By the standards that coach Frank Beamer’s program set over the previous two decades, it has not been a glorious autumn in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech is 7-4 overall, 4-3 in the ACC heading into Saturday’s regular season finale against hapless Virginia for the Commonwealth Cup. The Hokies haven’t been ranked in five weeks and haven’t climbed higher than No. 16 all year.
If the 2012 season hadn’t happened, there might be a great deal more uneasiness in Blacksburg then there is. From 1993-2011, Virginia Tech averaged 9.5 regular season victories, won eight bowl games, ranked in the top 25 in 16 years, in the top 20 in 13, and in the top 10 in seven. Beamer’s Hokies were a true ACC powerhouse.
But last season did happen. Tech had to win its final two games to eke out a bowl-qualifying 6-6 record. The subsequent victory over Rutgers enabled Beamer, the winningest active FBS coach, to record a 21st straight winning season, but venerable coordinator Bud Foster’s defense wasn’t quite as steadfast as usual and the Hokies’ stumbling offense prompted the coach to make major changes on his staff on that side of the ball.
Tech opened this season with a 35-10 loss to top-ranked/defending national champion Alabama, but then reeled off six straight victories before being stunned at home by Duke, 13-10. The Hokies nearly doubled the Blue Devils’ margin and time of possession, and didn’t allow a third down conversion while clicking on four of six fourth downs, but lost because senior dual-threat quarterback Logan Thomas threw four interceptions. Thomas had come in with 116 straight passes without being picked off, but he even threw one on third-and-goal from the 1 while since-dismissed kicker Cody Journell missed two field goals, including a 40-yarder with less than seven minutes remaining.
The following Saturday, Boston College’s Andre Williams trampled through Foster’s young defense for 166 yards in the host Eagles’ 34-27 victory. Two weeks after that, the Hokies were shocked by visiting Maryland 27-24 in overtime. Thomas and Co. became the first senior class in a decade to lose its home finale as the Terps got a career day from dual-threat quarterback C.J. Brown and a 63-yard punt return touchdown while sacking Thomas seven times.
And yet, if Tech whips reeling Virginia (2-9) on Saturday and North Carolina can make it six straight victories by beating No. 24 Duke at home, the Hokies would win the Coastal Division title and a spot in the ACC Championship Game against No. 2 Florida State.
Thomas has set career records for total offense, passing yards, attempts, completions and touchdowns as well as rushing touchdowns by a Hokies’ quarterback. However, as Beamer feared in August when he said, “We’ve got a good quarterback and we’ve got to be better around him,” the inexperience of Thomas’ supporting cast, particularly along the line and among the running backs, has hampered the offense. Tech averages a point less per game than it did during the frustrating 2012 season when it endured double-digit defeats against Carolina, Clemson, Miami, and Pitt.
In contrast, Beamer’s summer understatement – “We’re going to have a chance to be good defensively” – has come true as the Hokies allow just 18.5 points per game, the ninth-fewest among the 125 FBS schools.
A 10th straight victory over the Cavaliers would improve the Hokies’ record to 8-4 and a bowl victory would make this an average Beamer season even without a spot in the ACC title game.
Tech has to replace six senior starters on defense, including three members of the fine front four, but Thomas and right guard Andrew Miller are the only offensive regulars whose time is up in Blacksburg. Red-shirt junior Mark Leal is in line to replace Thomas.
The 67-year-old Beamer, whose 223 victories during his 27 years at Tech are one shy of half as many as the school claimed during its previous 83 seasons, isn’t going anywhere nor is the 54-year-old Foster, his right hand man throughout his tenure. Take away the near-certain whipping by Alabama and the Hokies are 13 points from an unbeaten season. So a sense of normalcy has returned to Blacksburg.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.