Part of the Doc's ACC Week.
Virginia Tech's steady success through its first six years in the ACC is synonymous with nasty, unflappable defense, and the relationship isn't subject to the usual cycles of personnel and attrition. Even in a season when defensive coordinator Bud Foster is welcoming back fewer than half the number of returning starters (four) as the Hokie offense (nine), the game plan doesn't change: The offense can afford to pound away between the tackles about two-thirds of the time, because the defense will almost always keep the score within reach. The results of that approach – six straight 10-win seasons with a pair of conference championships despite consistently dreadful offenses – speak for themselves.
The conservative approach hasn't substantially changed at all in eight years under offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring, who seems perfectly content to grind away with one of the most pedestrian attacks in the country as long as the defense holds up its end of the bargain – see 2007 and 2008, in particular, back-to-back ACC championship seasons for the Hokies despite offenses that ranked 100th and 103rd, respectively, in total yards. In that context, even the production on offense (much less the personnel) has had no discernible effect on the bottom line. The defense, with an incredible six straight finishes in the top 12 nationally in total and scoring D to correspond with the 10-win seasons, has it under control.
So what difference does it make, really, that this year's lineup looks like the most complete, potentially explosive group Stinespring has had at his disposal? What does the Hokie offense even look like at its best, anyway?
The improvement was fueled largely by redshirt freshman Ryan Williams' 1,600 yards on the ground, but just as importantly by the vast leap in efficiency by quarterback Tyrod Taylor. The success in the running game left defenses vulnerable to play-action, which Taylor exploited to lead the nation in both yards per attempt and per completion while vastly improving his touchdown:interception ratio. His top three receivers, Jarrett Boykin, Danny Coale and Dyrell Roberts, combined to average more than 20 yards per catch.
All of thee above return this fall, as does bruising tailback Darren Evans, a 1,200-yard rusher in 2008 whose star was usurped last year by Williams after Evans went down in the preseason. His return gives the Hokies two first-rate workhorses behind Taylor to go with with the veteran deep threats on the outside. Add a relatively season line (50 career starts among three upperclass returnees), and the result should be an attack running at or very near maximum capacity.
But last year's forward leap on the stat sheet didn't do anything for the final standings. There, Georgia Tech prevailed in the Coastal Division by virtue of its 26-23 win over Virginia Tech in October, a veritable shootout by Hokie standards. So was the season-opening loss to Alabama, where the Tide piled up 498 yards on Foster's D in a 34-24 whipping. Both of those games, along with the 20-17 home loss to North Carolina in late October, crossed the crucial threshold for Hokie success:
Virginia Tech: Record when giving up ≥20 points
(The lone win last year came at Duke, which scored a meaningless touchdown in the final minute to get to 26 points.) On the other hand, when holding opponents below 20, the Hokies are 55-3 in the same span.
The 2007 team's relative success in "high-scoring" games despite a nearly rock-bottom offense was due in no small part to a whopping nine non-offensive touchdowns by the defense and special teams. (In a 41-23 win over Clemson, the Hokies scored on a punt return, interception return and kickoff return before halftime; the VT offense finished with just 219 total yards.) But defensive touchdowns, specifically, were down from five in both 2007 and 2008 to just one last year. And a largely rebuilt unit this fall isn't likely to send that number veering wildly upward.
Last year's offense topped 30 points per game for the first time since 2005, and almost certainly will again. But Stinespring isn't about to turn into Mike Leach, or Taylor into Case Keenum. Most likely, the Hokie offense will be defined this year not by how prolific it can be at its best, but by how resilient it can be at its worst – by keeping the noob-laden defense from being backed into corner – and especially by how it responds when it needs to score thirty. If Taylor, Williams and Co. can turn 24-28 and 17-20 against Georgia Tech and North Carolina into 31-28 and 24-20 instead, the averages at the end of the year don't have to come up to make them the best Tech offense since Michael Vick was making fools look silly back in the Big East. Another ACC title will be evidence enough.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.