wows,” Stinespring said. “There was a lot of those where you just go, ‘It’s amazing what seven or eight weeks does.’ ”
The Virginia Tech offense that will take the field in Charlotte on Saturday for a rematch with Clemson in the ACC championship game will offer the biggest difference from what the Tigers saw on a cold, rainy night at Lane Stadium on Oct. 1. Led by quarterback Logan Thomas and ACC player of the year David Wilson, the Hokies have scored at least three touchdowns in six of seven games since.
And while many point to Thomas’s emergence — he has accounted for 23 touchdowns and thrown just two interceptions since the Clemson loss — it overlooks that Virginia Tech’s shortcomings that night were not just about the quarterback. There were issues across the board, from play-calling to injuries to poor mental fortitude, that seem to be in the Hokies’ rearview mirror now that they’re on the brink of their fifth ACC title in eight seasons.
It started with play-caller Mike O’Cain. When he spoke with reporters just minutes after that Clemson loss, O’Cain wondered aloud whether he should have attempted more deep throws and admitted he never could find a rhythm in the coaches’ box. Even now, he struggles to explain exactly what went wrong that night.
“Some games for whatever reason, you never get a flow, you never get a feel,” O’Cain said this week. “It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been in it. You kind of get in a game and you get in a flow and things just roll off your tongue. That night, it didn’t.”
Part of the problem was that O’Cain was inhibited by a quartet of injuries that cut down on what plays he could call. A week earlier, Thomas badly bruised his left (non-throwing) shoulder scoring a touchdown at Marshall, and O’Cain did not call any designed runs for fear of causing further damage.
In recent weeks, though, Thomas’s running ability has become one of the Hokies’ best weapons and he’s just one touchdown shy of breaking the school record for rushing scores by a quarterback.
It didn’t help O’Cain that wide receiver Marcus Davis, who had a team-high 119 receiving yards last week, went down with a foot injury early in the game back in October. Wide receivers Jarrett Boykin and D.J. Coles, meantime, had missed substantial practice time during the week nursing hamstring injuries. Neither were back to full health yet, and it showed as both struggled to separate from Clemson’s defensive backs.
Still, though, Virginia Tech’s offense moved the ball against the Tigers’ defense. Wilson gashed the Tigers for 26 yards on his first five carries of the game, but Thomas then threw an interception that bounced off Boykin’s hands with the Hokies in Clemson territory. On the Hokies’ next drive, Wilson picked up 29 yards on three carries but fumbled and, though the game was scoreless, Virginia Tech never recovered.
“It felt deflating. I could tell from right there what type of game it was gonna be because we were starting to beat ourselves,” Boykin said this week.
Added right tackle Blake DeChristopher: “We just let things get to our head, and we didn’t really move on to the next play. I think we’ve learned to eliminate that.”
Perseverance, more than Thomas’s statistics or Wilson’s explosiveness, is why Virginia Tech finds itself in a familiar position — playing for the right to represent the ACC in a BCS bowl game.
Since losing to Clemson, the Hokies have faced an early deficit four times and won each game. The Hokies are still prone to the occasional offensive lapse, but Coach Frank Beamer credits Thomas with helping the entire offense mature because, “he’s in control and you just feel like the next series is going to be okay.”
“We learned many things from that game,” Thomas said this week. “Things can go wrong but we can still keep battling and get back into it. My mind-set changed. I think we can come back from pretty much anything now.”