With Maryland set to play at Virginia Tech on Saturday, I responded to some questions from Andy Bitter, a sports reporter who covers the Hokies for the Virginian-Pilot and Roanoke Times.
In response, I asked Bitter some questions on Virginia Tech. Here are his responses.
Jeff Barker: Does Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas appear to be back on track? I know he had a few rocky games.
Andy Bitter: He had probably his best game this year against Miami, going 25-for-31 for 366 yards and a pair of touchdowns. But most importantly, he didn't turn the ball over. That's been his downfall when he's struggled is giving the ball away in crucial situations. It happened against Boston College the previous week, when his career-high 391 passing yards were overshadowed by the four turnovers. Not all of them were his fault, but the tide-turning pick-six he threw in the fourth quarter was, and it colored the perception of that game.
I've caught a lot of flak for saying this throughout the season, but I think Thomas has played pretty well, even though his numbers aren't markedly better than they were last season. He just doesn't -- or didn't, prior to the Miami game -- have a lot of help. Obviously, everybody contributed against the Hurricanes in a 549-yard effort, but Thomas wasn't too much better or worse than he's been for a lot of the year.
The key with him will always be turnovers. He's 15-0 as a starter when he doesn't throw an interception. He's 10-12 when he does. You can't get much more clear-cut than that. If he plays within the offense and doesn't try to go out and make the hero play -- which is where he runs into trouble -- he's fine. He played under control against Miami. He tried to do too much against Duke and Boston College. There's always a chance he relapses to that form, since his whole career has been up and down, but he knows what he needs to do to be successful.
JB: How does this strong Hokies defense rate with some of their good defenses of years past?
AB: It stacks up pretty favorably. The key is depth and experience. The front seven has five seniors, all of whom have started at least two years. The D-line goes about eight deep and gets contributions from every one of those eight. The linebackers are led by Jack Tyler, who's on pace for his second straight 100-tackle season. And the secondary is deep enough that it weathered a number of injuries that would have derailed last year's group. Senior cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum have only played together for two snaps this year. Fuller's got a groin injury. Exum's coming off offseason knee surgery and just hurt his ankle. But true freshmen Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson are playing well beyond their years as replacements, with nine interceptions between them. There doesn't appear to be any dropoff at the position, even losing those veterans.
Talking to defensive coordinator Bud Foster, that senior leadership is a big reason for the difference between last year's group, one that was supposed to be this good, and this year's. There's a great comfort in the system. There are more guys who know what they're doing. And in times when it gets dicey, there are strong leaders that can right the ship, unlike last year, when the only season-long senior starter was inside linebacker Bruce Taylor.
The Hokies are good at getting pressure and forcing turnovers. And they're flexible enough to be able to do that against a variety of offenses, which wasn't the case last year. It looks like a vintage Foster defense, an aggressive one that sets the tone. It's certainly the best one in the three seasons I've covered the team and would stack up favorably with the ones from the mid-2000's that led the country in total defense.
JB: Hokies fans historically have a reputation for being good, but is there extra motivation on Senior Day?
AB: You'd think there would be. The sellout streak ended this year, though. And crowds have been slightly smaller than in the past (a ho-hum home schedule and lack of a night game probably has something to do with that, too). The fans have been very critical of Thomas over the years, with that vitriol hitting its apex after the Duke and BC losses, but I think the saner, larger group of Tech fans will see the big picture with him and show him the proper respect on Senior Day.
I know the players want to make it a special way to go out of Lane Stadium. This is a team that essentially threw away a sure shot at getting to the ACC championship game a year after finishing a disappointing 7-6. The Hokies can still get there, but they need some help. In other situations, I could see a letdown being possible, but Tech already had a major letdown at home against a team it was a two-touchdown favorite against earlier this year: Duke. I think that's still fresh in everyone's minds and that will help this team get motivated for a game that doesn't generate nearly as much interest ever since Maryland went on its freefall out of the Top 25 earlier this season.
JB: Since the states share a border, you think Hokies fans consider Maryland -- in its last ACC visit -- as something of a rival?
AB: Not really. Maybe when the ACC was smaller and the teams met more frequently, but these schools haven't met since 2009. The only players still on the roster from back then are fifth-year seniors, and I think of that group, only receiver D.J. Coles even dressed that year, playing mostly special teams. So this might as well be a nonconference opponent for most of these guys.
I think it might mean something for all the D.C. guys on the team. And there are plenty from up in Northern Virginia who have had this game circled on the calendar for a while. But I think the big rivals you look at for Virginia Tech are Virginia (obviously), North Carolina (big recruiting foe), Georgia Tech (always seems to be in the Coastal mix) and Miami (going back to their Big East days). You get to any of the Atlantic Division teams, even Clemson, with which Virginia Tech has had some notable games lately, and there just doesn't seem to be a sense of rivalry.
Perhaps back in the Ralph Friedgen era that was more the case. Frank Beamer and Friedgen go way back, so there's a connection there that at least gave a little extra juice to the matchup. But I don't sense that same rivalry feeling this week, and certainly won't in the future once they're in different conferences.
JB: Did the Hokies turn a corner with their win over Miami?
AB: I'd say that, but I've seen how erratic this team can be. The Miami game was the ideal. Everything clicked on offense. The Hokies ran the ball, blocked well, built their passing game off their ground game and seemed to jump on every ball that got loose on the ground (they recovered four fumbles in that game -- two of Miami's on special teams and two of their own that were batted forward). It was a game where everything came together, so I hesitate to say that all of that will magically come together the next week as well.
That said, I think the blueprint for success is there for Tech. This is a great defense. It's an adequate offense that can be good when it's not turning the ball over. I think the Hokies have known that for a while, but the point has been hammered home the last three weeks, when turnovers submarined games against Duke and BC and a turnover-free effort at Miami wound up leading to the offense's highest production total in 43 games.
Again, I'd go back to the motivation factor. This was a team that nearly threw away the Coastal earlier this year. It's been given a reprieve, and with games against Maryland and Virginia being almost all that stands between the Hokies and another trip to the ACC title game (provided Duke loses), I think it should be a focused group come Saturday that knows what it's playing for.