Alabama’s offensive line is being questioned. Nobody looked like a Heisman winner last weekend against Virginia Tech. And experts are talking about how the defending national champs might actually have some offensive weaknesses.
Surprise: Virginia Tech found a way to expose them.
Lost in the score of Virginia Tech’s 35-10 loss to Alabama on Saturday night was the fact that the Hokies’ defense slowed down the defending national champs.
The Tide had just 97 yards of total offense at halftime.
Alabama managed 206 total yards on offense, well below its 445.5-yard average last season.
AJ McCarron threw an interception -- he had only three in all of 2012.
Alabama was held to just 96 yards rushing -- the first time since the 9-6 2011 loss to LSU that it was held under 100 rushing yards -- and 3.3 yards per play.
"We played a heck of a game," said Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster. "We played as good as we've played here in a long time, especially in a big game like that against a big opponent. ... The score was not an indication of how we played."
Alabama won because it scored three non-offensive touchdowns (a 72-yard punt return, a 94-yard kickoff return, and an interception return for a touchdown) and played terrific defense. The Hokies’ special teams miscues were glaring, and the offense was again anemic, but Virginia Tech’s defense was good enough that the rest of the Coastal Division should be wary.
The Hokies' front seven flustered Alabama, which had three new starters up front. Foster’s group looked better than advertised, as the Hokies were stingy against the run and kept McCarron on the run. The young, talented secondary is only going to improve with experience. Virginia Tech at times played with two true freshmen in the secondary, as Kendall Fuller started at the field corner position, and when the Hokies went to their nickel package, both Fuller and Brandon Facyson played.
"They both played really well," Foster said. "Kendall played an outstanding game -- very active, made a lot of tackles, made a lot of plays in space. Facyson was very solid. They're two good prospects for us. They played their first college game, and they've got nothing but a bright future ahead of them if they can stay healthy."
Coach Frank Beamer agreed that it was one of the program's best defensive performances in years.
“I thought we really played, well, one of our better defensive games around here,” Beamer said. “I think we really flew to the football, we really tackled well against some really quality people -- the running backs and wide receivers -- really played extremely well. Very aggressive. If we had executed better offensively, we’d have been happy.”
The Hokies should hope that’s not their mantra for the whole season, but Virginia Tech fans are used to this scenario: a defense that’s good enough to keep them in games and even win some, despite offensive struggles. Obviously quarterback Logan Thomas has to complete more than five passes a game in order for Virginia Tech to be taken seriously in the ACC race, but McCarron only completed five more than Thomas.
Virginia Tech isn’t going to face anybody else on the schedule as talented and as deep as Alabama, and the Hokies should be expected to rebound with three straight wins, starting this weekend against Western Carolina. That’s three weeks to improve offensively before traveling to Georgia Tech for a nationally televised Thursday night game on Sept. 26. The Alabama game can’t be considered a true indicator of what the Hokies are going to look like this season or in November, but it was a good foreshadowing that this will likely be another season in which the defense is the team’s identity.
That's just fine with Foster.
"I don't care what we do on the other side of the ball," he said. "We can give ourselves a chance by our play and being consistently good. Teams in the past, we've struggled on that side of the ball and have won some championships by playing great defense and kicking the ball and having an opportunistic offense and not turning the ball over. Where I'm challenging our guys is, if we want to be a championship-caliber team, we've got to play great defense, week in and week out. Not sporadic great defense."
That would be an improvement from a year ago, when the Hokies couldn’t even depend on the Lunch Pail in the first half of the season. Until proven otherwise, Virginia Tech’s offense remains a problem, but the defense looks good enough to be part of the solution.
Just ask Alabama.