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JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
Sunday, October 13, 2013
BLACKSBURG — Late in the third quarter, as four Virginia Tech defensive players peeled themselves off the Pittsburgh quarterback following yet another sack, a wave of expectation seemed to sweep Lane Stadium.
Do you remember this feeling? The sense that Virginia Tech is in complete control of a game’s outcome?
For the second week in a row, the Hokies had it. Two 10-point wins — the latest a 19-9 victory over Pittsburgh on Saturday — that felt like something much breezier than that, like the horse that eases up to win by four lengths when he could have won by eight.
The formula is almost identical to the one that produced eight consecutive 10-win seasons, with one noticeable difference: The short pass has replaced the running game. But everything else — the dominant defense, the emphasis on ball security, the booming punts — is present, leading to six consecutive victories and a locked-up bowl berth by mid-October.
“It’s a little weight lifted off our shoulders,” said Tech quarterback Logan Thomas, whose team had to win its last two regular-season games of 2012 to continue its postseason streak. “But the thing is, we’re not just satisfied with that. We want 10 wins, an ACC championship and BCS bowls. That’s what we play for.”
Those goals don’t seem as self-restraining as they seemed to before last season, when “national championship or bust” was the mantra. The Hokies have a renewed appreciation for the formula, a newfound respect for the difficulty of winning games in bunches.
A 7-6 season can do that.
“Every time we came out to a game, I wasn’t extremely confident in what I was doing, what I was expecting to see,” Thomas recalled. “This year I’m completely confident. I understand what we’re trying to do offensively, and I think our team does too. We’re extremely proud of who we are as a program, getting back into our winning ways.”
Make no mistake: They’re getting there on the backs of these defenders, who are putting in vintage Tech performances seemingly every week now. Pitt has talented receivers but had no time to get them the ball — not with the Hokies buzzing around quarterback Tom Savage all afternoon.
And the Hokies are getting there with one of the game’s least flashy components: tremendous punting. A.J. Hughes boomed four kicks for an average of 52.8 yards — the longest single-game average for any Tech punter with at least three attempts in Frank Beamer’s tenure.
The Hokies hadn’t had a punter average 50 or more yards in a game since the 2006 Gator Bowl.
“Field position’s everything,” Beamer said. “The quickest way to get it is with your kicking game. And if your kickoff coverage team’s doing well, you establish it right there. … If you get the advantage of hidden yardage — them punting, you punting — it adds up at the end of the day.”
Yes, but what about the punchless running game? The fact that the offense only scored one touchdown? The fact that the offensive line seems to have pass blocking down but could carve out only a two-yards-per-carry rushing average?
Here’s a better question: Who cares?
The Hokies are finding ways to win, and the wins are coming with relative comfort thanks to the defense’s dominance. Nobody’s trying to do too much on either side of the ball — a major change from last season.
“I think we pressed in all aspects last year,” Thomas said. “I think the defense did for us, and we did for the defense.”
Even then, Thomas never had trouble sleeping the night before games. His mental state when he showed up for games, though? That has changed drastically.
“I just feel confident in what we’re trying to do,” Thomas said. “I feel well-prepared. I think that’s the big difference between now and last year.
“I just feel confident in the play-calling. I feel confident in the preparation that we go through, the way the offense is preparing for games and the way we’re understanding what the offense is built to do.”
What it’s built to do is what Tech offenses have been built to do for two decades. Take care of the ball. Strike when you can. Don’t be afraid to punt it away and let the defense work.
You saw it all on Saturday. And if you were there, you probably felt it, too.
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