MUST-WIN FOR VIRGINIA TECH
Defense, special teams and coaching staff all deserve share of blame for recent slide
The struggling Hokies are hoping to stay bowl eligible, while Pittsburgh hopes to keep its recent hot streak going.
Virginia Tech was outscored 14-0 in the third quarter in each of its last three defeats. Notre Dame was first, followed by Georgia Tech and Boston College. All the games were at home, in front of increasingly perturbed fans.
That’s not a good look for anyone. Offense, defense and special teams. Players and coaches.
But as the Hokies prepare for Saturday’s contest at ACC Coastal Division-leading Pittsburgh, the criticism of offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen’s play-calling is misguided. Sure, some of his in-game decisions have gone awry. Happens to every coach in every game, win or lose.
As readers will attest, happens to every scribe in every story, too. But I digress.
Virginia Tech’s football standards are such that a 4-4 record, 3-2 in the ACC, satisfies no one. But let’s not dump all this on Cornelsen and/or the offense.
Ravaged by attrition, expected and otherwise, the defense is on pace for its worst season in 45 years. The Hokies are allowing 28.3 points per game, nearly double last season’s 14.8, which would be the most they’ve yielded since opponents averaged 34.5 points in 1973.
Greg Stroman returned four punts for touchdowns in his Tech career, including two last year as a senior. This season, the Hokies haven’t found anyone who can consistently catch a punt, much less take one to the house.
Then there’s the offense, which, let’s not forget, has been led by reserve quarterback Ryan Willis for the last five games.
Virginia Tech ranks eighth among 14 ACC teams in scoring at 30.8 points per game and fourth, yes fourth, in yards-per-play at
5.8. Those numbers are better than last season’s 28.2 points and 5.4 yards, but they seem worse in light of the team’s overall deficiencies.
NORFOLK — Between them last season, Old Dominion linebackers Marvin Branch and Jordan Young made 181 tackles, including 9.5 for loss, and broke up seven passes.
Between them at the moment, Branch and Young have two functioning hands.
It's been that sort of year for the linebacking duo, and for the ODU defense as a whole, which is tasked with slowing high-scoring North Texas on Saturday at Foreman Field.
Branch and Young each wear an awkward-looking club on their fractured left hands. They joke that they have 30 minutes of “bonding” time each day, when they place their busted mitts in a bone stimulator intended to promote healing.
“We give the team something to laugh at,” Branch said after a recent practice.
Don't get him wrong. The fifthyear senior from Nansemond River High is anything but amused about his season has gone. Or the team's, for that matter. It's been a study in frustration, for both Branch and the 2-7 Monarchs.
Nine tackles were a decent day's work for Branch last season, when he led the team with 96 stops, including 15 against Massachusetts and 14 at Marshall.
This year, nine is his season total, in the four games he's managed to get on the field.
Branch's travails began in May, when he was diagnosed with a bulging disc in his back. He finally got over that, but then hurt his back again the third day of preseason camp.
Branch missed the season's first three games. Cleared to play again, he pulled his hamstring and missed two more games. Finally over that, he returned vs. Marshall, only to injure his left hand during a drill in pregame warmups.
He didn't immediately know it was fractured, and played through the pain. By the fourth quarter, he couldn't close his hand.
“They X-rayed it and said it was broken,” he said.
Branch could hardly believe it. Dealing with injury after injury has been “a very hard mental battle,” he said.
“I consider myself a pretty tough guy,” he said. “I'm not a quitter. But I was like, ‘It's always something.' I got a little discouraged.”
Branch has played one-handed since. Young joined the club, so to speak, when he broke his hand on the final series of ODU's win at Western Kentucky.
“I broke the fourth bone, he broke the second knuckle,” Branch said. “I have the first two fingers out, he has the last two out.”
That's in the soft cast they wear when not on the field. At practice and in games, each has his left hand padded and entirely covered.
“We were both pretty bummed about it,” Branch said. “It's a lot better to play football with two hands of course.”
As if that wasn't enough damage to one position, leading tackler Lawrence Garner, who had stepped in for Branch this season, suffered a concussion and missed three games.
It was a gut punch to a defense that had already been struggling to tackle and cover, and ranks last in Conference USA in points (39.9) and yardage (472.4) allowed per game.
Garner is expected to return Saturday. Young started last week and says he's adapting to playing one-handed. He's third on the team with 60 tackles.
“Honestly, you've just got to find a way,” he said. “Roll-tackle is the biggest way to get anybody down, even if you have two hands, and I've been taking extra time after practice to roll-tackle using the club, with tackling dummies.”
North Texas has been tough to corral under the best of circumstances. Led by quarterback Mason Fine, the Mean Green lead C-USA in scoring, at 37.9 points per game, and are No.1 in total offense, at 472.4 yards per game.
Slowing Fine and Co. will be a major challenge. ODU was able to pressure him last year in a 45-38 loss and will try to make him uncomfortable again.
With just three games left, ODU hopes to finish a disappointing season on a high note.
“You've got to keep a positive mindset,” Young said. “You've got to think every day that you're blessed to be able to play.”
Even with one hand.
Boston College tight end Korab Idrizi celebrates his second-half TD in the Eagles’ 31-21 win over Virginia Tech. The Hokies led at halftime.
Marvin Branch led Old Dominion last year with 96 tackles, but injuries have limited him to just nine in 2018.