Each week, I’ll (hopefully) talk to a beat writer who covers Duke’s opponent. Today, we have Andy Bitter, who covers Virginia Tech for the Roanoke Times. Check out Andy’s work here and follow him on Twitter at @AndyBitterVT.
And if you’re interested, I answered five questions about Duke for him here.
Let’s get to it:
1. So just two teams have been eliminated from Coastal contention—Virginia Tech and Virginia. I know some smart, savvy writers predicted back in July that the Hokies would win the division. Briefly: why has it all gone so wrong? And how, exactly, did this team beat Ohio State in Columbus?
Although I also picked Virginia Tech to win the division, I’ll assume you’re talking about the venerable David Teel here. In short, the offense has still been a mess, the defense hasn’t quite been as good as they’d hoped, injuries have ravaged this team and they’re extremely young. But other than that, everything’s going great.
You don’t want to pin something strictly on injuries, and certainly not when facing a Duke team that has had significant injuries of its own and hasn’t really missed a beat. But they have played a factor. You go back to the Ohio State game and Tech was probably as healthy as it has been this year. But more than that, it played with nothing to lose. The Hokies didn’t play all that differently than they have all year in that game. They still had turnovers (3) and they still had penalties (10 for 107), but they played with a confidence that hasn’t been around since then. Quarterback Michael Brewer was rolling out and throwing passes from the end zone. Players shook off turnovers like they wouldn’t be an issue on the next drive. The offense answered a game-tying touchdown drive by Ohio State late with a touchdown drive of its own. The defense blitzed with impunity and the secondary made plays on the ball in the air.
Basically, it was everything the Hokies have not been since then. Now it seems like the second anything goes wrong, there’s almost a sense of dread that it’s going to continue to go that way. I never got that feeling when the wide-eyed group went up to Columbus. Tech hasn’t been abysmal. Four of its five losses have been by less than a touchdown. And while the Ohio State game was a 14-point final margin, it was essentially a one-possession game right up to the end. The Hokies simply haven’t been able to make those plays to put them over the top since then.
2. I know injuries have been part of the problem—give us a rundown of some missing key pieces. And is that a valid excuse for the season's results thus far?
On defense, the Hokies have been without a pair of All-ACC players from last year, defensive tackle Luther Maddy (knee) and cornerback Brandon Facyson (shin). Leading tackler Chase Williams injured his knee a few weeks back and hasn’t played since, although he’s hoping to give it a shot in a backup role this week.
On offense, the hits have come at positions of need. Shai McKenzie, who was starting to emerge as The Guy at running back, tore his ACL for a second time in two years. Trey Edmunds, last year’s leading rusher, just got back to full speed from last year’s broken leg when he broke his clavicle at North Carolina. Even leading rusher Marshawn Williams has been hobbled with an ankle sprain. The offensive line lost two seniors (Brent Benedict and Mark Shuman) before the season even began, and just recently two-year starter at tackle Jonathan McLaughlin was lost with a season-ending ankle injury, putting Wade Hansen, who was a defensive linemen as of August, into the starting lineup.
Like I said, injuries are part of the reason for the struggles, but not all. You see some of the youth that’s had to replace these guys struggle at times, and thanks to a couple of thin recruiting classes in 2010 and ‘11, the Hokies’ depth isn’t great, especially in the upper classes. But Tech’s overcome those issues before. At a certain point, you can’t pin everything that’s gone wrong on those injuries, but I’d certainly say it’s a major reason why the Hokies haven’t achieved what some people thought they could in the preseason.
3. Is quarterback Michael Brewer any better than the perennially frustrating Logan Thomas?
They’re actually more similar than what people first thought. Brewer was billed as the game manager type, the guy who would facilitate the offense and protect the ball. Well, he threw 11 interceptions in the first six games. He hasn’t thrown a pick in the last three, and part of that probably has to do with getting used to the offense (he only got here last June). But he is a guy who, when he gets in a rhythm, can really get going. He’s a Texas native and went to Texas Tech, so there’s some gunslinger to his personality. The best the Hokies’ offense has looked at times is when they’re so far behind that Brewer has to just start chucking the ball. He threw for 345 yards and two touchdowns two weeks ago in a losing effort against Boston College.
But he’s certainly not the physical freak that Thomas was, and lacking that 6-foot-6, 250-pound battering ram in the running game has had a serious effect on what the Hokies can do offensively. Thomas, I think, gets unfairly maligned for his career in Blacksburg. He was often the only offensive option Tech had, and when he actually got a little help on the field, the Hokies looked OK offensively. He was never accurate, and Brewer, who is a 61.9 percent passer, has already far exceeded anything Thomas did on that front. But the two are similar in this sense: they look far worse when they’re not getting any help from their teammates on offense, and the quarterback has been asked to carry all of the load far too often in Blacksburg in recent years.
4. Why can Virginia Tech hardly run the ball?
That’s the million dollar question. I think it’s as simple as this: the offensive line is really not that good. This has been a problem for years. Tech hasn’t recruited well up front. It had three combined o-line commitments in 2011 and ‘12. Only one of those players has started a game. The depth has been so bad there (and the injuries this year haven’t helped) that the Hokies have moved three different defensive tackles to the offensive line in the last two years. Two of them -- Wyatt Teller and Wade Hansen -- are starting, and honestly, are probably about as good as the rest of the group. You watch Tech play and there simply aren’t holes there to run through, certainly not against good defensive fronts. There’s a reason why the Hokies are throwing 10-12 wide receivers screens a game: they’re trying to find a way to compensate for a running game that can’t consistently get 3 yards by running between the tackles.
I think in time it will get better. The running back group has added some talent. When the 230-pound Williams is given a crease, he can be tough to take down and would seem like the kind of workhorse back that Tech wants to get back to. The Hokies signed three offensive linemen last year and, under first-year offensive line coach Stacy Searels, have five commitments for February. They’re going to need that to re-stock a depleted line up front, but that’s going to take time. This ground game crisis might not be fixed any time in the near future.
5. Bud Foster's defense isn't quite as formidable as it has been in the past, is it?
No, it’s not. It’s strange. You watch the defense play for 90 percent of the game and you’d say, “Yeah, that’s a Bud Foster group.” But the big plays have killed the Hokies. Tech has given up 56 plays of 20 yards or more, which ranks 118th nationally. It has allowed 27 runs of 20 or more yards, which is second to last in the FBS and is already more than than it has allowed in any of the last five seasons. Big plays played a large role in every one of the Hokies’ losses. Even in their last game against Boston College, the Eagles had a 68-yard touchdown run early and, the dagger, a 57-yard quarterback draw for a touchdown by Tyler Murphy on third-and-10 when the Hokies needed to get the ball back late in the fourth quarter, down only two at the time. If you look at a lot of the advanced stats, Tech still ranks pretty well defensively, but it has been so bad on the big plays that it has undone all the good it has done on all the other snaps.
Foster attributes some of that to youth. Because of the injuries, there are only two seniors starting on the defense, safeties Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett, and even they haven’t tackled very well. I think redshirt freshman linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka, who has filled in for Williams, epitomizes the defense. He has 25 tackles the last few weeks and Foster thinks he’s going to be very good in time. But he’s also had a few busts, as you’d expect from a young guy playing for the first time, and with as aggressive of a defense as the Hokies play, when you miss gap or get out-leveraged it can lead to a ballcarrier running free down the field.
Thanks to Andy for his time.