BLACKSBURG, Va. — After his first-ever loss to Duke on Saturday, Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer shied away from playing the blame game.
He didn’t want to pass judgment on the four interceptions thrown by quarterback Logan Thomas or the two missed field goals by place kicker Cody Journell that ultimately cost the Hokies a chance at a win in the second half. He wasn’t ready to diagnose all of the mistakes that led to Virginia Tech’s first home defeat against an unranked foe since losing to James Madison in 2010.
Instead, Beamer said the video would likely reveal “we could have made a lot more plays.” But it will also reinforce just how little room for error the Hokies have with an offense that appears incapable of scoring 30 points and a defense that has yet to look anything but dominant.
“If we match their intensity and play like those guys, then we’d probably be the number one team in the nation,” running back J.C. Coleman said. “I know a lot of guys on our team realize that and that’s something that as an offense, we definitely have to get better and work on.
“But I credit the defense. They don’t blame us.”
What else stood out from Virginia’s Tech 13-10 setback against Duke? Here are five observations from Saturday’s game.
1) Losing to Duke is embarrassing, but it doesn’t change Virginia Tech’s ACC championship hopes.
Duke may not be the Duke of a decade ago under Coach David Cutcliffe — not with two straight bowl bids to their credit now — but losing to the Blue Devils still carries something of a stigma.
Saturday was Duke’s first-ever win in Blacksburg, and its first-ever win over a Beamer-led team. The Blue Devils also scored their first win over a ranked opponent since 1994, and their first road win over a ranked team since 1971.
“There’s a lot of history involved,” Cutcliffe said after the game. “It is a historical victory and they should be proud of that. It is a distinct step in the right direction and it is a big step.”
But humbling setback aside, Virginia Tech’s spot in the ACC Coastal Division race doesn’t look all that much different than when the day started. The Hokies still control their own destiny, one loss behind No. 6 Miami — whom Virginia Tech faces on Nov. 9 — and one loss ahead of Duke, Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh, all of whom have two conference defeats already.
“We still have all our goals in front of us,” linebacker Jack Tyler said. “We still can go to the ACC championship game if we win out. We just have to do our part and win out. We were gonna try to do that any way, so it’s not the end of the world.”
2) Virginia Tech’s offense isn’t great to begin with, but it becomes a liability when quarterback Logan Thomas struggles.
The Hokies’ offense, as currently configured, will never be mistaken with one of college football’s juggernauts this season. But with Thomas reverting back to some bad habits, they were just a liability on Saturday.
The redshirt senior set a new career high with four interceptions, and he took all the blame for the first two. His second interception was thrown in the end zone, one play after a two-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver D.J. Coles was negated by an illegal-shift penalty on Coles. Thomas’s two interceptions in the second half were both tipped or deflected, and he admitted he’d have to watch the film to determine exactly what went wrong.
But he also tried not to dwell on the performance during his postgame news conference, well aware his play wasn’t up to par Saturday.
“It’s just time to bounce back and come out even stronger,” Thomas said. “We’ve got to practice harder, practice smarter and we just got to get back to the grind. I think there’s a lot of things we could have done better and I’m gonna make sure from now on that I’m doing my fair part and setting an example.”
Thomas did pick up a team-high 101 yards rushing, part of an afternoon in which the Hokies gained 173 yards on the ground, and set a new program record with his 24th career rushing touchdown. But Thomas conceded many of those yards came in scrambling situations when he couldn’t find any open receivers.
The Hokies, though, simply aren’t good enough to overcome many offensive mistakes at this point.
“Any time you don’t take care of the football, you won’t win the game,” offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler said.
What’s more puzzling, however, is that they can fail to score any points despite having second and goal at the 1-yard line at one moment (the second quarter) and then look at ease on a 99-yard touchdown drive in the same game. For the game, Virginia Tech controlled the ball for nearly 40 minutes.
“We’re getting down there and getting where we need to be, but then once we get there, something happens and you just can’t have those setbacks,” wide receiver Willie Byrn said. “You can have them every once in awhile and . . . make incredible plays to overcome them, but a lot of the times if you turn the ball over and if you have execution problems, the other team is gonna beat you. Duke was certainly good enough to do that today.”
3) They may say otherwise, but Bud Foster’s defense answered the bell again.
Tyler was one of several defensive players to focus on the few mistakes the Hokies made against Duke’s offense, rather than the four interceptions Virginia Tech’s offense failed to take convert into points.
In particular, the Hokies lamented allowing the Blue Devils’ lone touchdown drive in the third quarter, largely because of two coverage penalties by Tyler and safety Kyshoen Jarrett, and the two long field goals Duke hit before halftime.
“If we don’t let them score a touchdown there, we win the game. So that’s the most disheartening part: That you can put that loss on us, too,” Tyler said. “Maybe statistical-wise, it doesn’t seem the defense played that badly but we could have done better. We could have done more to get a win for our team.”
It’s hard to overlook those statistics, though. Duke, which had scored at least 35 points in its previous four games, gained just 198 yards, failed to convert on third down the entire game and went the entire second half without completing a pass. Blue Devils quarterback Anthony Boone finished the game 7 of 25 for 107 yards and a career-high four interceptions.
And the Hokies did it without starting defensive end J.R. Collins and backup linebacker Deon Clarke, who were both suspended for one game for violating team rules, according to Beamer. Cornerbacks Brandon Facyson (concussion) and Kyle Fuller (groin) also didn’t play on defense because of injuries suffered in practice this past week.
In their place, freshman Kendall Fuller had a breakout performance as Duke decided to test the Baltimore native time and again. The All-Met Player of the Year at Good Counsel last fall, Fuller had a career-high three interceptions, including two that stopped Duke in the red zone.
“The kid played a tremendous football game,” defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “That’s what we signed, and he really showed what he’s all about.”
It was the first time a Virginia Tech player has had three interceptions in a game since Jayron Hosley accomplished the feat in a comeback win over North Carolina State and quarterback Russell Wilson in 2010.
Even more impressive is that, with his older brother on the mend, Fuller made the switch to boundary cornerback this week after playing the nickel cornerback spot all year. Fellow cornerback Antone Exum called it “one of the best corner performances I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”
Added Tyler: “With just a week of learning boundary corner, I can’t speak enough about him. He’s not a freshman. He plays like a wily veteran. He’s good. He’s really good. We were hoping that coming in, and he is.”
4) Frank Beamer’s faith in Cody Journell is being seriously tested.
Perhaps the most troubling part about Cody Journell’s struggles this year is that they’re almost expected at this point.
After proving to be a reliable, and clutch, place kicker the past three years, Journell’s issues proved costly yet again Saturday. The redshirt senior hit the left upright on a failed 45-yard attempt in the second quarter and then hooked a 40-yard kick wide left that would have tied the score at 13 with just more than six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Journell also converted a 42-yard attempt in the fourth quarter, but it was the third time this year his inaccuracy has factored into the outcome of the game. After hitting 36 of his first 44 field goal attempts as the Hokies’ kicker, he is now 8 for 14 this year. He was also suspended for Virginia Tech’s win over Marshall after violating team rules.
Journell’s counterpart, Duke’s Ross Martin, hit field goals from 51 and 53 yards.
“I’m always concerned when a guy as steady as Cody misses two, but we’ll look at it,” Beamer said. “There was pressure [from Duke] on the last one.”
Journell was coming off a 4-for-5 performance against Pittsburgh that included a career-long 48-yard field goal and earned him ACC specialist of the week honors two weeks ago. Saturday seemed to offer definitive proof that the issues are not behind him.
Considering the off field trouble Journell has gotten into over the past few years, Beamer has shown a lot of faith in him. But his continuing patience seems to indicate the Hokies don’t have anyone on the roster capable of taking Journell’s job at this point.
“I don’t lose faith in him and I don’t expect the guys to lose faith in me after the turnovers I had today,” Thomas said. “We’re a close knit group and we’ve got each other’s back.”
On an unrelated note, Virginia Tech’s kickoff specialist Mitchell Ludwig pulled his quad before Saturday’s game and the Hokies had to make a last-second call for former All-Met Michael Branthover (DeMatha). According to the team’s Twitter account, Branthover was not dressed and in the stands Saturday when the public-address announcer at Lane Stadium paged him during pregame warmups.
Journell handled the opening kickoff of the game, and Branthover took over for the final two kicks of the afternoon.
5) It was a successful first game back for cornerback Antone Exum.
After nine months of rehabilitation following a devastating knee injury, Hokies cornerback Antone Exum made his long-awaited season debut Saturday. More importantly, he never looked out of place despite being asked to take on a major role right away with Kyle Fuller sidelined.
Starting alongside Kendall Fuller, Exum finished with just one tackle and no pass breakups. That, though, was largely because Duke didn’t come his way all that much.
“There wasn’t much open over there, but I think I played pretty well,” Exum said. “They didn’t target me that much, which was really surprising to me. I thought they were gonna throw at me the whole game, but yeah, it was just good to be out there.”
With Kendall Fuller at boundary cornerback, the Hokies used true freshman Chuck Clark in their nickel package Saturday. He had three tackles. Redshirt junior Dadi Nicolas got the start at defensive end in place of Collins and corralled his first career interception in the second half.