All evidence has been presented, and the defense rests – and Virginia Tech’s defense certainly deserves a break after bailing out Tech again Friday night in a 13-10 overtime bowl win against Rutgers.
After seeing the final offering from an offense led by offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring, Tech coach Frank Beamer should be able to make an informed decision regarding future leadership of his offense.
Of course, Beamer’s mind may have been made up well before this abysmal offensive effort. In any case, if decisions regarding the staff are going to be made or have been made, announcements will likely come quick. Beamer wasn’t ready to discuss anything regarding his coaching staff after the game, instead choosing to comment only on the win.
Tech (7-6), which won its last three games of the season, escaped the indignity of its first losing season in 20 years despite putting up just 196 yards against Rutgers. The last time Tech had fewer yards in a game was in the 2009 season-opener, when it posted 155 yards in a loss to Alabama in Atlanta – a program Tech will meet again in Atlanta to open next season, with the Crimson Tide possibly coming off a national championship.
If you’re a Tech fan that witnessed the bowl win either in person or on the tube, would you feel confident going into another meeting against Alabama the Hokies could get it done with Stinespring and the current offensive staff running the show? The last time Tech had fewer yards in a game than it had against Rutgers (9-4) and won was in ’06, when it put up just 139 yards in a 17-10 win at Miami.
As far as Stinespring is concerned, he went the route of talking about celebrating the win with his players, coaches, family and friends when asked after the game about his future on Tech’s staff.
I managed to corner him for a few moments to ask him about speculation he’d recently interviewed for Auburn’s offensive line coaching job. He said he hadn’t interviewed for the job.
“I’ve been blessed and feel like there have been opportunities, but unless we get to that point, I don’t spend a lot of time talking about the ifs and ours about possibilities,” said Stinespring, who has been Tech’s offensive coordinator for 11 seasons, and who has been on Tech’s staff since 1990 in various capacities. “That doesn’t do any good. I concentrate on what I’m doing right now.”
When I pressed him and asked if he’d had any contact at all with Auburn about the offensive line job, he laughed, walked away and referred to me as “pesky.” He scooted from view before I could ask him about more speculation that he’d had contact with Auburn about a tight ends coach position.
On Dec. 19, new Auburn coach Gus Malzahn hired J.B. Grimes to be his offensive line coach. Grimes coached from 1993-97 at Tech, where he was the offensive line coach. Stinespring took over in ’98 as Tech’s offensive line coach.
An indication Beamer may have already had some discussions with members of his offensive staff about finding other means of employment came in the midst of the first quarter of the bowl. A tweet from Pete Roussel of the reputable @coachingsearch Twitter account was released stating Tech wide receivers coach Kevin Sherman is set to join Purdue’s coaching staff after the bowl.
With a media horde surrounding him in postgame interviews, Sherman expectedly went mum on the topic.
“My focus right now is on enjoying this win right now, so I don’t know what you’re talking about just yet,” said Sherman, who has been Tech’s receivers coach since ’06.
When asked if he thought he’d be back on the staff again next season, Sherman had little to offer. He also didn’t provide any insight into possible dealings with Purdue, which recently hired former Kent State coach Darrell Hazzell to be its new coach.
“I can’t answer that question,” said Sherman in response to both questions, adding he did “know some people” at Purdue.
The best line on Sherman’s resume from Tech is obviously the fact he helped produce the two most accomplished pass-catchers in school history in Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale, respectively, but Sherman has been a mediocre recruiter.
He did team with defensive backs coach Torrian Gray to help get a commitment from elite class of ’13 cornerback Kendall Fuller of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Olney, Md.
Sherman missed out on getting commitments from all 13 of the other prospects he’s had a hand in recruiting since the ’09 class that were rated by the Rivals.com recruiting website among the top 15 players in the nation at their respective position. Those players include linebacker Peter Kalambayi from Matthews, N.C. (’13 class), linebacker Stephone Anthony from Wadesboro, N.C. (’11 class) and quarterback Marquise Williams from Charlotte (’11 class).
In addition to Stinespring and Sherman, offensive line coach Curt Newsome, a Phoebus High graduate, and quarterbacks coach/play-caller Mike O’Cain have been coaches on Tech’s staff most associated with discussions about possible impending changes.
As many issues as Tech had moving the ball against Rutgers (averaging just 2.7 yards per play; punting the ball 11 times, which matched the most ever in a Tech game coached by Beamer, and was the most ever in a win under Beamer), O’Cain didn’t do the offense many favors when it did start picking up some yards with some questionable play-calling.
After quarterback Logan Thomas completed passes of 32 and 25 yards on back-to-back plays early in the fourth quarter to move Tech to Rutgers’ 13-yard line, Tech came back with Martin Scales running the ball three consecutive times for a total of five yards. The drive stalled and Tech settled for a 22-yard field goal from Cody Journell, who would later miss a 51-yard attempt in the quarter, to cut Rutgers lead to 10-3 with 12:14 left.
Prior to Scales’ three consecutive runs, Tech had gained minus-five yards rushing in the game. Tech running backs J.C. Coleman, Tony Gregory, Michael Holmes and Scales combined to have 21 carries for 20 yards in the game. So, I asked Beamer why there were three consecutive runs called at a juncture in the game when Tech finally started moving the ball through the air.
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“It’s always easy to look back after the play and determine what should have happened, but we wanted to be unpredictable ourselves and throw off tendencies that we’ve had ourselves," Beamer said. “Then, really, we felt like particularly on second down and third down that they might be more aligned for a pass, and we wanted to try to get running it. We wanted some success running it. So, we didn’t quite make it, but the thought process is good. Now that we didn’t make it, I wish Logan had overruled us and called his own play...He should’ve turned it into a pass play.”
Beamer made the last portion of his comment on the play-calling in jest, laughing as he looked at a sheepishly grinning Thomas on the postgame interview podium with him.
In keeping with a general theme that spanned the season, Thomas was far from sharp, completing 15 of 39 passes (38.5 percent) for 193 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. He finished with 18 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions this season.
“Everything they did made it tough,” said Thomas regarding Rutgers’ defense, which sacked him four times, held Tech to three yards rushing (fewest in a win in Beamer’s 26-year tenure at Tech) and 5 of 19 on third down conversions.
“They would show us one thing, drop out and show us another (defensive look), stay there when we were expecting them to drop out. We finally got into a groove of what we were expecting them to do, and we started picking up things time after time. It was just feeling them out just like a boxer.”
No Tech quarterback in the last 40 years had more interceptions in a season than Thomas did this season. Will Furrer also had 16 in both the ’88 and ’91 seasons.
Thomas did finish the season with 3,500 yards of total offense, surpassing his own school record of 3,482 yards he had last season in one more game. With 524 rushing yards, he also became the first quarterback to lead Tech in rushing for the season since the ’65 season, when Bobby Owens had 526 yards.
Was it the kind of season that could inspire Thomas to forgo his final season of college eligibility and head to the National Football League? Though it wouldn’t seem like his final game of the season helped his draft stock much, he still wasn’t ready to announce a decision after the game.
“I can’t tell you now,” said Thomas, a 6-foot-6, 260-pound who joined teammates Antone Exum and James Gayle in submitting paperwork to an NFL draft advisory committee to see where they might fit into the draft, but none of which has received feedback yet from the committee. “I have a big decision in front of me either way it goes.”
As dreadful as Tech’s offense was against Rutgers, the Hokies’ defense saved its most dominating performance of the season for the finale. In its last two bowl appearances, Tech has held opponents to 196 yards (Rutgers) and 184 yards (Michigan in last season’s Sugar Bowl) – and emerged with a 1-1 record.
For Tech’s defense, led by coordinator Bud Foster, saving the team this season simply became routine.
“That’s a position we’ve been in multiple times throughout the year,” said linebacker Bruce Taylor, who led Tech with 11 tackles. “We knew how it was. We knew how it was going to be. Our offense – they start slow, and then they kind of pick it up in the second half, which they did (against Rutgers). We just knew we had to control our part of it (on defense), and that’s keeping them from moving the ball.”
Taylor’s only slip-up of the week? He said he and about seven teammates, including Gayle, were five minutes late Thursday to a team dinner. Taylor and Gayle, a defensive end who graduated from Bethel High, were held out of Tech’s starting lineup for the bowl.
“I understand,” Taylor said. “We were late, so coach had to do what he had to do.”
Rutgers had 67 yards rushing, marking the third time in the last four games Tech held an opponent to 67 yards rushing or fewer. Rutgers also converted just 3 of 21 third downs.
Quarterback Gary Nova had to deal with a ton of pressure. He was sacked three times (Tech had 27 of its 35 sacks this season in the final seven games) and threw a critical interception to Exum, the game’s Most Valuable Player, early in the fourth quarter that led to Tech’s only touchdown.
“Quarterbacks don’t like to get hit,” Taylor said. “If you put a few good hits on them, and cause them to throw a few bad balls, it changes who they are as a quarterback.”
Exum, who returned the interception to Rutgers’ 21 with 11:11 left, displayed a great knack for making big plays down the stretch this season. He also picked off Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco in Tech’s season finale and returned it 12 yards to U.Va.’s 24 to set up Tech’s game-winning field goal drive in a 17-14 victory.
“Me and (Tech cornerback) Kyle (Fuller) knew we were going to be isolated a lot out there (against Rutgers) and targeted,” said Exum, who led the team this season with five interceptions. “The more we can hold up out there on an island [in man-to-man coverage], the more we can do with blitz packages and stopping the run.”
Exum, Taylor and backup defensive end Dadi Nicolas were among Tech players that got into a jawing session with Rutgers players as the team exited the field at halftime with Tech trailing 10-0. Taylor said a few plays prior to halftime he’d taken a cheap shot to a particularly sensitive area below the waist.
Tech’s players wanted to make sure they let Rutgers know they didn’t approve of such tactics – a kind of tone-setter for a second half in which Rutgers gained just 67 yards on 44 plays.
“There was some dirty play going on right there at the half,” Taylor said. “We weren’t going to stand for it. We were just over there making sure that stuff like that doesn’t go on.”
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