A view from the other side: five questions with Virginia Tech beat writer Andy Bitter (The Roanoke Times and Virginian-Pilot)
Thanks to Virginia Tech beat writer Andy Bitter of the Roanoke Times for giving his perspective on Saturday's game. Follow him on Twitter at @AndyBitterVT. For Andy's sake and all the fans coming to UM's Homecoming game Saturday, hope the weather forecasters are wrong about rain for tomorrow night.
The questions and answers:
SMD: Logan Thomas has had eight turnovers the last two games, both VT losses. Is there any undercurrent for change by the Hokies?
AB: There’s a growing sentiment among a minority of the fans that it’s time to move on from Logan Thomas, but you won’t hear that from his teammates or the coaching staff, who have backed the senior quarterback 100 percent. And probably rightfully so. Lost in the cries for change is the fact that Thomas still shoulders most of the offensive load, passing, obviously, but also rushing. He threw for 391 yards against Boston College and ran for a team-high 38. He accounted for 96 percent of the Hokies’ yards in that game. Earlier this year against Georgia Tech, he actually had more yards than the team had (other players accounted for negative yardage). His backup, Mark Leal, has never played meaningful minutes and doesn’t present a rushing threat, so thoughts of putting him in the game are more a fan’s fantasy than anything.
Thomas can still be an effective quarterback if he doesn’t turn the ball over. When Tech won its first three ACC games, he didn’t have a turnover. In the two games the Hokies have lost, he’s had eight. It’s pretty black and white. It’s unrealistic to think that a guy who has 33 turnovers since the start of last season is all of a sudden going to completely eliminate them, but if he can eliminate them at key moments -- like last week’s pick six on a terrible throw off his back foot across the middle when the game was tied at 20-20 -- then the Hokies have a good enough defense to carry the team. He just needs to be smart with the ball, or at least smarter than he’s shown the last few weeks.
SMD: Does anything change for Virginia Tech’s defensive approach now that Duke Johnson is out (broken ankle) and Dallas Crawford is in at running back for Miami?
AB: Talking to the coaches, they have a high respect for Crawford,too, so it doesn’t sound like the Hokies will do much different schematically from what they had intended on doing. Honestly, I don’t think they’ll change too much of what they’ve been doing all year, either. BC’s Andre Williams ran for 166 yards last week, but 62 of that came on one busted run at the end. His other 32 carries produced 102 yards, a 3.18 average, which is a number defensive coordinator Bud Foster would take in a second against the ACC’s leading rusher.
Stopping the run has still been Virginia Tech’s forte. It ranks ninth nationally, allowing only 102.7 yards per game. Only three teams have topped the 100-yard mark against the Hokies this year, and one was Georgia Tech, which only ran for 129 yards, less than half its season average. There has to be at least some relief on the Hokies that they won’t have to face Johnson, who ran for 100 yards against them last year, although it might be a bigger deal on special teams, where he’s a huge factor and reeled off an 81-yard kick return in last year’s matchup. Tech’s players and coaches talk about Miami as though it’s an assembly of great running backs (which it is), so they’re not taking things lightly simply because the established star is out. “It seems like the next running back down there is just waiting to be star,” head coach Frank Beamer said.
SMD: Stephen Morris hasn’t been too careful with the ball. Will the Hokies, who specialize in pressuring the quarterback and intercepting passes, be licking their chops?
AB: It’s been mentioned this week that Morris can be rattled. And rattling QBs is Virginia Tech’s specialty. The Hokies have 28 sacks, which are ninth-most nationally, and 17 interceptions, which is second. So they’ll no doubt come after Morris with all they’ve got, especially considering how important it is to get the ball in favorable field position for its struggling offense.
Granted, most teams know that that’s how Virginia Tech approaches things. Boston College was smart about it, putting its quarterback in max protect situations, rolling him away from pressure and rarely asking him to make any kind of throws downfield. The Eagles played that offense to a T and didn’t turn the ball over or allow a sack, which lessened the impact the Hokies’ defense could have on the game. I’d imagine Miami might try something similar, considering how turnover-prone Morris is. The Canes have a running game they can rely on. That’ll be key. The Hokies’ stated goal every week is to make teams one-dimensional by stopping the run, then go after the quarterback and force mistakes. Miami has to run it and throw it, or it will play into Tech’s hands.
SMD: Kicker Cody Journell has missed several field goals this year. Does Virginia Tech still have faith in him?
AB: Somewhat surprisingly. Journell has had a strange year. He’s just 10-for-16 on field goals and had a stretch where he couldn’t hit anything. Yet he’s also won ACC Specialist of the Week honors twice in the last four weeks, first for going 4-for-5 with a career-long 48-yarder against Pittsburgh and last week for hitting from 56 and 47 against Boston College. But in between those games, he missed two 40-plus field goals against Duke that ultimately was the difference in the game.
I don’t know if Hokies fans still trust him when he goes out there, but Beamer does. He’s showed a steadfast faith in the kicker throughout his struggles, against popular opinion, and was vindicated to a degree last week. Still, I think Journell is going to be a guy who could go back to his missing ways just as quickly as he regained his form. He just hasn’t been steady this year.
He’ll continue to kick, though. Tech doesn’t have many other options. Ethan Keyserling stepped in during the Marshall game when Journell was serving a one-game suspension and went 0-for-3 (admittedly in a driving rain). Journell’s made big kicks before -- he had three game-winners last year -- and Beamer, the one who counts, thinks he can do it again. So he’ll be the guy.
SMD: The Hokies were 7-6 last year and are coming off losses to Duke and Boston College this year. Is there any hope Frank Beamer can get this team back to what it once was, winning 10 games a year?
AB: It’ll be a process. When the Hokies were 6-1, everyone thought this team was back on its way to being the old Virginia Tech, which won 10 games for eight straight years prior to last season. Back-to-back losses to Duke and Boston College have brought fans back to reality. And the reality is, this is very much a work in progress. Even when the Hokies were building that 6-1 record, they did it without a ton of offense. They just weren’t turning the ball over, getting by on a very small margin of error. Not too much has changed the last few weeks, except the turnovers. And for a team that was just getting by, those were enough to put it on the wrong side of the final score.
I think, given time, the overhaul to the offensive coaching staff the Hokies did last offseason, bringing in new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, will be a positive. But he’s not exactly working with a stacked deck this year. Yes, Thomas is a senior, but his oldest running back is a sophomore, three of his top four receivers are a sophomore, a redshirt freshman and a former walk-on, the tight end is a true freshman, as is the fullback, and the offensive line is inexperienced, with a true freshman starting at left tackle. So it’s a transition year, even with the headliner -- Thomas -- being a fifth-year senior.
Until these new coaches can replenish the ranks through recruiting and build some experience, I don’t think Tech will get back to that 10-win plateau that became the norm for it for so long. But Foster’s defense is going to be a constant. It has been for nearly 20 years. If the offense can just show minimal improvement in its efficiency, the Hokies will continue to be a player in the ACC.
SUSAN MILLER DEGNAN