March 28, 2017

About James O'Hara

James O’Hara is a Contributor to District Sports Page covering Virginia Tech football. James is a 2014 graduate of Tech and a diehard Hokie fan. He has serious nostalgia for Blacksburg and always gets pumped up by the opening bars of “Enter Sandman”. James also writes about the Nationals for Citizens of NatsTown and general MLB for the Washington Post Fancy Stats blog. Follow him on Twitter @nextyeardc.

Virginia Tech: Hokies lose in controversial fashion in Beamer’s last home game

The thank yous and tears were flowing at Lane Stadium Saturday afternoon as the entire Virginia Tech community celebrated the final home game of head coach Frank Beamer’s illustrious career.  Going up against the underranked No. 17 North Carolina Tar Heels, the outcome on the field didn’t feel as important as properly expressing gratitude for the man who essentially built Virginia Tech into the university it is today. With the Tar Heels pulling out the 30-27 victory in overtime on a controversial touchdown catch.

With 5:36 left in the game it looked like the Hokies getting a win for Beamer’s last home game wasn’t in the cards with the Tar Heels holding a two touchdown lead and the ball. But as Lee Corso once said “I don’t know what a Hokie is, but God is one of them” and it seemed like the Hokies got some divine intervention as Tar Heels quarterback Marquise Williams fumbled twice to let the Hokies grab two last minute touchdowns and tie the game at 24 with a minute left to play. After stuffing the Tar Heels last gasp drive, Tech took a knee to send the game to overtime and let Hokie fans celebrate Beamer a little bit longer.

The Hokies opened the overtime period with a 42-yard Joey Slye field goal to take the 27-24 lead and put the pressure on the defense again. Despite rising to that call for the entire game, the Hokies defense finally buckled, allowing a quick pass to put the Tar Heels down to the 9 yard line. The Hokies managed to force third and goal, but a great pass by Williams and an awful ruling by the refs on a clearly incomplete pass gave the Tar Heels the win and a bittersweet ending to the affair.

The day started with Beamer leading the Hokies out of the North Endzone tunnel for the final time to the bars of Enter Sandman and a full stadium cheer of “Thank You — Beamer!” The good feelings were quickly sapped as the Tar Heels took their first possession of the game 80 yards for a Williams touchdown to take a quick 7-0 lead. It looked like a long day was ahead for the Hokie faithful.

But then Bud Foster’s defense righted the ship and put on one of their best performances of the season against one of the best offenses in the nation. Six of the Tar Heels next seven drives ended in four or less plays, six punts and one fumble. The Tech defensive line was dominant, finishing the day with four tackles for a loss, a sack and two forced fumbles while the rest of the defense tacked on two more tackles for a loss.

However, as has always been the story for Frank Beamer’s Hokies the offense could do nothing with the prime situations the defense was putting them in. Unlike the Tar Heels, the Tech offense was able to get some sustained drives; a nine play 28 yard drive and a nine play 42 yard drive ate up 8:17 of the clock but yielded no points. The Hokies finally got on the scoreboard early in the second quarter on a 32 yard Joey Slye field goal.

The two teams entered the half at 7-3 and amidst a moving video tribute to Beamer Virginia Tech fans could be forgiven for wondering if the Hokies could pull out one last upset for him.

Those prayers seemed on the Hokies’ second drive of the third quarter. After a moronic Dadi Nicolas penalty handed the Tar Heels a field goal to make it 10-3, Michael Brewer drove the Hokies offense 81 yards and called his own number on third and goal powering through tacklers to get into the end zone to make it a 10-10 game.

Then things took a turn for the worse as Sam Rogers fumbled to set up the Tar Heels for a touchdown and then Michael Brewer through two interceptions to give UNC another touchdown and the ball with only 5:36 left to go in the game with a two touchdown lead before the Hokies mounted their furious comeback to tie the game.

Virginia Tech: Hokies Win Beamer’s Final Techmo Bowl

It wasn’t pretty, but the Hokies managed to begin the Frank Beamer retirement tour on a bright note, securing a victory in the annual and heated Techmo Bowl, pulling out a 23-21 victory to move to 5-6 on the season. The Hokies defense was able to hold the Yellow Jackets to only 161 yards on the ground and secure three second half turnovers to allow the Tech offense to do just enough to win.

This was a game of contrasts, Cam Phillips had the best night of his career, catching 6 passes for 95 yards and having one rush for 24 yards, but he also had a fumble that snuffed out some early momentum for the Hokies. Quarterback Michael Brewer made a beautiful touchdown pass to Isaiah Ford at the end of the half to tie the game at 14, but he also threw a horrific interception for an easy Yellow Jacket Pick Six to put the Hokies back down 21-14. Joey Slye nailed a 29-yard field goal and was 4/5 on touchbacks, but he also missed a 40-yard field goal and an extra point that made it a two point game rather than three.

In the end though the Hokies defense took over, stifling a tricky Georgia Tech offense for what was easily their best performance of the season. It wasn’t a perfect night, with a 58-yard pass on the second play of the game setting up a touchdown and a couple offsides penalties extending Yellow Jacket drives, but they got the job done in the second half.

After Brewer’s Pick Six to open the quarter the Yellow Jacket drives ended like so: fumble, punt, fumble, fumble, punt. The last fumble set up Travon McMillian’s four yard touchdown run that put the Hokies up 23-21. McMillian had his fourth straight 100-yard game, putting up 135 yards on 24 carries shining brightly as a star in the making.

That still left seven minutes for the Yellow Jackets to take the lead. And after a botched first attempt ended in a punt and the Hokies went three and out Georgia Tech took over with four minutes left for their game winning drive. A bad penalty by Deon Clarke moved the Yellow Jackets to near midfield and a 13 yard pass got the Jackets on the cusp of field goal position. However, the Hokies defense stood strong once more, stuffing Thomas on second down where a scrum broke out leading to a 15-yard penalty on the Yellow Jackets. A third down sack by Ken Ekanem put the game down to 4th and 27 where a Justin Thomas pass fluttered harmlessly to the ground to secure the victory for the Hokies.

The Hokie defense finished the night with the three turnovers, seven tackles for a loss, two sacks and holding Georgia Tech to just 5-12 on third down conversions. This isn’t the Georgia Tech offense that was expected at the start of the season, but it was a great, complete performance to start off the last three games of Frank Beamer’s career. It was also key for their hopes of keeping the 22 year bowl game streak alive; at 5-5 the Hokies now just need to win one game against the surprisingly competent North Carolina Tar Heels and perpetual doormat Virginia Cavaliers, a much easier task than going for the sweep.

VIRGINIA TECH Football: Hokies bounce back against Eagles

Travon McMillian, Joey Slye and the Virginia Tech defense. Yes, they’re three people who have never been in my kitchen, but they’re also the three groups who led the Virginia Tech Hokies to a much needed 26-10 victory over the Boston College Eagles to move to 4-5 on the season and keep their bowl hopes alive.

McMillian ran for 100 yards for the second straight week and over 90 yards for the fourth straight week. His 105 yards on 33 carries (a new career high) made him the first player to run for over 56 yards against the stout Boston College defense. He’s been one of the biggest bright spots on the season for the Hokies and along with Michael Brewer’s 15-21 for 180 yards, one touchdown and one interception day led a Hokies offense into doing just enough to beat the best defense in the country. [Read more…]

Virginia Tech: Hokies miss opportunities, fall to Blue Devils

Quarterback Michael Brewer made his long awaited second start of the season, but that wasn’t enough to flip the script for the Hokies this season as they slept walk through another close loss to a decent opponent, losing 45-43 to Duke in four overtimes. It took the Blue Devils one play in the fourth overtime to score a touchdown and then quarterback Thomas Sirk powered across the goal line to give the Blue Devils the two point victory.

It was the Hokies’ third loss by one possession this season and their 13th in the last four seasons as they have perfected doing just enough to lose. Like in their losses to Miami, Pitt and East Carolina, the outcome was a real team effort. with mistakes on offense, defense and special teams all contributing to pushing the Hokies record to 3-5 and out of the ACC Championship game picture. [Read more…]

Virginia Tech: Depth issues define Hokies in 2010s

In any sport at any level, depth is the often hidden difference between an OK team and a dynasty. In the professional ranks and at the upper echelon of the college games nearly every team can put together a solid starting lineup that when all together can compete with the best. The difference is the next wave, the ones that are called upon because of injury, misfortune or the simple need for a breather. Every team will see a drop off between the starters and the backups, but the very best keep that difference to a minimum.

For the last couple years and especially in 2015, one of the Hokies’ biggest problem has been depth, acquiring, developing and maintaining it. While they’ve put plenty of star players on both side of the ball, as demonstrated by their ten players drafted by the NFL from 2012-15, they’ve failed to develop players behind that first line. Once promising seasons crumble under the weight of injuries and lack of suitable replacements, leading to a 25-20 record over the same period.

In no season is this more evident than the current one and not just because of the major injuries to team leaders Michael Brewer, Andrew Motuapuaka and Kendall Fuller. But those are the most visible example. While Brenden Motley has adjusted OK to the starting quarterback role as Brewer recovers, it was clear against Ohio State that he was not prepared to enter the game as the starter. Whether that’s more on him or the coaches is up for debate, but the offense stagnated and let the Buckeyes get away. For Motuapuaka and Fuller the backup plans were much worse.

All that’s behind Motuapuaka is walk-on sophomore Sean Huelskamp and true freshman Carson Lydon, not even meeting the minimum level of depth one would expect at a major college program at the most important position on the defense. Nothing against Huelskamp and Lydon, but they should be 4th and 5th options, not the first ones.

Who was behind Fuller on the depth chart is a question even the Tech coaches didn’t seem to know the answer to. Redshirt freshman Terrel Edmunds practiced in Fuller’s spot. But against East Carolina Greg Stroman moved over from nickel to fill in for Fuller, with Mook Reynolds filling in for him.  Like with Motley, it was clearly evident that the Hokies had no real plan in place in case they need to replace the preseason All-American. But this was even worse considering Fuller’s injury had been known and nagging him for weeks before he went out. The plan was still muddled a week later as Edmunds then took over the position and Stroman moved over to the wide receiver position.

Wide receiver is emblematic of the other depth issue the Hokies have had, lack of quality players to spell their starters in game. Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips have 49 of Tech receivers’ 51 catches this season, with Kevin Asante and Demitri Knowles each checking in with one. Knowles (who had 45 catches in 2013) and Asante are seniors, fellow backup Charley Meyer is a junior as is highly ranked playmaker Joel Caleb. That none have been able to develop enough to see the field for even a few plays to spell Ford and Phillips is a strong condemnation of the Hokie coaching staff’s ability to develop players. The versatility of tight ends Ryan Malleck and Bucky Hodges have been able to cover some of the deficiencies, but that’s not a long term solution.

The same issue presents itself on the defensive line where the second unit of redshirt junior Nigel Williams, redshirt sophomore Seth Dooley and redshirt freshmen Vinny Mihota and Steve Sobczak simply can’t be trusted to be out on the field for an extended period of time to give the Hokies’ monster first line adequate rest. The only effective backup has been Woody Baron, but with Corey Marshall’s hamstring injury, he’s more of a starter now. Williams is the most disappointing considering he started 10 games last season and had 4.5 sacks. That he’s backslid so far as to not be allowed on the field for more than a play or two is a sign of sloppy coaching and an inability to keep players motivated when they don’t see the field.

The best teams like Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State don’t have these issues. When a starter goes down or comes out there’s another highly recruited stud, prepped and ready to take his spot for however long. It’s startlingly clear the Hokies are not even close to sniffing this level. They have little depth at some positions, failed to develop depth at others and most importantly seem to be caught completely unprepared when a player needs to come out of the game. Until the Hokies fix these systemic issues, they won’t be able to reach the heights the fans expect any time soon.

Virginia Tech Football: Hokies stifled by Panthers

The Virginia Tech Hokies recent history against the Pittsburgh Panthers hasn’t been good. Entering Saturday they had dropped five of their last six games against Pitt despite entering five of those contests as the higher-ranked team. However, Saturday’s 17-13 loss brought the Curse of Pitt to a new low as the Hokies were thoroughly dominated by the Panthers defense.

The Tech offense finished with exactly 100 total yards of offense and just nine yards rushing. The previous low in total yards for the Hokies since 2000 was 139 yards against Miami in 2006, a game they somehow won 17-10. The nine rushing yards are tied with Louisiana Monroe for the fifth-least amount of rushing yards by an FBS school this season. They’re the least put up by a Power 5 school this season. [Read more…]

Virginia Tech – Pittsburgh Preview: History discouraging for Hokies

Usually the Virginia Tech Hokies wait until after their game against the University of Pittsburgh Panthers to begin a long streak of misfortunes, poor play and upset losses. However, this season they’ve gotten a head start, losing to a much weaker East Carolina for the second season in a row behind a sloppy defense before losing All-American cornerback Kendall Fuller for the season to a torn meniscus. Compared to that the horrors that will be unleashed by the Curse of Pitt might not seem as bad.

Rest assured that the Curse of Pitt is real and it is spectacular. The Hokies played their final season in the Big East in 2003, when they went from preseason No. 9, to 8-5. The next season in the ACC they began their vaunted 10-win season streak. That streak came to an end in 2012, when, you guessed it, the Panthers moved to the ACC and back onto the Hokies yearly schedule. They haven’t recovered yet.

The Hokies were a combined 33-6 entering their last six games against the Panthers, but from that point on they went a combined 16-25 including the game against Pittsburgh and bowl games.

And the actual games themselves haven’t gone that well either. Overall the Hokies are just 8-6 against the Panthers, despite Pitt not being one of the better teams in football. In fact, the Panthers were only ranked once in the 14 meetings between the two teams, at No. 25, where they of course beat the No. 5 Hokies in 2003. Tech has entered the contest ranked 10 of those times, yet is only 5-5 in those meetings. So yes, you better respect the Curse of Pitt.

Not that the Hokies are really entering this week’s game on a high note. After back-to-back thrashings of Furman and Purdue they ran into a real opponent in East Carolina. A clever wrinkle from Pirates head coach Ruffin McNeill using a running quarterback and a missing Kendall Fuller led to the Hokies’ supposedly vaunted defense to be run off the field.

Not that Bud Foster’s unit has been that good this year. They were projected in the preseason by S&P+ to be the No. 2 defense in the nation, but so far have checked in at No. 60. Their big four defensive line of Ken Ekanem, Luther Maddy, Corey Marshall and Dadi Nicolas have combined for one sack. While little depth across the field has forced the few stars they have to work overtime to keep things running and making every little injury devastating.

There is some good news on that front though as middle linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka is expected to return Saturday. Even better news considering fill-in starter Sean Huelskamp was ejected from the game against the Pirates for a ridiculous targeting penalty and is subsequently suspended from the first half of the game against the Panthers.

However, the Hokies still need that unit to play up to its expectations if they want to see any success this season.

Offensively the Hokies saw a vintage Logan Thomas performance from 2014 preseason ACC Player of the Year vote receiver quarterback Brenden Motley who accounted for 85 percent of their total yards and scoring two touchdowns. The Tech offense continues to be the better unit to the surprise of everyone, checking in at No. 39 by S&P+. Perhaps its their ability to take care of the ball, as Brewer and Motley have combined for only two interceptions so far.

The Panthers will present a tough test, similar to the Pirates, as they’re the No. 50 team in the advanced F/+ Combined Rankings. That’s not to say that the Panthers are doing all that well either. They’re 2-1 on the season, with the two wins coming against two FCS opponents and then dropping a close game to Iowa. And like the Hokies they’ve been banged up. Losing all world running back James Conner to a season ending knee injury in the first week of the season.

But they do still have a major weapon in wide receiver Tyler Boyd, one of the best in the nation. He’ll severely test the new Fuller-less secondary that struggled mightily against East Carolina’s wideouts. The question is whether the Panthers can get the ball to him as they move forward with new starting quarterback Nathan Peterman. With a full week without Fuller the Hokies will need to identify a better scheme to shutdown Boyd than they did for East Carolina, otherwise it won’t matter what Motley can do.

And always beware the Curse of Pitt.

Virginia Tech – East Carolina Preview

The East Carolina Pirates are one of the better non-Power Five schools to never make a top bowl game. There’s still a significant talent gap, but the Pirates’ 5-11 record against Power Five opponents the past five seasons shows a school that can surprise a team when given the chance. The Virginia Tech Hokies, however, are all too familiar with the talents of the Pirates, having lost to them 28-21 last season.

The Pirates biggest challange is their Air Raid offense, designed to keep opposing defenses under a constant barrage of quick, hard to defend pass plays. Last season star quarterback Shane Carden and top receivers Cam Worthy and Justin Hardy beat the Hokies’ vaunted secondary time and again in one-on-one to amass a 21 point lead in just 12 minutes. [Read more…]

Virginia Tech: Hokies dominate for second straight week

The Virginia Tech Hokies had over 450 total yards on offense (471) and over 40 points (51) for the second week in a row, this time against Power Five foe the Purdue Boilermakers. It was the first time the Hokies had back-to-back games with over 40 points since their streak of four from Oct. 2 to Oct. 23, 2010 and the first time they’ve scored at least 50 points against a Power Five opponent since beating Wake Forest 52-10 during that streak.

It was vintage Beamerball for the Hokies as they got contributions from all over the field with a defensive touchdown, a special teams touchdown, two running touchdowns and a pair of passing touchdowns. Fill-in starting quarterback Brenden Motley looked in control all game, finishing 15/24 for 220 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions and one fumble. Meanwhile the Tech defense held Purdue to just 265 total yards and 9 first downs, nabbing two interceptions and forcing a fumble.

The Hokies jumped out to a hot start, forcing Purdue to go three-and-out on their first drive, before driving 49 yards and settling for a Joey Slye 35 yard field goal. On the Boilermakers next drive preseason All-American Kendall Fuller got to quarterback Austin Appleby on a third down blitz and stripped him forcing a fumble which safety Chuck Clark scooped up and returned 20 yards to put Tech up 10-0.

The Boilermakers struck right back though, stringing together their best offensive drive of the game, going 74 yards on nine plays to make it 10-7 Tech. After a pair of punts the Hokies had a long drive of their own, driving 88 yards to Purdue’s 2 yard line. But then a missed protection left Motley’s blindside uncovered and a sack fumble was returned to put the Boilermakers ahead 14-10.

Bucky Hodges’ first touchdown of the season put the Hokies back on top. A Purdue field goal and a Motley touchdown run would close out the scoring for an exciting first half with Tech on top 24-17.

But as they showed against Furman last week, the Hokies proved to be a second half team, scoring 17 points in the third quarter and 20 unanswered points in the second half to bury the Boilermakers. The second half started similarly to that game as well, with a big run, as Der’Woun Green returned the kickoff 82 yards. Tech settled for a field goal in what might’ve been a bigger story had they not followed that up with two more touchdowns.

The first came on an 8 play, 42 yard drive that culminated in a J.C. Coleman one yard touchdown run. The second brought up memories of Virginia Tech teams past as Tremaine Edmunds broke through the Boilermakers punt protection to get a hand on the ball and spring Anthony Shegog for a 15 yard touchdown. The Hokies had already had a couple close calls earlier in the game.

After a Purdue four and out Joey Slye tacked on three more points on a 46-yard field goal to put the game on ice. For the second week in a row the Hokies were able to get valuable playing time for their backups for most of the fourth quarter. A Markell Jones 60 yard touchdown run with seven minutes left forced the starting offense back on the field where they drained five minutes from the clock before Hodges’ second touchdown grab of the game to close it out.

Freshman Adonis Alexander took over full-time for Desmond Frye at safety and grabbed his second interception in as many games. Walk-on sophomore and new starting middle linebacker Sean Heulskamp also nabbed an interception late in the game to cap off a good effort in his first career start.

Tech finished the game with 11 penalties for 87 yards, something that would’ve been more noteworthy if the offense hadn’t taken over.

Virginia Tech: Hokies’ plan for replacing injured Motuapuaka and other notes

After a big, needed win over FCS opponent Furman the big news of the week for the Virginia Tech Hokies leading up to their first away game against Purdue was the loss of starting middle linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka.

Motuapuaka exited the game against Furman in the third quarter, in what was originally deemed a minor injury. Earlier this week it was instead revealed that he had an MCL sprain and could be sidelined for four weeks, a substantial loss for Bud Foster’s defense. While Motuapuaka struggled against Ohio State, the depth behind him is thin in the form of Sean Huelskamp, a walk-on redshirt sophomore, a true freshman Carson Lydon.

Middle linebacker is an especially important position on the defense as they are responsible for calling plays and reading and adjusting the defensive positioning to match the offense along with heavy responsibilities in the run and pass attack. Even with Motuapuaka’s shortcomings, he was clearly the best the Hokies had.

Huelskamp will be the starter for now, as his three years in the system likely means he has a better handle of the play calls and adjustments needed. How well he can actually play the position once the ball is snapped though is up for debate. A walk-on isn’t likely to have the same physical tools as a real recruit.

Lydon on the other hand was a solid three-star prospect and certainly has the physical tools, but like with fellow freshman Dwayne Lawson on the offensive side, it’s uncertain whether he can handle all the pre-snap responsibilities. The Hokies were originally planning to redshirt him, but head coach Frank Beamer indicated that those plans would change in his weekly radio appearance Monday. Expect him to mix in with Huelskamp to start and if he adapts well, to slowly take the reins full-time.

Either way this will be a hard adjustment for the Hokies who were already weakest on defense at linebacker heading into the season. They’ll have to lean even more on their talented and experienced defensive line and corners until Motuapuaka returns.

 

Other Notes

  • Tech’s defense has famously had the Lunch Pail which has carried a number of traditions including placing dirt from the fields of vanquished foes inside and being awarded to the defensive MVP of the week. Well now Tech’s offensive line has introduced a trophy of their own, a custom designed meat tenderizer lovingly titled “The Fool’s Hammer” which is awarded to the offensive lineman with the best week in practice. Maybe that’s what’s been behind their resurgence early this season, or it could be Wyatt Teller mauling every defensive player in sight.
  • Advanced Stats Corner: Virginia Tech checked in as the 25th best team in the nation in the F/+ Combined Rankings which is overall advanced measurement of how a team performed on offense, defense and special teams. That’s 4th best in the ACC behind Georgia Tech, Florida State and Clemson. Interestingly, by S&P+ component stats, one of the pieces used to make F/+, the Hokies offense is what’s holding up the team so far, at No. 10 in the nation, while the defense is down at No. 61. Expect that to change as the season progresses, but a good sign nonetheless for a beleaguered unit.
  • Ever since David Wilson left campus for the bright lights of the NFL it’s seemed impossible for the Hokies to settle on even two tailbacks they liked, running through large combinations of players. That’s continued this season with J.C. Coleman, Trey Edmunds, Travon McMillan and Shai McKenzie all seeing significant time. Running backs coach Shane Beamer indicated this week that that isn’t likely to change soon. And don’t forget Marshawn Williams, who is nearly ready to return from his torn ACL.
  • The Hokies will be making the trip to West Lafayette, Indiana for their first road game of the season against the Purdue Boilermakers, their second Big Ten team in three games. The Boilermakers won’t be quite as tough as Ohio State though, they’re ranked No. 82 in the F/+ Combined Rankings. However, any road game is still a significant test for a team counting on a couple of green players in important roles.
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