After unthinkable start, patient Hokies back in control of ACC
The Hokies are 6-0 since that embarrassing 21-16 defeat. Heading into Thursday's showdown with Georgia Tech, they control their own destiny toward an appearance in the ACC title game -- and a shot at the league's BCS berth. They've rolled through their first four conference games, outscoring opponents 156-58.
"We're in the driver's seat," said defensive coordinator Bud Foster.
Getting back in that driver's seat was no sure thing. It's been a tumultuous journey for a squad that entered the year ranked 10th nationally, only to fall off the radar after consecutive losses to Boise State and JMU. Foster attributes the shaky start to missed opportunities, unfortunate scheduling and, above all, inexperience.
"The young kids needed to buy into what we were doing," Foster said. "This was probably as green a group as we've had."
That's no exaggeration: The Hokies lost 14 starters from last year's 10-3 team, replacing them predominantly with freshmen and sophomores. That youth proved too much to overcome against Kellen Moore and Boise's prolific offense, or to rebound from just five days later, something Foster called "a scheduling nightmare."
Tech's roster grew even thinner after running back Ryan Williams -- who broke the Hokies' single-season rushing record with 1,655 yards as a freshman in 2009 -- went down with a hamstring injury early in Week 3 against East Carolina. That's when Virginia Tech's seniors called a team meeting to stop the bleeding.
"We had to stress them to trust each other," said quarterback Tyrod Taylor. "The last couple of games we've gone out there and executed."
Taylor has spearheaded the resurgence, reasserting himself as one of the ACC's premier signal-callers. He's piled up 1,292 passing yards over the past six games, maintaining a 12-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He's also kept defenses at bay, rushing for 386 yards and three scores over that span. Most importantly, he's upped his completion percentage to 63.9, a vast improvement over last year's pedestrian 56.0 mark.
The youngsters have also matured. Junior running back Darren Evans and sophomore David Wilson have been a potent tandem out of the backfield, scampering for 870 yards with Williams out. Six different receivers have hauled in touchdown passes in the team's last two games, routs of Duke and Wake Forest. Antone Exum, Kyle Fuller, Derrick Hopkins and Bruce Taylor have all stepped up on the defensive side of the ball.
"You can practice all you want, but until you get out there under the lights, that's the best experience you can get," said Foster.
Virginia Tech's schedule toughens considerably in the coming weeks, with trips to North Carolina and Miami looming after the Georgia Tech game. Those road tests will mark the first time the Hokies have left the friendly confines of Lane Stadium in over a month.
For the moment, their focus is turned to the Yellow Jackets, whose triple-option attack leads the nation with 317.4 rushing yards per game. Josh Nesbitt and Co. shredded Virginia Tech's defense for 309 yards on the ground last year, when they toppled the then No. 4 Hokies, 28-23.
"It's a pain in the butt because it's something you just don't see on a consistent basis," Foster said of Georgia Tech's option offense. "The one thing that catches a lot of people by surprise is how quickly that option game comes to you."
The key to Virginia Tech stopping the option may be the same as the key to the Hokies' recovery this season -- time. Foster and the defense used the bye week to simulate Georgia Tech's speed in practice and experiment with personnel shifts.
Taylor and the offense, meanwhile, have their sights set on revenge after last year's loss. The senior quarterback also has high sights set on Charlotte, the host of this year's conference championship game. A laughable goal just two months ago, it's looking increasingly attainable as the season wears on.
"I knew there was plenty of time for us to turn the season around," said Taylor. "We took two tough losses, but they weren't ACC play. Our goal was going to the ACC Championship and that's what we're trying to do."