BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler spent halftime of last Saturday’s game against East Carolina drawing up adjustments that would “switch gears 100 percent.” But before putting them into action, he wanted to try his original game plan one more time to start the second half.
The Pirates continued to bring extra defenders close to the line of scrimmage, clogging running lanes and sacking quarterback Logan Thomas to force a punt. So when Thomas jogged off the field and grabbed a headset, he and Loeffler had the same thought: “Throw it.”
“That’s the G-rated version,” running backs coach Shane Beamer joked this week.
Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer believes these sorts of quandaries will become the norm this season, with teams daring Thomas and the Hokies’ inexperienced wide receivers to win games through the air.
When Virginia Tech (2-1) faces Marshall (2-1) on Saturday, Loeffler expects Thundering Herd defensive coordinator Chuck Heater, who previously worked with him at Florida and Temple, to follow the template set a week ago, when the Hokies averaged just 1.6 yards per rush in their 15-10 win over East Carolina.
Against the Pirates, Thomas threw the ball 26 times in the second half and finished the contest 25 of 43 for 258 yards and two touchdowns. It was his best performance of the season, and one that left Beamer encouraged about how his offense will handle such a defensive strategy going forward.
“I’m hopeful that we’re dangerous enough that you’ve got to think about it,” Beamer said.
But the program’s offseason goal was to re-ignite a stagnant rushing attack. Though he’s a former quarterback, Loeffler cut his teeth under former Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr and gained an appreciation for what a powerful rushing attack can accomplish. It was a big reason Beamer pulled the trigger and hired him in February.
Loeffler wants to establish the run, just as the Hokies did in their opener against No. 1 Alabama when redshirt freshman Trey Edmunds finished with the most rushing yards ever by a Virginia Tech player in his debut (132). The following week, facing Western Carolina of the Football Championship Subdivision, the Hokies averaged seven yards per carry.
“You want to be able to run it because that makes everything much easier,” Loeffler said. “But we were in a situation Saturday where we had to throw and I’m glad we did because it ended up winning the time of possession. If we could’ve just executed a few throws in the red [zone], we score 35 points and feel a heckuva lot better than we do.”
Whether it was intentional or not, the flipped script last Saturday seems to have done wonders for Virginia Tech’s beleaguered passing attack.
Wide receiver Demitri Knowles, who caught a 30-yard touchdown pass and finished with eight catches for 99 yards, talked this week about “feeling like myself again” after dropping a number of passes against the Crimson Tide. Thomas, meanwhile, allowed Virginia Tech to control the ball despite abandoning the run, completing 10 of 18 passes on third down.
“I’m gaining confidence when they’re gaining confidence,” Thomas said of his receivers. “The more I see them with smiles on their faces when they’re out there on the practice field or game field and I know they’re having fun, it kind of gives me a peace that if I put it out there then they’re going to do their best to make a play.”
Thomas found his third option, wide receiver Willie Byrn, often on those conversions, perhaps the best sign yet that he is adjusting to Loeffler’s system. Under former quarterbacks coach Mike O’Cain, Thomas did not need to rely on a progression system to determine where to throw the ball, and it has represented his biggest adjustment this season.
Nonetheless, the Hokies currently rank 114th in the country in passing efficiency and 108th in total offense through three games. Thomas also is still prone to mistakes with his mechanics, and he already has four interceptions after setting an offseason goal of throwing less than five.
“You can fix the physical stuff. It’s whenever a guy is throwing into coverage constantly. That drives you nuts,” said Loeffler.
But after three games together, Loeffler and Thomas have increasingly found themselves on the same wavelength. On top of their discussion to start the second half, Thomas noted there was a moment during last week’s game in which he got on the headset “and knew exactly what his thoughts were.”
Thomas drew comfort from the synergy.
“That’s how you’re supposed to understand each other,” he said.