As No. 19 Virginia Tech prepares to open the back end of its football schedule Saturday at Wake Forest, there's more optimism than there could've been at this stage.
What if Tech (5-1 overall, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) hadn't gotten that late game-winning touchdown drive last Saturday against Miami? Tech would be sitting 0-2 in conference play for the first time since 2006 — a season that concluded with the Hokies at 10-3, but included a loss in the second tier Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Instead, the only preseason goal Tech can't earn now is a national championship. Coach Frank Beamer has preached playing through adversity to hopefully see Clemson, which beat Tech 23-3 two weeks ago, in the ACC championship game, but adversity is coming this season in the uncontrollable form of key injuries.
Here's one evaluation of how Tech has looked in each unit through the first half of the season:
Running back David Wilson has been as good as advertised, bursting loose for five 100-plus yard games and sitting seventh in the nation in rushing yards per game (127.8). Logan Thomas is progressing with experienced receivers Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin, as evidenced by Thomas' 23 of 25 passing effort that resulted in 310 yards and three touchdowns in last weekend's 38-35 win against Miami. His effort came on the heels of 91-yard and 125-yard passing performances at East Carolina and against Clemson, respectively. If not for a brilliant fourth-and-1 call from Mike O'Cain in the final minute of the Miami game that got Thomas loose for a 19-yard touchdown run, there might be serious questions about what was going on in the waning moments (two previous plays were uninspiring running plays that gained just four yards total). Tech was just 4 of 16 on third downs against Clemson, which speaks to both play-calling and execution. Tech's left tackles surrendered four sacks against Clemson, but the Hokies gave up just one sack against the Hurricanes.
Tech held three of the first four opponents to 64 rushing yards or fewer, but Marshall did manage 245 passing yards on just 17 completions (14.4 yards per completion). The defense was the primary reason Tech stayed within striking distance of Clemson entering the fourth quarter (gave up 323 yards to an offense that was averaging 503 yards entering the game). Then, against Miami, Tech's defense had one of its worst statistical days ever under defensive coordinator Bud Foster, as the Hokies gave up 519 yards (sixth-most against a Foster-coordinated Tech defense). Tech has lost two key defensive tackles (Kwamaine Battle and starter Antoine Hopkins) to season-ending ACL tears, starting outside linebacker Jeron Gouveia-Winslow has a sprained foot and defensive end James Gayle, a Bethel High graduate who has 31/2 sacks, is dealing with a sprained ankle. Injuries in the front seven could put pressure on dynamic cornerbacks Jayron Hosley (three interceptions) and Kyle Fuller.
Sure, it's tempting to just drop the dunce cap on this group and move on, but it's not as bad as the punting would indicate. Though Beamer stood by him, Scott Demler was truly awful in the first five games, averaging an NCAA-worst 33.1 yards per punt. Beamer finally switched last week to true freshman Michael Branthover, who averaged 42 yards per attempt on his first two punts. Kicker Cody Journell also hasn't been great, making just 6 of 9 field goals. Hosley has been strong on punt returns for the most part, averaging 11.1 yards per return. Tech also may have the nation's best kickoff guy in Justin Myer (17 of 35 kickoffs for touchbacks). Tech's only block (a blocked punt by Tony Gregory) came against Appalachian State, and Fuller fell on it for a touchdown. Smithfield High graduate Dyrell Roberts (broken arm) will be missed on kickoff returns, where he was averaging 29.6 yards per return.
If Foster can muster a top-15 group (it's 13th in total defense right now; 294.5 yards per game) given all the injuries and lack of depth, it might be his best coordinating job. Beamer's offseason decision to move offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring off the play-calling duties in favor of O'Cain will be put under the microscope in the second half of the season. If Thomas and Tech's offense (54th in the nation in total offense; 410 yards per game) continue to flourish against what looks to be solid defenses from Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Virginia and possibly North Carolina, the returns on the offensive moves should be positive. If not, an offseason of further self-analysis may be in the works.
WHO: No. 19 Virginia Tech (5-1, 1-1 ACC) at Wake Forest (4-1, 3-0).
WHEN: 6:30 p.m.
Oct. 22: vs. Boston College, 3 p.m.
Oct. 29: at Duke
Nov. 10: at Georgia Tech, 8 p.m., ESPN
Nov. 17: vs. North Carolina, 8 p.m.
Nov. 26: at Virginia