BLACKSBURG — Watching Joshua Stanford catch a 10-yard pass on third-and-7 during Virginia Tech’s final nine-minute drive last Saturday in its 42-24 win at Miami, something else caught the attention of Tech wide receivers coach Aaron Moorehead.
As Stanford ran his slant pattern, Moorehead saw Miami’s defensive back fade from view. Neither Stanford nor Moorehead said Miami’s defense quit on the play, but the implication was apparent.
Stanford and Tech’s receivers have taken their games to another level in recent weeks, and no single play might have shown that newfound confidence as much as Stanford’s catch. When Tech hosts Maryland (5-4, 1-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) on Saturday afternoon, the Hokies will feature a corps of receivers who have come a long way.
“I mean, they just stopped,” Moorehead said of Miami’s defense. “We were competing. You see Josh catch that slant at the end of the game to basically extend that drive, their (defensive back) didn’t even challenge him. To me, as a receivers coach, that makes me proud because I know we out-willed them.”
Stanford, a redshirt freshman, has shown the greatest turnaround at the receiver spot in the past two games. Against Miami (7-2, 3-2), he had a career-high seven catches for 107 yards and a touchdown. In Tech’s 34-27 loss at Boston College two weekends ago, he had six catches for 171 yards.
Not bad for a guy who had just 21 catches for 284 yards in Tech’s first eight games. His production hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“That guy has come a long, long ways, and I think it’s totally confidence,” Tech coach Frank Beamer said. “He wasn’t real confident early in the year, and then he made a couple of catches. All of a sudden now he’s catching, he’s running, he’s blocking. He’s turned into a terrific player … really happy for him and us, because we needed it.”
Stanford’s performance against Miami may have contributed to a rumor he heard circulating after the game.
“I’ve heard — I don’t know how true it is — but I’ve heard that the Miami defenders, their coaches decided that (the starters) pretty much all got fired and they all have to compete,” Stanford said.
That kind of all-out, decisive tail-whoopin’ of a defense has to make him happy, right?
“Not really,” Stanford said. “We want them to beat Duke.”
Indeed, Tech needs Duke (7-2, 3-2), which hosts Miami on Saturday, to lose one of its last three games to give the Hokies a shot at winning the ACC’s Coastal Division and advancing to the conference championship game. Tech (7-3, 4-2) also needs to win its last two games, against Maryland and at Virginia.
Tech’s receivers took partial responsibility for a stretch in losses to Duke and BC that featured quarterback Logan Thomas throwing six interceptions. He bounced back against Miami, completing 25 of 31 passes for 366 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
In a season-opening 35-10 loss to Alabama, Tech’s pass-catchers dropped nine passes. Since then, Moorehead put in extra work after practice with his receivers, often using a JUGS machine to test receivers.
Stanford hasn’t been alone in his transformation since the Alabama game.
Willie Byrn, who fought through a tailbone injury sustained at BC to catch six passes for 105 yards at Miami, leads the team with 40 receptions for 529 yards and a touchdown. Demitri Knowles, who had five drops against Alabama, is second on the team with 37 catches for 475 yards and three touchdowns.
D.J. Coles, who will be one of 13 seniors honored before Saturday’s final home game of the season, lost playing time after the Alabama game due to his apparent inability to recover completely from knee surgery. But he has recovered enough to be part of 47 plays against Miami. He has 19 catches for 317 yards and five touchdowns, including three catches for 68 yards at Miami.
Adding to the impact the receivers had against Miami was their ability to block on the perimeter of the field, helping Tech run for 183 yards — the Hokies’ season-high against ACC opponents — and assisting Stanford on a 32-yard touchdown catch via a big block by Byrn.
Byrn also pointed out how getting downfield after a teammate has made a catch has helped other receivers make plays when Tech needed it. Knowles was the beneficiary of his determination to help block downfield when he scooped up a Byrn fumble in the end zone for a touchdown at Miami.
“What was really great about our receiving corps was our blocking downfield and just everything when we don’t have the ball in our hands,” Byrn said. “That was just another testament to that, because Demitri is hustling down the field and he saw the ball on the ground and he got six points.”
Wood can be reached by phone at 757-247-4642.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun