Challenging fourth quarter will define Virginia Tech's season

Football seasons are like games and year-end retail numbers: They usually hinge on the fourth quarter.

Suffice to say, the regular season's final quarter will be not only definitive but also challenging for a Virginia Tech team that is remarkably stout on defense yet strangely indifferent against inferior opponents.

The Hokies have played nine of 12 games. Journalism majors consider anything beyond 2-plus-2 calculus, but that appears to be three-quarters.


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And absent perfection, so far so good in the standings. Tech (8-1, 4-1 ACC) is riding a four-game winning streak, stands 12th in the Associated Press poll and controls the conference's Coastal Division. Win the next three and the Hokies will play for their fifth league championship in eight years Dec. 3 in Charlotte, N.C.

That will be difficult. Virginia Tech's next three opponents — Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Virginia — are a combined 18-8. Conversely, the Hokies' most recent four foes — Miami, Wake Forest, Boston College and Duke — are 14-18.

The Georgia Tech and Virginia games are on the road, where Virginia Tech has won an ACC-record 11 straight. But the Hokies' last road loss, two years ago, was at Georgia Tech, and the Yellow Jackets' option offense is a chore to defend.

To date, defense has been Virginia Tech's trump, among the many ways the Hokies resemble another 8-1 team with an iconic coach.

Joe Paterno's Penn State Nittany Lions lost to their only top-20 opponent (Alabama), lean on a stingy defense and will confront serious tests in November: Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin.

That Virginia Tech ranks among the top 15 nationally in scoring defense, rushing defense, passing defense and total defense reflect the program's roots. Moreover, as Chris Coleman of TechSideline.com first mentioned, the Hokies, Alabama and Michigan State are the only Bowl Subdivision teams allowing a pass completion rate of less than 50 percent.

This for a season in which injuries have struck Virginia Tech's defensive line, linebackers and secondary. So much for the notion that coordinator Bud Foster lost his mojo during last season's struggles.

But as impressive as the defense and running back David Wilson — he merits first-team All-America consideration — have been, does anyone have an accurate read on the Hokies?

Are they legitimate top-15 material? Could they hang against similarly ranked teams such as Arkansas, Nebraska, Michigan and Houston?

The yin: Virginia Tech lost to Clemson, at home, in its lone contest against the top 25. The Hokies needed a last-minute touchdown to survive Miami, struggled for a half against Boston College and scored only 14 points at Duke, the fewest the Blue Devils have allowed a Bowl Subdivision opponent in two years. The kicking game, punts and placements, ranks among the worst in Frank Beamer's 25 seasons as coach.

The yang: Other than Miami, no team has gained more than 330 yards against Virginia Tech. The offensive line is blocking well, and first-year starter Logan Thomas (214.9 yards per game) is on pace to pass for more yards than any Hokies quarterback since Don Strock's 3,243 in 1972.

Then there's Wilson. His 1,185 rushing yards lead the nation, and his per-game average of 131.7 trails only San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman and Oregon's LaMichael James. Moreover, Wilson owns the longest current streak of 100-yard games with six.

Given Virginia Tech's injuries and the emergence of projected backups such as defensive tackles Luther Maddy and Corey Marshall, linebackers Alonzo Tweedy and Barquell Rivers, and cornerback Derrick Bonner, it's notable that the Hokies have played nine consecutive weeks.

Now comes the regular season's longest respite, 12 days from the clock expiring at Duke to kickoff at Georgia Tech next Thursday.

The break could not be better timed. Think of it as an extended television timeout entering a decisive fourth quarter.

David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP

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