Thursday night Virginia Tech fell to Pittsburgh at Heinz Field once again, and we look at some of the things that we learned, or reaffirmed about the Hokies following the loss.
1. Virginia Tech can't contain mobile quarterbacks
Before Virginia Tech took the field Thursday the focus was on whether or not the Hokies defense could contain Pittsburgh sophomore running back James Conner, who boasted a 145.5 yards per game average entering play. Conner was largely kept in check by the Hokies front seven in the first half, and finished with 85 rushing yards. However, the Hokies run defense struggled mightily trying to contain the Panthers quarterback Chad Voytik on the ground.
Voytik finished Thursday's contest with 118 rushing yards on 19 carries, including a long of 49 yards. The rushing outburst from the redshirt sophomore was not an outlier for the Tech defense, but rather a confirmation of a troubling trend in 2014. When faced with containing a quarterback capable of making plays with his feet this season the Hokies run defense has wilted. Voytik joined J.T. Barrett of Ohio State, and Georgia Tech's Justin Thomas on the list of mobile quarterbacks that have run roughshod over the Hokies this season.
The next big test for Bud Foster's unit will come November 1st when the Hokies host Boston College and their quarterback Tyler Murphy, who has 711 rushing yards on 86 attempts through six games this year.
2. The Hokies running game is in trouble
Virginia Tech fans knew relying on the lower half of the depth chart at running back against Pittsburgh could be a dicey proposition, but had cautious optimism that sophomore Joel Caleb could make the most of his opportunity Thursday. With the top three Hokies running backs out due to injury, Caleb split carries with fullback Sam Rogers, and running back J.C. Coleman, and finished with 12 yards on seven carries.
While the Pittsburgh run defense was always going to present challenges, the Hokies total of 26 rushing yards on 22 attempts is worrisome in any situation. The trio of reserve running backs will continue to be forced into action in the injury-riddled backfield, at least until freshman Marshawn Williams recovers from an ankle injury. Fellow freshman Shai McKenzie has already been lost for the season, and oft-injured Trey Edmunds may follow suit with a broken clavicle.
The rash of injuries in the backfield, paired with a banged up offensive line has left rushing yards at a premium for the Hokies, however they will likely depend on one of the aforementioned backs to step up and compliment Williams once he returns to the lineup.
3. Correcting the "Little things" could pay big dividends
Even in their three losses Virginia Tech has shown flashes of positive play, but have also struggled with the "little things". Specifically trouble with the fundamentals of protecting the football and avoiding penalties continue to plague the Hokies.
Virginia Tech ranks 64th in the country in turnovers, with three fumbles and 11 interceptions. Junior quarterback Michael Brewer owns all of those 11 interceptions, largely due to poor decision making. Brewer has habitually thrown into multiple coverage, trusting his receiving corps to bail him out. Brewer did avoid throwing an interception against the top 10 Pittsburgh pass defense, with the lone Hokie turnover coming on a J.C. Coleman fumble.
The Hokies have also had issues on the penalty front, committing 65 penalties for 484 yards (103rd nationally). Many of the penalties have been mental lapses in signals or substitutions, a common theme in teams heavy on freshman such as Virginia Tech. The trend continued against Pittsburgh, as the Hokies were set back 45 yards on eight penalties.
4. Bucky Hodges is a special player
For the past few seasons Hokies fans have hoped for a 6'6", 250 pound quarterback to convert to tight end, and now they have it. Logan Thomas never made the transition many fans clamored for, instead Bucky Hodges made the move to tight end after being recruited as a quarterback.
When he was converted to tight end Hodges was envisioned as a short yardage and red zone threat, but he has emerged as much more for the Hokies. Hodges big frame has made him a favorite target of Brewer, who has connected with him 20 times for 289 yards and four touchdowns.
Following a stagnant first half of offense Thursday by Virginia Tech, Hodges woke up the Hokies offense, sacrificing his body on a spectacular 41 yard catch in the third quarter. The reception was the longest of his short career, and seemed to cement his arrival on the national stage. He finished with 55 receiving yards on three catches against Pittsburgh.
Hodges has teamed with junior Ryan Malleck to form one of the most dangerous duo's in college football, and is mentioned in the same breath as the John Mackey Award, given to the nation's best tight end. Not bad for a quarterback still learning the ropes at tight end.
5. Isaiah Ford is the most valuable receiver in maroon and orange
Like Hodges, receiver Isaiah Ford is another freshman who has broken through the expectation ceiling set upon him since arriving in Blacksburg. Ford wasn't expected to earn a starting spot on the receiving corps entering training camp, but played his way to the top of the depth chart.
Since supplanting the likes of Joshua Stanford and Demitri Knowles this summer Ford has not looked back, catching 32 passes for a team leading 424 yards. Ford is also tied for the team lead in touchdowns with four. Against Pittsburgh he hauled in four receptions for 58 yards, including a 19 yard reception, his long for the game.
The 6'1", 175 pound Jacksonville native has shown excellent hands, and ability to break away from coverage, making him the Hokies top deep threat. For an offense full of growing pains this season, Ford has proven to be talented beyond his years.