Virginia Tech football escapes East Carolina thanks to its defense


East Carolina running back Vintavious Cooper carries the ball against Virginia Tech during the first half of an NCAA college football game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013. (AP Photo/The Daily Reflector, Rob Taylor) (Rob Taylor/AP)

Virginia Tech defensive end James Gayle didn’t want to repeat Bud Foster’s speech verbatim. He knew the Hokies’ fiery defensive coordinator had every right to be angry with the way Saturday’s game against host East Carolina began. This, though, wasn’t for public consumption.

“I might lose character points if I say it,” said Gayle, sweat still streaming down his forehead after Virginia Tech escaped with a 15-10 win.

He was, however, willing to share a summary of exactly what Foster told his unit moments after it gave up a touchdown on the Pirates’ first possession.

Essentially, Foster shouted on the sideline, the problem wasn’t his plan. It was the players executing that plan.

“I ripped their tails,” Foster said with a smirk as he walked out of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. “But they responded.”

Did they ever.

Backed by a dominant defensive performance — aside from that opening drive — the Hokies overcame another inconsistent offensive showing and an uncharacteristically shaky performance by place kicker Cody Journell in their first true road game of the season.

Virginia Tech sacked East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden seven times and forced Carden to throw his first three interceptions of the season. Fittingly, the Hokies capped off their afternoon by shutting down the Pirates’ Air Raid offense with the game in the balance.

East Carolina’s final two drives ended with a diving interception by linebacker Tariq Edwards and a safety courtesy of Gayle’s second sack.

The Hokies held the Pirates to just 30 yards after halftime, and East Carolina’s high-paced offense mustered only 204 yards for the game.

It was all the more impressive considering East Carolina took a 7-0 lead after 1 minute 39 seconds had elapsed on Saturday.

The Pirates capped off a 75-play drive when wide receiver Bryce Williams caught a 22-yard touchdown pass from Carden, breaking a tackle by Virginia Tech safety Detrick Bonner en route to the end zone.

“I knew right after the first drive that’s not gonna continue to happen,” said Gayle, who needed to have his shoulder popped back into its socket by trainers during the game. “I think some adjustments were made and we just had to get used to their tempo.”

With their defense on track, the Hokies had plenty of chances to pull away in the second half. But Journell missed two field goals — including one set up by freshman cornerback Brandon Facyson’s second interception of the afternoon — and an extra point in the second half. It’s the first time the redshirt senior has missed multiple field goals at Virginia Tech.

Journell called it the “probably the worst game I’ve ever played in my career” and said he apologized to the team in the locker room.

“He’s way too good to kick like that,” Coach Frank Beamer said. “We should have had that game put away a little sooner.”

Part of the problem was an offense that remains a work in progress.

At times Saturday, quarterback Logan Thomas appeared to develop a rhythm with wide receivers Demitri Knowles (eight catches, 99 yards) and Willie Byrn (seven catches, 63 yards), who both had career days. On Virginia Tech’s two scoring drives — Knowles had a 30-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter and senior D.J. Coles had a three-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter — Thomas completed 10 of 11 passes for 117 yards.

He also passed Tyrod Taylor as Virginia Tech’s all-time leader in completions with a five-yard pass to Byrn late in the second quarter. Thomas finished the contest 25 of 43 for 258 yards but also threw his fourth interception of the season and had several careless throws that could have been turnovers.

The Pirates’ strategy was to load the box with defenders and force Thomas to beat them with his arm; tailback Trey Edmunds gained 42 yards on 21 carries. Thomas also failed to convert a fourth and one on the ground late in the fourth quarter, giving East Carolina one last shot at stealing a victory.

Foster and his defense had other plans.

“Maybe it’ll get more attractive as the year goes along,” Beamer said. “We’re not pretty yet.”

Mark Giannotto is a Montgomery County native who covers high school sports for The Washington Post. He previously covered Virginia and Virginia Tech football for five years.

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