Moral Victories

Date: September 1, 2013
Words: 1,000
Publisher: Gobbler Town

Last night Virginia Tech fell to top-ranked Alabama by a score of 35-10. Scores can be deceiving. Despite a twenty-five point margin of victory, the actual game told a surprisingly different story. Hokies fans should come away from the first game feeling good, if not overly enthused, about the rest of the season. With a stalwart defense maintaining its level of play along with improvement by the wide receivers and special teams, Virginia Tech has a real shot to challenge for the ACC championship. Here’s why:

1. Virginia Tech dominated Alabama up front on both sides of the ball. The Hokie defensive line was absolutely ferocious. Linebackers flew into the backfield and made plays consistently. It seemed that Alabama was simply determined to run the ball, and they failed miserably. It wasn’t anything like the first meeting between the two teams where Virginia Tech had success early and then got worn down as the game moved into the fourth quarter.

Virginia Tech seemed like the more motivated, more aggressive, and more physical team. Seemingly every defensive lineman had a great night. James Gayle couldn’t be blocked. Derrick Hopkins and Luther Maddy slanted and blew up running plays time and time again. J.R. Collins and Dadi Nicolas gave Alabama’s left tackle, Cyrus Kouandjio, arguably the best left tackle in college football, fits all night. The grouping frequently pressured A.J. McCarron, and when he did get the ball off the Hokies’ defensive backs proved up to the challenge.

2. On the flip side, Virginia Tech’s offensive line also played very well and looked much improved from last season’s abysmal blocking efforts. After starting with several quick passes and some fancy plays that didn’t result in much success, Tech committed to giving Trey Edmunds the ball and let the results (including a 70-yard touchdown run) do the talking. Edmunds consistently hit holes hard and got solid yardage even if there wasn’t much room to run through. While the final score wasn’t what Tech fans were hoping for going into the matchup, the running game at least provided a glimmer of hope for what’s to come.

3. Virginia Tech’s wide receiver play was perhaps the low point of the evening, save the only two meaningful completed passes in the game. The first was a nice ball to DJ Coles on a deep crossing route that went for good yardage. The second was a long completion to Josh Stanford on a beautiful corner route. Given the Hokies’ passing woes, it makes it even more surprising they were able to run the ball so well.

Logan Thomas missed on multiple deep balls, but he also threw several passes that should have been caught. Drops were a serious issue, and the two biggest culprits were Demitri Knowles and veteran DJ Coles. Josh Stanford’s lack of targets must be taken with some concern. He is the Hokies’ best wide receiver when Coles is out of the mix. Whether he was getting open or not, his quiet performance was an unpleasant surprise.

For much of the game, Alabama’s defense was predicated on playing man coverage against Virginia Tech’s out-matched receivers, taking away short throws and forcing the Hokies to go deep, where they struggled. They brought a variety of blitzes to keep Logan Thomas from having time to throw. That was the exact game-plan the Crimson Tide utilized in 2009, and it worked just as well the second time around.

Fortunately, there won’t be many other teams on the Hokies’ schedule with the defensive personnel to successfully implement such an effective game plan. The ACC, in particular, lacks defenses that can leave secondary players on an island all game. This bodes well for Virginia Tech’s passing game looking toward the rest of the season.

4. Special teams, particularly kick and punt coverage, was perhaps the worst it’s been under legendary head coach Frank Beamer. A pair of Alabama kick and punt return touchdowns rapidly changed the swing of momentum and essentially put the game out of reach. Avoiding those would have made it a one-score contest in the fourth quarter.

Special teams gaffes were especially disappointing for a program that’s become so well-known for outstanding special teams play. The first thing that jumped out was Alabama’s terrific return man. He broke several tackles on his way to his first touchdown. The second was that Virginia Tech played several young players, more than any other season in recent memory. Being welcomed to college football by the reigning national champions certainly isn’t a position many would envy.   

Final Thoughts

The Hokies finished the night with more yards of offense than Alabama. Virginia Tech’s defense dominated, and the offensive line had their best performance in some time. Poor special teams and wide receiver play put the game out of reach fairly early, but there were still plenty signs of optimism for the future.  

This isn’t the same Virginia Tech team that needed overtime to beat Boston College and Rutgers. This team could be very good, and it’s possible they make it back to the ACC championship barring injuries to key starters. Winning the rest of the schedule and competing for the conference title is a reachable goal for Beamer’s boys if they continue to improve and the defense dominates week in and week out.

The Hokies have already won the ACC four times since being admitted. This appears to be another iteration of those same hard-nosed, vintage Virginia Tech units. That’s a recipe for success against conference foes that rely heavily on spreading the field and utilizing speed over physicality. Virginia Tech has a pedigree of producing tough, relentless, and blue collar football teams, and if they can sustain the positive traits they showed against Alabama while cleaning up some of the foibles, they should quickly return to their winning ways of old.