NCF Nation: Antone Exum

Hyundai Sun Bowl preview

December, 31, 2013
12/31/13
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No. 17 UCLA (9-3) and Virginia Tech (8-4) meet on Tuesday in the Hyundai Sun Bowl. Here are a few keys:

Who to watch: Start with UCLA’s dynamic duo at linebacker, senior Anthony Barr and freshman Myles Jack. Barr benefited from turning down a chance at the NFL a year ago, developing into one of the nation’s best at his position. Jack needed no such time. He also played running back for the final four games of the year, rushing for four touchdowns as he earned the Pac-12’s offensive and defensive rookie of the year honors. For Virginia Tech, the best chance to move the football comes through the air, but talented quarterback Logan Thomas must avoid interceptions. He threw 13 this season in 12 games.

What to watch: Virginia Tech is shorthanded without its leading rusher, Trey Edmunds, who suffered a broken leg in the season finale, a 16-6 win over Virginia. The Hokies struggled to run the ball with Edmunds, so what happens without him? On defense, top cornerback Kyle Fuller is likely out with a groin injury for Tech. Fellow corner Antone Exum will sit with an ankle injury. Against a pair of freshmen in coverage, UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley could have a big day throwing to Shaquelle Evans and Devin Fuller.

Why to watch: It’s two name-brand programs in El Paso, but in what direction are these programs headed? The Bruins, under second-year coach Jim Mora, are trending up regardless of the outcome on Tuesday as they seek a 10-win season for the first time since 2005. The Hokies lost three of their final five games this season after struggling to a 7-6 finish a year ago under 27th-year coach Frank Beamer.

Prediction: UCLA 28, Virginia Tech 14. The Hokies don’t have enough firepower to get into a scoring duel with UCLA, so look for the bowl-savvy Beamer to search for a few nontraditional ways to even this matchup. But expect the Bruins and Hundley to shake free in the second half.

Happy Halloween in the ACC

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
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Happy Halloween! Or, as I like to call it, Movember Eve.

For the second consecutive year, I have gone with the highly-original costume of wearing a "Hello, My Name Is" sticker, writing in the word "Maybe."

You guys and gals all go/went to ACC schools and are smart, so you can figure out what to, ahem, "Call Me." (I actually got the idea from my aunt, who should start charging for her ideas.)

Anyway, let's turn our attention to the people and schools we cover here in the blog. And to you, the readers. You guys blew up the Twitter feed yesterday with great pumpkin carvings, a majority of which can be found here.

There are plenty of tricks and treats to hand out through the season's first nine weeks, and what better day to do that than today?

Without further ado …

[+] EnlargeEric Ebron, Antonio Crawford
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsDon't sleep on the Tar Heels, as North Carolina could be ready to go on a season-ending winning streak.
Freddy Krueger: One team not to sleep on in this final month? North Carolina. Yes, the Tar Heels' 2-5 record is hardly intimidating, but their schedule was very front-loaded. UNC just routed Boston College, and its remaining games are at NC State, against Virginia, at Pitt, against Old Dominion and against Duke. You don't think they could go 4-1 down the stretch and clinch a bowl bid?

Jason Voorhees: Miami is the team that just won't die. The Hurricanes had turned the ball over four times in three straight contests before Saturday's game against Wake Forest … and still won all of them. They then found themselves trailing throughout the afternoon against the overmatched Demon Deacons but still managed to escape victorious in the final minute. Miami has a 7-0 record to show for all of its closecalls, though playing like this is simply no way to live.

Cursed: This isn't your 2012 Maryland team, but it is hardly a healthy one, either. Things were going so great this season for the Terrapins after their 4-0 start and No. 25 spot in the AP poll. Then they met Florida State, losing quarterback C.J. Brown to a concussion in the process. Then they lost top receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long for the season. Linebacker Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil and defensive back Dexter McDougle are also done for the year. Maryland is 1-3 over its last four games, though it put up a nice effort against No. 9 Clemson with Caleb Rowe under center and should still go bowling for the first time in the Randy Edsall era.

Graveyard: Virginia Tech's defensive backfield is where all quarterbacks' throws go to die. The Hokies have picked off a nation-best 17 passes this season, even without Antone Exum for all but this past weekend's contest against Duke, and despite having freshmen Brandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller see extended time. Even in the loss to the Blue Devils, the Hokies managed to come up with four interceptions.

Paranormal activity: A two-hour rain delay in the season opener at Scott Stadium portended what was to come: Virginia's 19-16 win over BYU. The win becomes more of a headscratcher by the week, as the Cavaliers have won just one game since and find themselves at 2-6 and 0-4 in ACC play. The Cougars, meanwhile, are 6-2 and were so dominating in their win over Texas that Mack Brown fired defensive coordinator Manny Diaz in the aftermath. Strange times, indeed.

Boo: That is what quarterbacks and offensive linemen must think every single time they see Aaron Donald line up across from them. The Pitt defensive tackle is second in the nation with 1.9 tackles for loss per game (13.5 total), and his 1.1 sacks per game rank fifth nationally (eight total). He also has 26.5 career sacks, the most among active college football players. Donald is one of just two defensive tackles to be named a semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the nation's outstanding defensive player of the year.

And, because we can never have enough fun, let's take a look at what some of the conference's notable characters are dressing up as tonight:

  • Jameis Winston is MC Hammer. Because, after routing Clemson, he did say that Florida State was "too legit to quit." And because this.
  • David Cutcliffe is David Copperfield. And for his most recent trick, Cutcliffe has made Duke bowl-eligible in consecutive seasons! A program first!
  • Jimbo Fisher is Nick Saban. I know I'm not the only one who sees the facial resemblance. And Fisher's Seminoles have looked a lot like Saban's Crimson Tide this year, to understate it.
  • Steve Addazio is Jesse "The Body" Ventura. This is not up for debate.
  • Duke Johnson is Saul Goodman from "Breaking Bad." Looking for a big kickoff return? Need an insurance touchdown to clinch an upset victory over Florida? Trailing Wake Forest two different times in the fourth quarter with a perfect season on the line? Better call Duke, who has pulled all sorts of tricks up his sleeve to bail Miami out and help lift the Hurricanes to a 7-0 start.

What to watch in the ACC: Week 9

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
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With only Syracuse on a bye this week, there will be plenty to keep an eye on in the conference. Here’s a look at what to watch in Week 9, in no particular order:

1. Florida State flashback: All eyes will be on the pregame scene in Tallahassee, where former Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden will make his first return to Doak Campbell Stadium since he was ousted following the 2009 season. Bowden will plant the famous spear at midfield, and nearly 400 former players are expected to attend the No. 2-ranked Seminoles’ game against NC State. "There's no nerves," Bowden told ESPN.com’s David Hale. "I'm excited about it, getting to see a lot of people."

[+] EnlargeBrandon Mitchell
Lance King/Getty ImagesBrandon Mitchell has been out since the opener for NC State.
2. Brandon Mitchell's return: While Florida State will be celebrating the return of its legendary coach, the Wolfpack will be celebrating the return of its injured starting quarterback. Mitchell broke his left foot in the season opener and hasn’t played since. He won the job over Pete Thomas this preseason, and his athleticism seemed to fit first-year coach Dave Doeren’s no-huddle offense well. He’ll face one of the toughest defenses in the country, though, on Saturday.

3. Wake’s hopes at an upset: The Demon Deacons are on a roll, having won back-to-back Atlantic Division games, and while the Canes lead the series 7-3, all three of Wake’s wins have come at Miami. Wake is looking to snap a six-game losing streak against ranked teams -- and Saturday is the 67th anniversary of the program’s win over No. 4 Tennessee, the highest-ranked team Wake has ever defeated. If the Deacs can continue to get the ball to receiver Michael Campanaro and play stingy defense, they could have a chance. Especially considering …

4. Miami’s ball security: You’ve heard it a million times this week. Miami has turned it over 12 times in the past three weeks. The Hurricanes the only team in the country to have at least four turnovers in three consecutive games this season and the first since East Carolina in 2011. Miami has also had four red-zone turnovers in its past three games. Meanwhile, Wake’s defense forced three turnovers in the Deacs’ victory over Maryland last week. Speaking of the Terps, watch out for …

5. Maryland’s quarterback controversy: It’s C.J. Brown OR Caleb Rowe listed as the starter on this week’s depth chart for Saturday’s game against Clemson, and coach Randy Edsall has played coy about Brown’s status since last week. Edsall said the indecision on his starter is health-related, not performance-related, but wouldn’t specify what’s wrong with Brown. Brown struggled in last week’s loss at Wake Forest, and Edsall said it was because of an injury unrelated to the concussion Brown suffered against Florida State. Stay tuned for which QB will be leading the Terps’ offense against a stingy Clemson D.

6. UNC’s run defense: Miami gashed the Tar Heels for 234 yards on the ground last week -- and that was with their leading rusher, Duke Johnson, sidelined for three quarters and four turnovers from the Canes. Boston College makes its living on the running game, led by senior Andre Williams, who leads the ACC and ranks fifth nationally in rushing yards per game (139.7).

7. Clemson’s rebound: Last week’s 51-14 home loss to Florida State was humbling and devastating to the Tigers. It knocked them out of the national championship picture, all but ruined quarterback Tajh Boyd's chances at winning the Heisman Trophy, and put them behind the Seminoles in the ACC race. How will the Tigers respond on the road? They’ve got more talent than the depleted Terps, but emotion could be a factor early.

8. Virginia Tech’s secondary: Veteran cornerback Antone Exum is expected to finally return for Saturday’s home game against Duke, more than eight months after he had offseason surgery to repair his ACL and a bone fracture. Exum was cleared Sept. 30, but he and the staff have played it cautious. Senior CB Kyle Fuller has broken up 10 passes in seven games and ranks fourth in the nation in passes defended (1.71 per game). They will come in handy against quarterback Duke, which is averaging 269 passing yards per game.

9. Replacement receivers: The ACC will be missing three of its top receivers, with Maryland’s Stefon Diggs and Deon Long and Miami’s Phillip Dorsett all out with injuries. Levern Jacobs will step in at the slot position in place of Diggs, and redshirt freshman Amba Etta-Tawo will take over Long’s spot. With Dorsett out at Miami, that likely means an increased role for Malcolm Lewis, who is listed as a backup at two spots, and true freshman Stacy Coley, who is listed as a co-starter at wide receiver, a starting kick returner and co-starter at punt returner.

10. BC WR Alex Amidon: The Eagles can do more than just run the ball, and Amidon needs just 144 receiving yards to become BC’s all-time leading pass receiver. He has three 100-plus yard receiving games this season and a school-record 10 for his 39-game collegiate career.

ACC predictions: Week 9

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
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The big miss last week was pretty gigantic in retrospect. Neither one of us picked Florida State to beat Clemson. D'oh! We can admit when we are wrong, and we were very wrong. HD also missed on two other picks, going 3-3 for the week, while AA correctly called Georgia Tech and Wake Forest wins to go to 5-1.

AA has a two-game lead on HD, with an overall record of 55-10. There won't be any separation this week. Read on to find out more.

Wake Forest (4-3, 2-2) at No. 7 Miami (6-0, 2-0), noon, ESPNU. #WAKEvsMIA. Miami is not only on distraction alert thanks to the NCAA, it also is on lookahead alert with a potential top-10 showdown against in-state rival Florida State next weekend. Miami simply cannot afford to overlook Wake Forest, which has won two straight. Though Miami leads the series 7-3, all three Wake Forest wins have come in South Florida. One of the bigger matchups to watch features Michael Campanaro against a banged-up Miami secondary. Campanaro has been his usual productive self and also threw a touchdown pass against Maryland last week. Miami gets Duke Johnson back, good news for a team that will be without Phillip Dorsett.

AA picks: Miami 35, Wake Forest 17

HD’s pick: Miami 35, Wake Forest 21

Georgia Tech (4-3, 3-2) at Virginia (2-5, 0-3), 12:30 p.m., ESPN3. #GTvsUVA. The Jackets looked unstoppable last week in a shutout win over Syracuse, while Virginia stopped itself from picking up its first ACC win, blowing a 22-point lead on Duke. The Jackets played nearly flawlessly, with zero penalties and just one turnover and might have turned a corner on offense. They have won three of the past four in the series. Given how low morale must be in Charlottesville, Georgia Tech has the edge.

AA picks: Georgia Tech 30, Virginia 17

HD’s pick: Georgia Tech 38, Virginia 17

Pitt (4-2) at Navy (3-3), 1 p.m., CBS Sports Network. Pitt beat Duke, which beat Navy pretty handily, so therefore Pitt should win this game. Right? Do not be surprised if the Midshipmen put a scare into the Panthers, who had to survive a closer game than anticipated last week against Old Dominion. Isaac Bennett had a career game with 240 yards rushing but all eyes will be on the Pitt defense and how it handles the Navy option. Pitt gets a similar test next week against Georgia Tech.

AA picks: Pitt 30, Navy 23

HD’s pick: Pitt 31, Navy 21

NC State (3-3, 0-3) at No. 2 Florida State (6-0, 4-0), 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2. #NCSTvsFSU. Given past history, there are those who believe the Noles are on upset alert. Not so fast. The Wolfpack and Noles are vastly different teams today than they were a year ago. First and foremost, Florida State has a game-changer at quarterback who, quite frankly, seems too good to be true. NC State did a nice job getting pressure on Tajh Boyd in their matchup earlier this year, but Jameis Winston does a better job than any quarterback in the country at handling guys in his face. NC State does get Brandon Mitchell back, but the Wolfpack simply do not have the type of offense to stay in this game, averaging 12.3 points in three ACC games.

AA picks: Florida State 45, NC State 13

HD’s pick: Florida State 48, NC State 10

No. 9 Clemson (6-1, 4-1) at Maryland (5-2, 1-2), 3:30 p.m., ESPN. #CLEMvsMD. The Tigers have to be careful not to let the Florida State loss beat them twice. Players seem to realize they are still in good position to get an at-large BCS berth if they can win out. Maryland might have provided tougher competition last month, but right now, the Terps are reeling thanks to their familiar foe -- injuries. Not only are Stefon Diggs and Deon Long out for the season, but quarterback C.J. Brown's status remains up in the air because of an undisclosed injury. The defense also has been hurt because of injuries too, leaving this team too depleted to pull the upset.

AA picks: Clemson 40, Maryland 17

HD’s pick: Clemson 38, Maryland 17

Boston College (3-3, 1-2) at North Carolina (1-5, 0-3), 3:30 p.m., ESPN3. #BCvsUNC. The Eagles have done a terrific job running the ball, so you know the game plan going in will be to beat the Tar Heels with the power run game. North Carolina ranks No. 102 in the nation in rushing defense, and lost to Miami in part because it could not stop Dallas Crawford in the fourth quarter. You have to wonder how North Carolina picks itself up after such a devastating home defeat to Miami. The Tar Heels had some great moments, especially tight end Eric Ebron, but they have found ways to lose games all season.

AA picks: Boston College 27, North Carolina 24

HD’s pick: Boston College 21, UNC 17

Duke (5-2, 1-2) at No. 14 Virginia Tech (6-1, 3-0), 3:30 p.m., ESPNU. #DUKEvsVT. Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer had high praise for the way Duke coach David Cutcliffe has turned around the Blue Devils program, but Duke is still a long way from being in the upper echelon of the ACC. Last season, against a down Virginia Tech team, Duke could not hang on to a 20-0 first-quarter lead and lost. This Virginia Tech team is much better. The best matchup to watch in this one features Duke receiver Jamison Crowder against the supremely talented Virginia Tech secondary. Antone Exum is expected to make his long-awaited return. He faces a big test against Crowder.

AA picks: Virginia Tech 27, Duke 14

HD’s pick: Virginia Tech 34, Duke 21

What to watch in the ACC: Week 6

October, 3, 2013
10/03/13
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After a few weeks of mediocre games, the ACC gets down to business with a top-25 showdown in Tallahassee and a battle of Coastal Division contenders in Miami. Here are some of the top storylines as the ACC gets rolling in Week 6:

Battle of undefeated teams: At this point, Maryland and Florida State are both playing second fiddle to Clemson in the Atlantic Division, but the winner of Saturday's showdown in Tallahassee will firmly establish itself as the Tigers' top rival. FSU remains the heavy favorite, having never lost to Maryland in 11 previous games at Doak Campbell Stadium, but its defense was exposed last week against Boston College, and the Terps have plenty of offensive firepower. Still, the Seminoles are easily the most talented team Maryland has faced during its 4-0 start, and even coach Randy Edsall said it will take a stellar effort to overcome a long track record of struggles against FSU.

[+] EnlargeTerrel Hunt
Mark Konezny/USA TODAY SportsSyracuse quarterback Terrel Hunt has thrown for seven touchdowns and no interceptions since replacing Drew Allen as the starter.
Coastal Division showdown: In the span of four quarters against Virginia Tech's formidable defense, Georgia Tech went from potential favorite to divisional life support last week. The Yellow Jackets couldn't find an answer to the Hokies' defensive scheme, and they're now faced with a showdown against undefeated Miami in South Florida. A second conference loss -- both to teams ahead of them in the standings -- would likely spell doom for the Jackets' hopes of returning to the ACC championship game. Miami, meanwhile, needs to keep pace with the resurgent Hokies, and Georgia Tech promises a far bigger test than the Hurricanes have gotten in the past two weeks, when they beat Savannah State and USF by a combined 126-28.

The rich get richer: After eight months of rehab on his injured knee, Virginia Tech corner Antone Exum has finally been cleared to play, though a decision on whether he'll take the field this weekend isn't expected until after today's practice. That's not exactly good news for ACC offenses already at a loss for how to solve the Hokies' stingy defense. With Exum out of the lineup, freshmen Brandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller have been phenomenal, combining for six interceptions and 12 passes defended in five games. Exum, meanwhile, was a second-team All-ACC corner last season. With Exum's return imminent, Facyson is getting reps at receiver, but it'll be up to coordinator Bud Foster to deal with the rather pleasant of finding reps for everyone.

Under the Dome: Syracuse kicks off ACC play for the first time, but the welcoming committee isn't likely to be particularly accommodating. Clemson heads to the Carrier Dome fresh off a throttling of Wake Forest and figures to present the Orange with a far bigger challenge than they've faced during their two-game winning streak against Wagner and Tulane. Still, Syracuse is far more optimistic about the season now that new starting QB Terrel Hunt has the offense rolling, and the Orange are expecting a nearly packed house.

Heisman watch in the ACC: Tajh Boyd has been an early favorite since the season started, and he burnished his credentials nicely last week against Wake Forest, completing 17 of 24 passes for 311 yards and three TDs, while rushing for a fourth. The upstart in the race is Winston, who led another ferocious offensive outburst for Florida State by completing 17 of 27 passes for 330 yards and four TDs. Both QBs get another shot to add to their increasingly impressive totals this week as the crowded field vying for the Heisman jockeys for the spotlight.

QB injuries: In Pittsburgh, Tom Savage faced a battery of concussion tests after being knocked around against Virginia. At Miami, the Hurricanes host Georgia Tech with starting quarterback Stephen Morris still nursing an ankle injury that he aggravated against USF. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas is coming off his best game of the season, but he has been hampered with an abdominal injury for weeks. If any of those injuries prove more serious than initial reports, the always-fluid Coastal Division race could be in for another shakeup.

North Carolina's effort: After a stunning 55-31 loss to East Carolina last week, UNC tailback A.J. Blue publicly questioned whether his team had overlooked a supposedly subpar opponent. The same result isn't likely this week, as the Tar Heels travel to Virginia Tech hoping to salvage their season. A win could reinvigorate North Carolina's hopes in the division, but a loss would send the Heels to 1-4 with another tough game against Miami to follow. It's only Week 5, but North Carolina appears to already be in a must-win situation.

Virginia's slumbering offense: After a 14-3 loss to Pittsburgh, coach Mike London and QB David Watford both lamented Virginia's sluggish offensive performance. London promised changes on the O-line, Watford insisted on extra work with his receivers and the entirety of the unit really has nowhere to go but up this week against Ball State. Virginia ranks 13th in the ACC in scoring offense and passing offense, and its minus-4 turnover margin ranks 110th nationally. Meanwhile, Ball State QB Keith Wenning has thrown for more than 300 yards in every game so far, meaning the Cavaliers are likely going to need some offensive fireworks of their own to keep pace.

Return of Mitchell: If all goes according to plan, this week's game against Wake Forest will be NC State's last without starting quarterback Brandon Mitchell, who broke a bone in his foot in the opener. Pete Thomas has done a solid enough job in Mitchell's absence, but there's a clear gap in playmaking ability. Thomas' 80-yard TD throw to Bryan Underwood in last week's win was his first passing touchdown of the season (to go with five INTs), but the Wolfpack are 3-1 with him as the starter.

Boston College bounce-back: Now that the Defense Department has given Army the OK to travel for the game, it's safe for Boston College to start planning for a rebound performance after last week's loss to Florida State. In spite of the outcome from a week ago, BC should have plenty of confidence. The Eagles offense scored 34 points, its high in an ACC game since 2009, and ran the ball successfully against what was thought to be a stout FSU defense. A loss is still a loss, but the impressive offensive performance was yet another sign that BC has taken some big steps forward under first-year coach Steve Addazio.
When Virginia Tech opens the season against Alabama, the Hokies will be facing a Heisman contender in quarterback AJ McCarron and a preseason All-American in receiver Amari Cooper.

With true freshmen playing in the secondary.

Not exactly an ideal scenario, but one the Hokies have a few weeks left for which to prepare. First came news that starter Antone Exum is not fully recovered from a knee injury he sustained in January. Now, Donaldven Manning has decided to transfer, leaving the Hokies with true freshmen Brandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller to man the cornerback spot opposite Kyle Fuller.

To their credit, both Facyson and Fuller have drawn high praise from their coaches since they arrived on campus and would have most likely played in the opener, anyway. Facyson was a spring star after enrolling early; Kendall Fuller was the highest-rated player the Hokies signed in February.

Defensive coordinator Bud Foster told reporters in Blacksburg, Va., during media day this weekend: "Really, I think we’ve got two outstanding prospects with Brandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller. I’ve really been pleased with Kendall’s just football IQ, his body positioning. Just a very instinctive, solid technique-wise, beside the fact he has tremendous ability."

But playing as a backup is completely different from relying on freshmen to take the majority of the snaps at that cornerback spot. Especially when you consider how solid Kyle Fuller is on the other side. Kyle Fuller -- Kendall's older brother -- has been starting since he was a true freshman, so you have to believe Alabama will go after the two young cornerbacks.

Foster says there are ways the Hokies can scheme their plans to help Kendall Fuller and Facyson out. But it could be a long night for the Hokies' youngsters.
Virginia Tech starting cornerback Antone Exum will not be available for the season opener against Alabama as he continues to rehab his injured right knee.

Athletic trainer Mike Goforth told reporters in Blacksburg, Va., on Monday night that Exum went for a follow-up appointment with Dr. James Andrews in Florida and was not given clearance to play. Andrews, known as one of the top orthopedic surgeons in the country, performed Exum's knee surgery.

Exum will have another follow-up exam in one-and-a-half to two months, meaning he could miss all of September as well. The second-team All-ACC selection a year ago tore his ACL, lateral and medial meniscus, and fractured a bone in his knee during a pickup basketball game in January.

Both Exum and coach Frank Beamer had held out hope that Exum could be healthy enough to play against the Tide on Aug. 31 in Atlanta. But rehab from this injury generally takes eight-to-12 months.

"It's just one of those things that takes time," Beamer said. "It just needs to be right for him and for us."

With Exum out, Virginia Tech will have to rely on some young players against one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Sophomore Donaldven Manning and true freshman Brandon Facyson are listed as co-starters at cornerback on the preseason depth chart with Exum out.

Manning has played in eight games; Facyson enrolled early and turned heads during spring practice. Virginia Tech also plans on using true freshman Kendall Fuller at nickelback.

100-days checklist: ACC

May, 21, 2013
5/21/13
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As of today, there are 100 days until the start of the college football season.

You bet we’re counting.

If you’re Scot Loeffler, Virginia Tech's new offensive coordinator, 100 days must feel like a nanosecond. The Hokies aren’t the only ones, though, with plenty of work to do before the season begins. Here’s a checklist of five things the ACC and its teams must accomplish before the opening kickoff:

1. Name starting quarterbacks. Syracuse can’t even talk about Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen yet because he’s not on campus and won’t enroll until next month, but the Orange are just one of several teams in the ACC that still have an ongoing quarterback competition. Virginia’s quarterback controversy has seemingly gone on for years, and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher has yet to officially anoint Jameis Winston as EJ Manuel’s successor. Pitt is also still searching for a dependable leader, along with NC State.

2. Find an offense in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech has become one of the ACC’s brand-name programs, a consistent winner and a representative in the Top 25 and BCS standings. That changed last season when the Hokies bumbled their way through their most disappointing season in 20 years. Coach Frank Beamer made sweeping changes to his offensive staff, but little improvement was seen in the spring game. Loeffler said it wasn’t a true indication of the progress that was made in the other 13 practices, but also conceded there is still a lot of work to be done. With Alabama looming in the season opener, all eyes will be on the ACC in Week 1. When the Hokies are good, the ACC is better.

3. Improve defensively. With the exception of Florida State, which finished the season ranked No. 6 in the country in scoring defense, 2012 wasn’t a banner year for ACC defenses. The conference usually has some of the nation’s best defenses -- including Boston College -- but there was no Luke Kuechly and no identity for the Eagles last fall. Miami beat Duke 52-45. Georgia Tech beat North Carolina 68-50. Clemson beat NC State 62-48. Clemson took a major step forward defensively with its bowl win against LSU, but the defense must become elite in its second season under coordinator Brent Venables if Clemson is going to be a national-title contender.

4. Minimize the turnovers. Virginia Tech was No. 86 in turnover margin last year, and quarterback Logan Thomas threw three picks in the spring game. Boston College was No. 88 in the country in turnover margin, FSU No. 93, NC State No. 99, Maryland No. 104, Virginia No. 110. That’s almost half the league ranked among the worst in the country in turnover margin. The Hokies play Alabama. Virginia plays Oregon. BC plays at USC. FSU is at Florida, and the Seminoles turned it over five times versus the Gators in FSU's 37-26 loss last year. The Gators scored 10 points off turnovers in that game. If the ACC is going to stand a chance, it can’t give away freebies.

5. Stay out of the trainer’s room. Virginia Tech standout corner Antone Exum is still rehabbing from the torn ACL he suffered in a pickup basketball game. The bulk of Wake Forest’s offensive line was walking wounded all spring, and that group will make or break the Deacons' season. Clemson backup quarterback Chad Kelly and starting tight end Sam Cooper both tore their ACLs this spring. If the ACC is going to beat the best this fall, it needs its best players on the field. For some programs, like Boston College, the depth isn’t there to afford injuries.
Virginia Tech freshman cornerback Brandon Facyson enrolled in school early hoping to get a jump on the competition.

After 15 spring practices, Facyson has made quite an impression and is a virtual lock to play in 2013 -- perhaps even start until Antone Exum gets healthy.

"Brandon Facyson was probably one of the pleasant surprises," defensive coordinator Bud Foster said in a phone interview Wednesday. "He might be our best corner. We had him behind Kyle Fuller in the spring but if we were to play tomorrow or this next week, we might be getting him ready to be our field corner."

[+] EnlargeBud Foster
Lee Coleman/Icon SMIVirginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster has more depth at cornerback after freshman Brandon Facyson emerged this spring.
That speaks volumes for the type of player Facyson has the potential to be. Many times, freshmen who come in as early enrollees take time to develop and get adjusted to their new surroundings. But Facyson has been quite the quick study.

"He’s really got a good demeanor about him, a lot of poise about him, and he’s very coachable," Foster said. "This will be a big summer for him, to get bigger, faster and stronger. I knew what kind of prospect he was, but I was really pleased with how quickly he picked things up and learned our defense and his position.

"To me, he seems to be a very mature young man. He seems to be one that’s ahead of his time a little bit. That will contribute to his ability to play a little earlier. Coach [Torrian] Gray coached him hard a couple times to challenge him and he responded. Some young guys sometimes will stick their head back in a shell but he’s a guy who bulled his neck and kept going like a bulldog. That showed something about him, that he’s got a little fight in him. And you’ve got to have thick skin to play corner.

"I think Coach Gray was trying to challenge him and find that out. Is he ready for prime time or is he going to be a guy who takes a little time? If he gets beat or things don’t go his way, how is he going to respond? I think we saw him respond favorably."

Foster was very pleased with the development of his defensive backs this spring, an area where the Hokies need to improve their depth. Foster also singled out Donovan Riley, Donaldven Manning and Davion Tookes as players who came on this spring. Highly heralded Kendall Fuller also arrives in the fall as well.

As for Exum, the starting cornerback seems to be ahead in his recovery from a major knee injury he sustained while playing pick-up basketball in January. Though Foster didn't have an update on the timetable, Exum told reporters in Blacksburg last week that he wants to be ready for the season opener against Alabama on Aug. 31.

"He feels very good, he’s planning on being here for the opening of camp," Foster said. "I don’t know when they’re going to give him his release, but if there’s anybody who can do it, he can do it. He’s got tremendous physical attributes as far as his strength and the muscles surrounding the joint. If the ligaments and all those things heal up, I know the muscles will be strong enough. We’ll just have to see. He’s a guy that’s very conscientious as far as his work ethic and doing the right things. If there’s anybody who can do it because he’s going to will himself, it would be Antone."

ACC's spring position battles

February, 21, 2013
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There are going to be position battles this spring at every school in the ACC, but some will be in the spotlight more than others. If you’re just tuning in to ACC football, here are some of the biggest competitions in the conference this spring:

OFFENSE

1. Florida State quarterback: This is arguably the most intriguing competition in the entire conference, as the Seminoles have to replace veteran EJ Manuel. Clint Trickett enters the spring at the top of the depth chart, but consider this job open. Sophomore Jacob Coker is the total package, but redshirt freshman Jameis Winston was the nation’s No. 1 quarterback and could be the answer, too.

2. North Carolina running back: The Tar Heels have to find a way to replace leading rusher Giovani Bernard, who left early for the NFL draft. Not only will his loss be felt in the running game, but probably even moreso in the return game, as Bernard was one of the nation’s top punt returners. UNC returns A.J. Blue and Romar Morris, who combined for 819 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns last season.

3. Syracuse quarterback: The Orange enter the ACC with a new coach and in need of a new quarterback. Record-setting quarterback Ryan Nassib is gone, leaving behind a wide-open competition. Backup Charley Loeb, junior John Kinder, and dual-threat Terrel Hunt are the top candidates. Ashton Broyld, who moved to running back in 2012, could be in the mix as well.

DEFENSE

1. Florida State defensive ends: The cream of the crop is gone, as Tank Carradine, Bjoern Werner and Brandon Jenkins all have to be replaced. Enter Mario Edwards Jr., who has a leg-up on the competition because he played in 11 games as a true freshman, and started the final two games of the year in place of the injured Carradine. Don’t forget about Giorgio Newberry, though, and Chris Casher, who is now healthy after a knee injury. Casher will start spring ball on the two-deep depth chart. Dan Hicks, who was Jenkins’ backup two years ago, had a knee injury and missed all of last season. He had moved to tight end, but was in the rotation at defensive end earlier in his career and could come back.

2. NC State secondary: This group will have an entirely new look this spring, as three starters have to be replaced, including Earl Wolff, Brandan Bishop and David Amerson, the school’s career interception leader. Cornerback Dontae Johnson returns, along with Juston Burris, who played in the nickel package. There are also several redshirts and younger players who will compete.

3. Virginia Tech cornerback: Virginia Tech’s defensive backfield lost its star last month when cornerback Antone Exum tore his ACL in a pickup basketball game. Several young players will compete for his reps this spring, including Donovan Riley, Donaldven Manning and Davion Tookes. Highly touted cornerback Kendall Fuller will join the team in the summer.
DUKE

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Boone is up. Duke loses three-year starter Sean Renfree, who threw for 3,113 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. Anthony Boone is the next man up, and has plenty of game experience. But coming in for spot duty is vastly different from taking over the starting quarterback job. He has to get a jump on becoming the leader of this offense in the spring.

2. Receiver spots open. The Blue Devils lose the most prolific receiver in ACC history in Conner Vernon, plus the versatile and athletic Desmond Scott. Jamison Crowder is back, but Duke is going to need to find two more starters and several more to step up and help with depth.

3. Handling success. This is the first time since 1994 that Duke goes into a spring with 15 bowl practices already under its belt and a taste of success. That should presumably give the Blue Devils an advantage. But it is much harder maintaining, as many coach will tell you. How does this new success impact the mind-set in spring practice?

GEORGIA TECH

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:

1. Ted Roof takes over. What is the Georgia Tech defense going to look like with Ted Roof in charge? He has not really given out specifics about the type of scheme he wants to use as his base, so it will be interesting to see how he fits his personnel to what he likes to do best. The Jackets do return eight starters to a unit that improved in the second half of the season.

2. Vad Lee time. We saw glimpse of what Lee could do as he began to share quarterback duties with Tevin Washington last season. Now, the show is all his, so we get to see how he develops as a full-time starter.

3. So long, Orwin. The Jackets lose one of their most dynamic playmakers in Orwin Smith, who finished his career ranked among Georgia Tech’s all-time leaders in kickoff returns (76), kickoff return yards (1,624) and career all-purpose yards (4,278). Georgia Tech has to find somebody to replace that productivity.

MIAMI

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. D in Defense? The No. 1 spring priority has got to be improving a defense that was one of the worst in the nation in every NCAA statistical category (No. 112 rushing defense, No. 102 passing defense, No. 116 total defense, No. 82 scoring defense). If Miami is going to be a favorite to win the Coastal, it needs better play out of this group.

2. New OC. James Coley takes over as offensive coordinator, replacing Jedd Fisch. Coley served as offensive coordinator at Florida State before arriving at Miami, but did not call the plays. So he has much more responsibility here, and is charged with taking Stephen Morris from great to next-level great.

3. D-Line improvement. If Miami is going to be better on defense, it has to start up front, where the Hurricanes were extremely young and mostly ineffective for 2012. The Hurricanes had to deal with their share of injuries, but they also were not great at stopping the run or putting pressure on the passer -- with only 13 sacks all year. That is the lowest total since at least 2005, the first year NCAA stats began listing team sack totals.

NORTH CAROLINA

Spring start: March 6

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Bye bye, Gio. Life begins without All-ACC running back Giovani Bernard, who left school early for the NFL draft. The cupboard is not completely bare, though, as A.J. Blue and Romar Morris both return. Blue and Morris combined for 819 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns last season.

2. Replacing Williams, Reddick. North Carolina returns nine starters on defense. That is the good news. The bad news is the Tar Heels lose their two best players in linebacker Kevin Reddick and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, two first-team All-ACC selections. We'll see if Ethan Farmer at tackle and P.J. Clyburn at linebacker emerge to win the starting jobs.

3. Replacing Coop. The Tar Heels have a major hole to fill on their offensive line as they say goodbye to unanimous All-America guard Jonathan Cooper, a stalwart who made 47 career starts. Cooper was the unheralded leader of the offense, so filling his spot is a major priority this spring.

PITTSBURGH

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:

1. QB situation. Tino Sunseri is gone, leaving Arizona transfer Tom Savage, redshirt freshman Chad Voytik and junior Trey Anderson to compete for the starting job. Inconsistent quarterback play has been a major issue for the Panthers, so upgrading this position is an absolute must.

2. Adjusting to DC. Pitt is going into the season with its fourth new coordinator in as many years, as Dave Huxtable left for NC State after only one year on the job. Secondary coach Matt House was promoted to coordinator, so at least there will be some familiarity. But he has to get to work on improving this unit's consistency.

3. Offensive line improvements. Is this the year we finally see a vastly improved Pitt offensive line? The Panthers have to replace center Ryan Turnley and guard Chris Jacobson, two key positions to watch during spring practice.

VIRGINIA

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:

1. New coaches. How will the three most high-profile hires Mike London made mesh with the staff and returning players? How will the offense deal with a new scheme under Steve Fairchild? How will the defense deal with a new scheme under Jon Tenuta? How big will Tom O'Brien's role be with the offense? Inquiring minds want to know.

2. QB competition. Fairchild has already said he will open up the quarterback job to a "very spirited competition" this spring. The two front-runners figure to be Phillip Sims and David Watford, who both have game experience. But there will be no shortage of quarterbacks in Charlottesville this year, so there are no guarantees that either of them will win the job.

3. Replacing Greer. The Hoos have some big shoes to fill in the middle of their defense with the departure of linebacker Steve Greer, who ended his career with 376 tackles -- ranking No. 6 in school history. Kwontie Moore, one of nine true freshmen to play in 2012, backed up Greer last season. Will he win the starting job?

VIRGINIA TECH

Spring start: March 27

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. Logan Thomas. All eyes will be on Thomas as he heads into his senior season, especially with new offensive coordinator in Scot Loeffler in charge. How will the two work together, and what will Loeffler do to get Thomas to cut down on his mistakes and capitalize on the immense potential he has?

2. Rushing attack. Item No. 2 on the agenda for Loeffler is to figure out a way to jump start the Virginia Tech rushing game, which struggled in 2012. The offensive line was inconsistent, and so were the running backs. The Hokies could never really settle on a starter or a clear rotation in the backfield, either. Somebody has to emerge as THE guy.

3. Filling in for Exum. Virginia Tech took a serious hit to its defensive backfield last month when emerging cornerback Antone Exum tore his ACL in a pickup basketball game. The Hokies will look to several young players to try and fill his void, including Donovan Riley, Donaldven Manning and Davion Tookes. Fans will have to wait on highly touted cornerback Kendall Fuller, who joins in the summer.

Five bold predictions for 2013

January, 15, 2013
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I have all the answers, but you knew that already. It’s why you’re here.

Here they are -- your five bold predictions for 2013.

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsTajh Boyd and Clemson ended 2012 with a win over SEC foe LSU. Can the Tigers open 2013 by beating another SEC power?
1. Clemson will win the ACC title; Miami will win the Coastal Division. The Tigers return the ACC’s best quarterback in Tajh Boyd, four starters on the offensive line, and the defense should be much better in the second season under coordinator Brent Venables. Miami might have the best offensive line in the ACC, and it will have one of the best quarterbacks in Stephen Morris. The Canes have to improve dramatically on defense, though, in order for this to come to fruition.

2. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd will be a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. While he didn’t make it to New York this past season, he was certainly good enough. Boyd’s performance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl win against LSU should make him a legitimate contender heading into 2013. It’s not going to be easy because Clemson opens with Georgia, closes with South Carolina and plays FSU in between. But if the Tigers can go undefeated or finish with only one loss, Boyd should be in New York.

3. Jameis Winston will be Florida State’s new starting quarterback. The competition is on, and Clint Trickett enters the spring as the leading candidate to replace starter EJ Manuel. Trickett will be pushed, though, by Jacob Coker and Winston. Winston, who was regarded by many as the nation’s top quarterback prospect in 2012, also was a standout baseball player. He gets the nod from ESPN.com as the Noles’ starter in 2013.

4. Virginia Tech will have the best defense in the ACC. Move over, Noles, it’s the Hokies’ time to shine again. Virginia Tech returns nine starters to a defense that improved significantly in the second half of the season. While the Noles have to replace three of their top defensive ends in Brandon Jenkins, Tank Carradine and Bjoern Werner, Virginia Tech returns James Gayle at end, and standout corner Antone Exum. Bud Foster’s group “is back.”

5. Wake Forest will go bowling, Duke will not. Tanner Price returns, Sean Renfree and Conner Vernon do not. That’s not to say that the Blue Devils don’t have enough pieces in place to continue the momentum from 2012, but they’ve got big shoes to fill. Meanwhile, Wake Forest returns standout receiver Michael Campanaro, who should be one of the best in the ACC if he stays healthy.

ACC's 2012 All-Bowl team

January, 10, 2013
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The ACC went 4-2 this bowl season, its first winning record since 2005. There were plenty of top performers to highlight, but these are the players who were most deserving of the ACC’s 2012 All-Bowl team:

Offense first team

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Tajh Boyd had a record-setting game in Clemson's victory against LSU.
QB -- Tajh Boyd, Clemson: He had 368 yards of total offense against LSU on 79 total offensive plays. He set a Clemson record for plays in a game by a quarterback.

RB -- Lonnie Pryor, Florida State: He had a career-long 60 yard touchdown in the first half of the Orange Bowl, which was the second-longest touchdown run in FSU bowl history. In his final game as a Seminole, he also had a 37-yard run in the fourth quarter for his second touchdown in the game.

RB -- David Sims, Georgia Tech: He rushed for a game-high and career-best 99 yards on 17 carries, and caught a touchdown pass in the 21-7 win against USC.

WR -- DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson: He finished the game with 13 receptions for 191 yards and finished the season with 82 receptions for 1405 yards. Hopkins tied his own Clemson record for receptions in a game with 13. He also had 13 in the opener against Auburn.

WR -- Conner Vernon, Duke: He caught 10 passes for 119 yards and one touchdown against Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. He helped Duke to 34 points against a Bearcats defense that entered the game ranked 12th nationally, allowing just 17.2 points per game.

TE -- Brandon Ford, Clemson: His nine receptions against LSU tied the overall Clemson single-game record for receptions by a tight end. He finished with 69 receiving yards, including one reception for 20 yards.

T -- Cameron Erving, Florida State: It was the sixth game this season with over 500 yards of total offense for the Seminoles. All three touchdown runs came between center and left tackle, and quarterback EJ Manuel had all day to throw.

T -- Perry Simmons, Duke: He led an offensive line performance that yielded zero sacks and allowed quarterback Sean Renfree to establish Belk Bowl records for pass completions (37), pass attempts (49) and passing yardage (358). Simmons also aided a running game that gained 200 net yards on 39 attempts as running back Josh Snead picked up a career-high 107 yards on just 17 attempts.

G -- Josue Matias, Florida State: The Noles racked up 243 rushing yards, 23 first downs and 534 yards of total offense. He was part of an offensive line that didn’t allow Manuel to be sacked once by Northern Illinois. Two of Pryor’s runs came between Erving and Matias.

G -- Omoregie Uzzi, Georgia Tech: He helped pave the way for 294 rushing yards in the win against USC, and 369 total yards. He made his 39th career start, the second-most on the team.

C -- Dalton Freeman, Clemson: The Tigers had 100 plays and 32 first downs, and his blocking was a major factor.

Defense first team

DE -- Malliciah Goodman, Clemson: He set a bowl record with three sacks as Clemson held LSU to 219 yards of total offense.

DE -- Bjoern Werner, Florida State: In his last game with the Noles, the dominating end knocked down his eighth pass of the season, which is the second-most in the FBS by a defensive lineman. He finished with two tackles.

DT -- Derrick Hopkins, Virginia Tech: He had four tackles, including 1.5 for loss, and a sack. The sack was on Rutgers' first play of overtime, forcing them into long yardage which led to a long (and missed) field goal.

DT -- Grady Jarrett, Clemson: He had four tackles, including two tackles for loss, and one was a sack. He was a big reason Clemson held LSU to just 99 yards rushing.

LB -- Christian Jones, Florida State: Jones tied for the team lead with 10 tackles in the 31-10 Discover Orange Bowl win against Northern Illinois.

LB -- Vince Williams, Florida State: He tied Jones for the team lead with 10 tackles, and finished with one tackle for loss and a sack.

LB -- Bruce Taylor, Virginia Tech: He led the Hokies with 11 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, and had a pass breakup. Virginia Tech’s defense held Rutgers to 196 yards and three offensive points, none in the last three quarters.

CB -- Rod Sweeting, Georgia Tech: Even though his statistics were modest -- three tackles, two pass breakups and an interception returned for 21 yards -- Sweeting was voted the game’s MVP. He fared well in a tough assignment, matching up with Biletnikoff Trophy winner Marqise Lee.

CB -- Antone Exum, Virginia Tech: The Russell Athletic Bowl’s MVP led a stifling pass defense that allowed just 129 yards. He made the play of the game with an interception of Gary Nova to set up the game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter. Virginia Tech’s defense allowed just 196 yards total, and just 17 completions from Nova on 40 attempts.

S -- Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State: He finished third on the team with six tackles, including one tackle for loss. The Northern Illinois receivers were no match for the FSU secondary and were rendered ineffective.

S -- Rashard Hall, Clemson: He led the team with nine tackles, including eight solo, in the win against LSU.

Specialists

PK -- Chandler Catanzaro, Clemson: He kicked the 37-yard game-winning field goal as time expired to give Clemson and the ACC a monumental 25-24 win against LSU. It was the fourth walk-off field goal in Clemson history, and Catanzaro has two of the four.

P -- A.J. Hughes, Virginia Tech: He tied the record under coach Frank Beamer for punts in a game with 11. He finished with an average of 42.2 with four punts inside the 20-yard line, and a long of 57.

SP -- Tobais Palmer, NC State: He returned a second-quarter kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown in the loss to Vandy, and became the first Pack player since Greg Golden in 2001 to return a kickoff for a score in a bowl game. He finished with 173 kickoff return yards, setting a new NC State season record with 1,130 KOR yards. Palmer and T.J. Graham (1,028 in 2008) are the only two Wolfpack players to go over 1,000 yards in kickoff returns in a single season. Palmer also went over 100 yards receiving for the third time in 2012, as he finished with eight catches for 111 yards.
Virginia Tech cornerback Antone Exum announced Wednesday that he will return for his senior season, which is great news for a Hokies defense that returns a majority of its starters.

Exum excelled in his move from safety to cornerback this past season, earning second-team All-ACC honors. He had one of his best performances in the 13-10 overtime win over Rutgers in the Russell Athletic Bowl. His interception in the fourth quarter allowed Virginia Tech to come back and win, earning him game MVP honors.

He finished the season with five interceptions, 16 pass breakups and two forced fumbles, and should be one of the best cornerbacks in the ACC in 2013. Virginia Tech returns nine starters on a defense that improved significantly in the second half of the season, giving the Hokies a huge chance to get back to their dominating ways on that side of the ball.

Virginia Tech wins defensive slog

December, 28, 2012
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- You knew it, I knew it, everybody knew it: The Russell Athletic Bowl would be a defensive struggle between two highly skilled groups at Rutgers and Virginia Tech.

But did anybody expect the slog that ensued?

Gary Nova and Logan Thomas did nothing to dispel the notion that they are quarterbacks who have yet to live up to their full potential. Virginia Tech finished with 3 total yards rushing. Rutgers averaged 1.7 yards per carry. Virginia Tech averaged 2.7 yards per play. Rutgers averaged 2.5 yards per play.

It was almost as if they were playing a game of "anything you can do, we can do worse!" Virginia Tech owned that game within the game in the first half. But in the fourth quarter, boy, that was all Rutgers. Virginia Tech overcame a 10-0 deficit to tie the game thanks to a host of Scarlet Knights errors, then Cody Journell made a 22-yard field goal in overtime to give the Hokies a 13-10 victory Friday night, preserving a 20th consecutive winning season.

[+] EnlargeBruce Taylor
AP Photo/Scott A. MillerLinebacker Bruce Taylor hoists the Russell Athletic Bowl trophy after a team-high 11 tackles in the lockdown of Rutgers.
"Nothing comes easy for us," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "It's work, but we got a bunch of guys that will hang on, and keep working at it. Rather than get down a couple times this year, we could have shut it down, and these guys never did. We always hung together and we kept playing. That's what this game is all about. That's what life is all about."

This game unfolded the way the seasons have unfolded for both teams. Neither has had much success on offense, though their issues have been different. Thomas has been way too turnover-prone, and we saw that on the second play of this game, as he couldn't handle a bad snap and fumbled in the end zone. Rutgers linebacker Khaseem Greene recovered for his team's only touchdown on the night.

Thomas sailed balls left and right. He threw two interceptions. At halftime, the Hokies had 73 total yards of offense, and Thomas was 10-of-21 for 84 yards. Rutgers was not much better on offense, and much of that falls on Nova, a quarterback who gets easily rattled when the pressure gets to him.

Viewers have seen it many times this year, and Virginia Tech saw that on film as it prepared for this game.

"We got after him all day," Virginia Tech linebacker Jack Tyler said. "Our defensive line played great, got great pressure and you can have Tom Brady back there as the quarterback, and if you get pressure on him, he’s going to be very average. And that was our game plan going in. He had a tendency down the stretch to turn the ball over a little bit and we knew if we got to him we could make that happen."

Rutgers led 10-0 into the fourth quarter, but that was through no effort from its offense. Virginia Tech played well defensively enough to hang around, well enough to drop three shoulda-been interceptions. So you almost felt as if it was a matter of time before somebody on the Hokies side came up with a game-changing interception.

Enter Antone Exum.

His interception early in the fourth quarter allowed Virginia Tech to score the only offensive touchdown of the game, as Thomas threw a 21-yard pass to Corey Fuller to tie the score at 10. We have seen a similar scenario play out all year -- struggling Virginia Tech offense gets bailed out by the defense.

We've seen it play out at Rutgers, too. But tonight, there was not much the Scarlet Knights defenders could do to help their woefully anemic teammates on offense. In the fourth quarter, Rutgers ran 19 plays for 12 yards. Twice on third and long, Rutgers ran the ball, too scared to allow Nova to perhaps win the game.

Two straight games now, Rutgers has blown late leads and Nova has thrown interceptions down the stretch to cost his team. Nova finished 17-of-40 for 129 yards and that crucial interception. But coach Kyle Flood was unwavering in his support of his embattled quarterback after the game, saying confidently that Nova is his starter headed into the spring.

There is not as much certainty at Virginia Tech, where Thomas is faced with a decision about whether to return or go to the NFL draft. His body of work this season and on Friday night indicates he would be foolish to leave. Perhaps he gets a high enough grade from the NFL draft advisory board because all his measurables scream, yes, you are an NFL quarterback!

If that was his final game at Virginia Tech, it was not his prettiest. Check that. It was not pretty for either offense, period. Or for football, period. The teams combined for a bowl-record 21 punts. Good defense, bad offense? Depends on your perspective.

"It was the prettiest game for our defense," Tyler said with a smile.

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