The Virginia Tech offense was anemic against the Scarlet Knights, netting a total of 196 yards on 72 plays, good for an average of 2.7 yards a play. Logan Thomas threw two picks (although one may not have been his fault) and was sacked four times, which contributed to (but was in no way solely responsible for) Tech's 3 total yards rushing. That is correct. The Virginia Tech offense produced 3 net rushing yards for the game. Let that sink in. Three rushers other than Logan Thomas were stuck for losses in the game, including Michael Holmes, whose only carry went for a loss of 2 yards. Marcus Davis was the Hokies second-leading rusher on the day with ONE carry for 11 yards! That says a lot about the way the Hokies' offense performed. That, and the two teams combined to break the bowl's record for punts with 21. They also allowed Rutgers' only touchdown of the game, which replay shows, really shouldn't have been a touchdown, but for some reason in what was going to be a low-scoring game, Tech's coaches just twiddled their thumbs instead of challenging it.
At the center of that mess was the offensive line, which got blown up at the line of scrimmage on virtually every play. Thomas was often under relentless pressure. When the Hokies ran the ball, multiple defenders swarmed the ball-carrier in the backfield before he ever made the line of scrimmage. It was just another embarrassing performance by a unit that has been pretty disgraceful all season long. I offer no apologies for my analysis of that unit. At this point, I am uncertain if it is a good thing or a bad thing that the Hokies are losing three starters (or guys who were at some point/should-have-been starting), although they were probably Tech's three best linemen this season.
Defensively, the Hokies put together one of the most dominating bowl performances in school history and under Frank Beamer (more or less the same thing), Bud Foster and co. Tech allowed a pretty below-average Rutgers offense a paltry 196 yards (the same number that they gained themselves offensively). Or as Jimmy Robertson put it:
VT and Rutgers are the only 2 teams to hold their opponents under 200 total yds so far this bowl season. Of course, they played each other— Jimmy Robertson (@jrobIHS) January 4, 2013
Tech has only once held an opponent to fewer yards in a bowl under Frank Beamer, and when you hear it, you're going to cringe, and it's going to hurt. So brace yourselves. Ready? Okay, it was last year against Michigan when the Hokies allowed only 184 yards. And as you see below:
Last year, only three teams - Bama (92), Tech (184) and Texas (195) - held their bowl opponents to less than 200 total yards— Jimmy Robertson (@jrobIHS) January 4, 2013
The defense was pretty strong all game long, and despite committing some all-time derps themselves of the dropped interception variety, provided the Hokies with the game-changing play (Exum's interception and return), clutch performances after that play to give them a chance to get back into it and the stand in Rutgers' first and only possession of overtime that led to the game-sealing missed field goal. So after a performance like that, how does this defense rate?
According to the official FBS statistics on NCAA.com, Tech will finish no higher than No. 19 in total defense (unless Pittsburgh gives up at least 422 total yards to Ole Miss tomorrow night, an offense that averages around 427 yards per game, so it is possible). If that should occur, the Hokies defense could leapfrog the Panthers into the No. 18 final ranking for total defense, but other than that, unless Alabama and Notre Dame both have the record-breaking offensive game of all games in football history, Tech can only rise one spot.
Per those official statistics, the Hokies are also currently ranked No. 30 against the run and No. 27 against the pass (all these rankings are based on total yardage allowed per game). Both of those rankings can still change with teams within earshot of the Hokies in bowl games still to be played.
Considering that the Hokies defense was ranked as low as No. 100 against the run, No. 43 in passing defense and No. 64 total defense at various points throughout the season (and as late as the North Carolina game against the run and total defense, and Florida State against the pass), their climb over the last half (or beginning with the Duke game) and particularly the last several games of the season was remarkable. It was obvious from watching the them play that they were a markedly better unit, and the statistics echo that.
Guys like Antone Exum (who I have been critical of at the cornerback position in the past), Alonzo Tweedy and Detrick Bonner really gelled and helped elevate the defense to the unit we see today. In fact, Exum, who switched positions in the spring going from safety to cornerback, was among the Hokies worst players defensively in the first half of the season. He was picked on repeatedly by opposing teams, and was good for at least two pass interference/holding calls per game. But in the second half of the season, he was the defensive MVP, and possibly even the MVP of the team.
That being said, the seven teams the Hokies played in the second half of the season rank No. 56, 8, 37, 22, 99, 65 and 104 respectively in total offense. So did the lack of quality offensive competition over that time (minus Clemson and Florida State of course) play a part in the Hokies defensive resurgence? Absolutely. But that doesn't mean we should indemnify their progress, we should only quantify it. Just like quantifying the offenses that appeared on the first half of the Hokies' schedule, which ranked 31, (Austin Peay N/A), 92, 60, 36, 15 respectively. The difference? The average offensive ranking of a team on the first half of the Hokies' schedule was just below 47, whereas a team on the second half of the schedule was just under 56. Based on the teams that were ranked in those spots, that's an average difference of 15 and some odd yards per game. So the average difference of the offenses the Hokies played between the first half of the schedule and the second half of the schedule, where the Hokies defense began to make their run, was virtually insignificant despite appearances.
The 2012 Virginia Tech defense won't go down as one of the best in school history, and they were far from meeting their goals set forth at the beginning of the season, but on the whole, the numbers tell us they were a quality unit. They carried the offense more times than not (something we expected again this year) and are the reason that the Hokies even went bowling, as the offense nosedived particularly in the last couple of weeks in the season, where Tech needed clutch performances to even go bowling. Now the Hokies await the NFL early-entry decisions of James Gayle and Antone Exum, but pending their return, they could help give the Hokies the defense we thought we would see this year. If they decide to forego their senior years, it could be a bit rough in the early weeks of 2013 (particularly against Alabama), but all in all, should be another solid defense.
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