MUST-WIN FOR VIR­GINIA TECH

De­fense, spe­cial teams and coach­ing staff all de­serve share of blame for re­cent slide

Daily Press - - Front Page - By Ed Miller Staff writer Ed Miller, 757-446-2372, ed.miller@pi­lo­ton­line.com

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.

MICHAEL SHROYER/GETTY IM­AGES FILE

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.

David Teel

JONATHON GRUENKE/STAFF

Marvin Branch led Old Do­min­ion last year with 96 tack­les, but in­juries have lim­ited him to just nine in 2018.

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