Each week, Ill (hopefully) talk to a beat writer who covers Dukes opponent. Today we have Andy Bitter, who covers the Hokies for the Roanoke Times/Virginian-Pilot. Links to his work can be found here and check out his blog here. Andyis also on Twitter at @AndyBitterVT.
1. After last year's 7-6 campaign and near-losses to Conference USAs Marshall and East Carolina, many were declaring the end of the Frank Beamer era of dominance. Since then, though, the Hokies have gone 3-0 in conference play and risen to No. 16 in the AP Poll. Is everything back to normal in Blacksburg?
In a way, yes. The offense, at least since Michael Vick left Blacksburg, has never really been anything special. Even during the Tyrod Taylor years, Tech had some pretty statistically bad offenses. So the fact that Scot Loefflers crew ranks 110th nationally in total yards isnt really too much of a departure from what the Hokies have been like in the past decade. But theyre doing some things more effectively on offense. Quarterback Logan Thomas looks sharper, especially with his progressions and mechanics. The receivers are making plays. Theyre not making crippling turnovers like they were last year. In essence, theyre doing just enough.
And just enough is more than enough for this defense, which is a vintage Bud Foster group, limiting the yards but also disrupting things by getting to the quarterback and forcing turnovers. Even the tight wins against Marshall and East Carolina -- who I think are actually pretty decent teams -- were how Virginia Tech normally wins games: lean on the defense and get enough offense to do the trick. Its been a successful formula for Beamer for the last 20-plus years. It makes sense that its working again this season.
2. Last year's defense was a surprise disappointment, but this year's has been a pleasant surprise, ranking No. 2 in the country in total defense. Why is this year's group so much better?
If you ask Foster, hell say experience and depth. The starting defensive line and inside linebackers have five seniors among them. The secondary has everyone, except for Antone Exum so far, back and in the same spot they were playing last year (they shuffled things around in the 2012 offseason). And on top of that experience, Tech doesnt drop off significantly when it gets to the backups, especially up front. The d-line goes about eight deep. Its good enough that the Hokies are trying to find a role for sophomore defensive end Dadi Nicolas, who had three sacks in a hybrid DE/OLB position against Pittsburgh.
The other big thing has been the true freshman cornerbacks, Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson. Theyve played well beyond their years, enough that the Hokies havent had Exum, a second-team All-ACC performer last year, play in a game this season and they still rank third nationally in passing defense and interceptions. Fuller has been able to play both a regular cornerback spot and a nickelback position, which Tech has used the vast majority of the time (and will against Duke). Facyson has thrived when hes been in, with a team-high four picks (although hes dealing with a concussion this week). Last year, Tech didnt have anybody after Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum at corner. This year, they do.
3. If Duke is going to stay in this game, it's going to be because the offense is putting up points. Where is the weakest spot in the defense?
There arent a ton of weaknesses, although I will say the Hokies have occasionally been vulnerable on passes across the middle. Safety Detrick Bonner hasnt had the most consistent season in pass coverage and has given up some yardage in one-on-one matchups across over the middle. Other than that, there arent many chinks in the armor. The key is probably protection. The Hokies pass defense has been good, but thats in large part thanks to the pressure the defensive line is putting on the quarterback. Duke will have to protect well and Anthony Boone will need to get rid of the ball quickly, because Virginia Techs opponents havent had a whole bunch of time to throw this year.
A mobile quarterback has a much better shot. Pitts Tom Savage was a sitting duck a few weeks ago (Tech sacked him eight times and probably could have had 12), but Marshalls Rakeem Cato and North Carolinas Marquise Williams had some success moving around in the pocket and getting some decent yardage scrambling. It definitely gives the Hokies at least one more thing to think about.
4. Part of the reason the Hokies almost lost to C-USA teams was because of that anemic offense, led by the uneven performances of QB Logan Thomas. You look at the point totals from the three ACC wins - 17-10 over Georgia Tech, 27-17 over UNC and 19-9 over Pitt -- and they don't jump off the page. Has the offense improved of late, though?
I think it has, even though the running game has still been abysmal, one of the worst the Hokies have had under Beamer in fact. But Thomas has played better. In ACC play, hes completing 65 percent of his passes for 251 yards a game, with five touchdowns and no interceptions. Hes thrown 109 straight passes without an interception, which is approaching his career-best streak. Its helped that the receivers, who had about 10 drops in the season-opening loss to Alabama, have come around, turning into viable options for Thomas to throw to. The offensive line has been OK at pass blocking but leaves plenty to be desired on the ground.
The Hokies arent going to have an offense that goes up and down the field and put up great stats, but with a defense like they have, they dont really have to. So far, theyve controlled the clock (36th nationally in time of possession) and havent turned the ball over. Last years team struggled with both of those things, and it stressed a defense that wasnt quite up to the task of carrying things. This year, Tech has that defense, so Beamer is content with winning ugly. The key is Thomas. If hes off, there arent many players on the offense who can carry the day.
5. How and why is Cody Journell still the Hokies' kicker? He's 7-of-11 on field goal attempts this year and has missed at least one kick in the last four games he's lined up for a field goal (and he went 0-for-2 against ECU)?
Beamer seems to have a soft spot for Journell, who was the first scholarship kicker hes had straight out of high school since Shayne Graham and who has had some missteps -- an ugly breaking and entering arrest that led him to miss the 11 Sugar Bowl and a recent one-game suspension for a violation of team rules -- that most coaches wouldnt put up with.
On top of that, he was genuinely bad in the East Carolina game earlier this year. He technically only finished 0-for-2 on field goal attempts, but he also missed an extra point and had another field goal miss from a reasonable distance wiped out by a penalty. He was suspended for the Marshall game and has since been OK, although he has some strange misses. He was good from 39 at Georgia Tech but then had a dead pull from one of the hashes on a 25-yarder that would have put the game away. He went 4-for-5 with a career-long 48-yarder against Pittsburgh (earning ACC Specialist of the Week honors), but he also missed from 33.
Bottom line: hes a senior and Tech doesnt really have anybody else. Ethan Keyserling stepped in during Journells suspension against Marshall and went 0-for-3 (although the weather was horrible that game). Journell is good enough to hit from 50, and he saved the Hokies butt on three or four occasions last year, but I dont know if anyone in Blacksburg, outside of Beamer, is entirely comfortable whenever hes lining up for a kick.
Bonus: I was asked to do this after dropping the ball last weekend in Charlottesville: where are good breakfast spots in Blacksburg for the early arrives, and where should out-of-towners head to get dinner and a drink after the game?
I dont know of too many good breakfast spots. Dont get out that early too often. I think Leftys Main Street Grille has a solid breakfast. Bull & Bones also has a breakfast, although I havent sampled it yet.
As for afterward, both of those places are good dinner options too. Cabo Fish Taco is one of my personal favorites for lunch/dinner. I recommend the Soy Ginger Shrimp Tacos. Downtown, TOTS is probably the bar most people will suggest for post-game drinking (order a Rail). Id also suggest Bull & Bones for drinking afterward. Its a little bit away from downtown and they brew their own beer.
Thanks to Andy for his time. Be sure to check back during the rest of the week for more Duke football news.