August 12, 2009
Virginia Tech has succeeded wildly -- three ACC championships and four Coastal division titles in five years -- without much offense to speak of: The Hokie offense has finished 99th, 100th and 103rd in total offense since 2006, and somehow won the conference last year despite averaging only 22 points, eighth in the conference and a dramatic decrease from the division/conference champs of 2004, 2005 and even 2007. And that was with their best running back since Kevin Jones in the lineup.
So Darren Evans' season-ending ACL tear hardly eliminates Tech from winning the division or the conference again -- "Beamer Ball" has survived moribund offenses and running back-by-committee with defense, special teams and wholesome turnover margins many, many times before, and it can do it again. A 220-pound, 300-carry, 1,300-yard back was certainly the ideal when I assessed the Hokies' national title odds in May --
After a couple lackluster years in the running game, they discovered redshirt freshman Darren Evans during a Thursday night win over Maryland in early November and rode him (hard: 26 carries per game, for 124 yards) to wins in five of the last six. With a positively grizzled O-line, Evans is exactly the kind of grinder the lo-fi mindset here demands. They should be good for 200 hard-earned yards on the ground, week-in, week-out.
-- but Kenny Lewis and Josh Oglesby can fill in as adequate 3.5-yard grinders while Tyrod Taylor and redshirt freshman Ryan Williams, by far the most hyped back as a recruit, kick in a few big runs as necessary. The situation's really not much different than it was at the start of last year, after two-year starter and 1,000-yard man Branden Ore was booted from the team, and the year still ended with a win in the Orange Bowl.
True, but that sort of rationalization still overlooks the disproportionate effect of Evans' emergence in November -- beginning with his record-breaking, 253-yard romp through Maryland on a Thursday night, off two straight losses, with both starting quarterbacks banged up, it wasn't really the same team down the stretch. Evans went from averaging 65 yards on 16 carries through the first eight games to averaging 124 on 24 carries in the final six, and the Hokies rebounded from fading 5-3 also-rans to BCS winners with a 5-1 finish. He ran the ball at least 24 times in all five of those wins and won Orange Bowl MVP.
In the broader sense, at least as important as Evans' emergence as the centerpiece of the offense is that it meant Tyrod Taylor didn't have to be. For all the hype, Taylor struggled for two years to distance himself from paperweight Sean Glennon and was genuinely dreadful last year when he was forced to throw:
Even if you include his efforts against the I-AA teams, that efficiency rating would not have ranked in the top 100 nationally, mostly because he couldn't find the end zone: A single touchdown in 150 attempts is either rare conservatism, rare inaccuracy downfield or -- as I suspect, and Tech partisans' persistent criticism of offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring suggests -- some combination of both. Either way, sophomores with Taylor's obvious talent and projections are supposed to go sharply in the other direction.
The Hokies got away with an amazingly lackluster effort last year, but three conference losses probably won't do again, and they realistically need to improve to at least 25-26 points per game to facilitate a three-peat. From that perspective, the thought that Taylor and an uninspiring group of receivers might have to take over the role of offensive engine for at least half of the season is pretty sobering, especially considering that the first two months of the schedule include dates with Alabama and Nebraska and all three of the top challengers in the division, Miami, Georgia Tech and North Carolina. That's how long it took for Evans to really emerge as the go-to guy last year, and if it comes down to November again, the ownership of the Coastal may have already changed hands.