Virginia Tech came away from Saturday's second FCS home game against Rhode Island victorious by a final score of 34-17.
Naysayers will discount the effort of the Hokies in putting the Rams away, as the Hokies let their foot off the gas in the third quarter and let Rhode Island back into the game. Tech then put their foot back on the gas and eventually won by 2.5 touchdowns in a game sandwiched between a huge road win against the Miami Hurricanes and perhaps the team's most important game of the season, a homecoming tilt with much-improved North Carolina.
Virginia Tech has been a topsy-turvy group all year long, but has steadily improved over the course of the last couple of weeks. After a head-scratching (to put it lightly), 45-10 loss to Duke at home on September 27th, the Hokies made a change at quarterback, going from Ryan Willis to Hendon Hooker. The result offensively has been an improved running game and two turnover-free games, which has been a major reason for the turnaround ever since.
The Hokies are 2-0 since inserting Hooker into the starting lineup, and as a team Tech has compiled a +5 turnover differential since the Duke game. All of those takeaways came on the road against Miami in the Hokies' most inspiring defensive effort of the season, but the Hurricanes scratched and clawed their way back into the game late thanks in no part to Virginia Tech's vanilla prevent defense that allowed Miami QB N'kosi Perry to find plenty of skill players running open underneath the Hokies' soft second half zone.
After the Hokies survived the Hurricanes, the major question was whether or not the defense could replicate the performance in which the defense forced Miami's five turnovers; the major reason for the victory. Tech was unable to turnover Rhode Island, but clearly did not bring the same pressure against the Rams that they brought against the Hurricanes. Virginia Tech overwhelmed Miami with seven sacks, many of which came in the first half, leading to passes thrown into coverage by both Jarren Williams and later, N'Kosi Perry.
It was a different story this past Saturday against Rhode Island. The pass rush of Tech got home to Rhode Island QB Vito Priore only three times, allowing him to pick apart the defense at times throughout the second and third quarters. An FCS QB, who has proved capable, was able to sit back and get comfortable on the road at Lane Stadium, pulling his team closer than many would have expected. When many expected Bud Foster to bring pressure, he didn't, and as a result the Virginia Tech secondary was forced to sit back in coverage for most of the afternoon, keep everything in front of them, and bend-but-don't-break against a team that didn't belong on the same field as the Hokies.
So what gives?
It's pretty clear to me anyway, that the Hokies need to trust the young pass rushers in the front seven to create pressure moving forward. The offense is in a good place currently, holding on to the football and steadily improving week-over-week. With the most important game of the season coming up on Saturday against North Carolina, a home game that could potentially be the difference between a 7-5 bowl game and an 8-4 season that many didn't expect in September, Tech must find its identity defensively.
For the season's first month, the defense was the least of the team's concerns. However, as the offense has now improved with the insertion of Hendon Hooker into the lineup at quarterback, the Hokies must apply more pressure on the defensive side of the football and get back to playing the "Lunch Pail Defense" that has been a staple of Virginia Tech Football since the 1980s. Leaning back and letting opponents compile long drives and a multitude of yards will only add more tread to the tires of the defensive unit as the season wears on, and it's not a sustainable method of winning football.
When Virginia Tech was at its best against the Hurricanes, pressure was applied by the front seven and turnovers were produced by the secondary. When the defense has been at its worst, it's sat back on its heels with unconventional conservative play-calling by lame duck defensive coordinator Bud Foster.
Blitz, Blitz, Blitz, or else it's going to be a long day against North Carolina and its stud freshman QB Sam Howell. Make him uncomfortable on the road in what should be a packed house at Lane Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The season depends on it.