NCF Nation: Michael Brewer
But there are some programs that will have a bit of intrigue at the quarterback spot this spring. Here is a quick spring reset at where the signal-callers stand at each ACC school.
- Michael Brewer, Virginia Tech
- Jacoby Brissett, NC State
- Brad Kaaya, Miami
- Greyson Lambert, Virginia
- Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech
- Marquise Williams, North Carolina
- Deshaun Watson, Clemson
The returning starters*
At Syracuse, Hunt is coming off a broken leg and will face competition from AJ Long and Austin Wilson. Long and Wilson both played last season after Hunt went out, giving the coaching staff much more to work with this spring.
At Wake Forest, coach Dave Clawson said Wolford will get the first-team reps but his quarterback will have to win the starting job again after the Deacs signed two highly touted prep quarterbacks -- Kendall Hinton and Kyle Kearns.
At Pitt, Voytik will have to learn a new system and face new competition from Tennessee transfer Nathan Peterman. While Voytik is expected to keep his starting job, there are no guarantees here, either.
The new starter
- Thomas Sirk, Duke
The open competitions
Florida State: Sean Maguire, J.J. Cosentino. One of the most anticipated competitions in the entire country will take place in Tallahassee, where Jimbo Fisher must replace Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Maguire served as the backup last season, but that does not necessarily make him the favorite to win the job. Cosentino came in last year as an ESPN 300 prospect and redshirted. Fisher said true freshmen De'Andre Johnson and Deondre Francois -- both ESPN 300 players -- will also get a shot. Johnson is already in for spring.
Louisville: Reggie Bonnafon, Tyler Ferguson, Kyle Bolin. With Will Gardner out for spring and no timetable set for his return after another major knee injury, the Cardinals are expected to have a heated open competition in the spring between Bonnafon, Ferguson and Bolin. Bonnafon played as a true freshman last season and showed some promise before getting injured late in the year. Bolin was then forced to play with Bonnafon and Gardner out. Though he led a comeback win over Kentucky, he was not nearly as effective in the bowl game against Georgia. Ferguson transferred from Penn State and sat out last season, and could end up being the wild card in the group.
Last year was one long, tumultuous learning curve. This year, Brewer knows it will be different.
“We’ve got a really good chance to make some noise offensively with the talent we have coming back and the fact that this group has never really had a true offseason together,” Brewer said.
For the Hokies’ offense, there’s really nowhere to go but up.
Last season was a constant battle. Brewer won the starting job out of fall camp, but he called his grasp of the offense at the time “remedial.” The Hokies worked with a limited playbook, and Brewer succeeded largely on sheer determination in those early games.
The fallout was ugly. A 6-3 loss to Wake Forest was one of the most discouraging in program history. A second seven-win season in three years had fans restless and Frank Beamer’s job in jeopardy. The Hokies lost five games by a touchdown or less, and a hefty contingent of fans pointed the finger squarely at Brewer for the team’s shortcomings.
“People put a lot of stuff on him, and a lot of times it wasn’t his fault,” tight end Bucky Hodges said. “But people didn’t see that. They blamed it on him. But he’d take shots during the game, get hit big, and he’d get back up and still deliver the ball and make plays, and that gives you confidence.”
Brewer had his moments. He upended eventual national champion Ohio State in Week 2, nearly overcame a 21-0 deficit late in the fourth quarter against ECU a week later, threw a late touchdown to earn bowl eligibility and knock off rival Virginia for the 11th straight time.
Still, it was hard to overlook the struggles. Brewer threw at least one interception in his first six games, and he was widely criticized for his risky throws. He made strides in the second half of the year, cutting his turnover total from 11 to four, but his sack rate more than doubled and the Hokies’ offense was routinely stagnant. Over the final six games of the regular season, Virginia Tech scored just 10 offensive touchdowns.
The biggest culprit was the offensive line — a battered unit that, by year’s end, was scraping the bottom of the depth chart just to find able bodies. So as the Hokies begin looking for solutions this offseason, priority No. 1 is the line.
“They struggled with injuries last year, and you never want to use that as an excuse, but the fact of the matter is we got thin at that position,” Brewer said. “Guys had to step up and they did a good job for the most part, but we’re going to have a new crop of guys, three new guys stepping in, and an entire offseason to compete for jobs.”
While the makeshift line struggled to protect Brewer down the stretch, Virginia Tech did seem to finally find an effective ground game. J.C. Coleman topped 95 rushing yards in each of his last four games, a trend which offers ample optimism for 2015 as the Hokies look to get Marshawn Williams, Shai McKenzie and Trey Edmunds healthy around him.
“That was very encouraging seeing the running game pick up like that,” Brewer said. “It makes everybody’s job easier. It opens everything else up.”
But the biggest reason Brewer is so bullish on 2015 is simply time -- time to get comfortable with the playbook, time to build a rapport with his young receiving corps, time to put the struggles of last season behind him.
In spite of all the bluster, there were no major shake-ups on the coaching staff. Brewer said those discussions never rattled the locker room, but keeping consistency on a team that’s in desperate need of some offensive stability was crucial. Hodges, Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips make up one of the ACC’s best young receiving corps, and now they all have a year of experience under their belts. The recruiting class coming in is a strong one -- including highly regarded QB Dwayne Lawson -- and some extra competition can only make this offense better. Overall, the Hokies return 16 starters this year, including eight on offense. Only North Carolina returns more in the ACC.
“Last year’s offense had really one month together as a team to go through practice with the coaches,” Brewer said. “That’s a lot to cram in to a short amount of time.”
Now, things are different. There’s no rush to the starting gates, but rather a meticulous march toward consistency.
That’s the key, Brewer said. The Hokies aren’t shooting for fireworks every game in 2015, but simply a steady performance for an offense that can finally find its footing.
“That’s why I’m so excited is that we finally get a chance to really get some consistency and fix a lot of those mistakes," Brewer said. "We showed glimpses of what we can do last year with the talent we have, but we also showed we can be pretty flat. If we can stay even keel, it’s going to be a good deal.”
Virginia Tech Hokies
Position to improve: Quarterback
Why it was a problem: The reactions came swift after Michael Brewer led the Hokies to a road upset of Ohio State that the transfer quarterback was going to solve the QB issues in Blacksburg. However, that game was probably the highlight of Brewer’s season as the newcomer was up and down over the final 10 games. Brewer ranked eighth in the conference and 88th nationally in passer rating. The biggest issue for Brewer was ball security, as he threw 15 interceptions, many of which came in close losses. He threw two in a seven-point loss to ECU and three (and no touchdowns) in a three-point loss to Georgia Tech. With so many injuries, especially at running back, the Hokies needed Brewer to protect the football, and he did not do that, especially early in the season.
How it can be fixed: Before moving on to any other part of his game, the Hokies need to drill into Brewer’s mind how important the football is to an offense built on the back of a strong defense. It wasn’t just that Brewer was throwing interceptions, it’s that they came in bad situations and on poor decisions. Seasoning with the Virginia Tech coaches this offseason could help that, especially now that there should be some pressure off Brewer this fall with the offense getting healthy. The Hokies need to work on Brewer’s accuracy, too. Twice he finished with a completion percentage below 50 percent, and seven times he fell below 60 percent.
Early 2015 outlook: Brewer played well in spots last year, and he made several big plays when asked. Against Virginia, despite struggling all game long, Brewer orchestrated a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter. So it’s not as if Brewer cannot get the job done. He’ll have the rest of his backfield with him, too, so he won’t be asked to do as much in his second year as the starter. And of course, the Hokies should be very good on defense once again, which could give Brewer short fields to work with. Virginia Tech can win with Brewer as long as he grows from the mistakes of a season ago.
Overreaction: FSU should have been left out of the playoff.
Overreaction: Miami must fire Al Golden. Now.
Why: The frustration among the Miami fan base is completely understandable. Going 6-7 at Miami is never acceptable, especially given the talent on the 2014 roster. Losing four games to end the season is never acceptable. We could go on, but you get the point. We can all agree that this past season failed to meet everybody’s standards. But the vitriol and negativity surrounding Golden have reached nuclear levels in South Florida. The cupboard is not bare here, far from it. Given the NCAA sanctions cloud that lingered over Miami for more than two years, Golden deserves another shot at getting the Canes pointed in the right direction. Brad Kaaya looks better than any quarterback Miami has had since Ken Dorsey. Despite losing Duke Johnson and Clive Walford, the Canes return a bevy of skill players across the board, including Joe Yearby, Stacy Coley and Braxton Berrios. Defensively, there are high hopes for improvements on the line, and the secondary has a chance to be even better. Although the Canes took some tough losses this past season, they showed against Florida State how well they can play when they have the heart, desire and motivation to win. Golden must now get his players to give that type of effort every weekend. Because the talent is there -- talent Golden brought into Miami when there were serious doubts about the program’s future.
Overreaction: Week 3 ACC Power Rankings: Georgia Tech at No. 13.
Why: Georgia Tech needed a great escape to beat Georgia Southern after looking not so hot in its first two games, against Wofford and Tulane. So we buried the Jackets. But, would you look at that? The Jackets finished 11-3, so uh, yeah that was really, really wrong.
Looking ahead to 2015
Overreaction: Florida State will take a step back!
Why: Depends on your definition. 2015 could be the year somebody else wins the ACC, but nobody should count Florida State out, not for the foreseeable future. The Noles have to replace the heart of their team, but they also return plenty of talent in Dalvin Cook, Jalen Ramsey, Roderick Johnson and plenty of others. The schedule sets up for the Noles to win 10 games again. And given their recent domination over Clemson, there are no guarantees the Tigers will take the Atlantic back.
Why: Watson got injured three different times since arriving on campus last January, including a season-ending knee injury that will cost him the spring. Already, there are those wondering whether Watson can stay healthy for a full season. Take a deep breath, everyone. Watson has played only one year. Yes, he got hurt. But that happens to football players. Nobody is calling the Ohio State quarterbacks injury-prone. People said the same about Miami running back Duke Johnson, and he played a complete 2014 -- his best yet. Give Watson a chance.
Overreaction: Virginia Tech cannot compete for another ACC title.
Why: There are many who believe Frank Beamer’s best days are behind him after a third straight lackluster season. But Beamer and his staff think this year’s team will give them their best shot at winning the Coastal Division since 2011. All their best skill position players will return, as will quarterback Michael Brewer. The defense should be just as good, if not better, with the expected return of Luther Maddy and Brandon Facyson plus the emergence of Dadi Nicolas and potential All-American Kyle Fuller. There is little doubt the Hokies are a team to watch in 2015.
The subtext to the press release, which came just a week after the Hokies wrapped up their 2014 campaign with a win over Cincinnati in the Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman, was clear, too. Another 7-6 season came on the heels of another promise that things would be better, and so there was an obvious understanding that for fans who’ve come to expect 10 wins every year, the promises were growing hollow. And so this promise of improvement felt different. It felt like an ultimatum.
No one at Virginia Tech laments the standards that have been set. All those 10-win seasons and conference titles are Frank Beamer’s legacy. The problem is that for three straight years, those expectations haven’t been met, and a legacy can only overshadow losses for so long.
Still, rebuilding jobs take time, and while mistakes were clearly made along the way, the staff at Virginia Tech seems less concerned about longterm job security than it is about the short-term potential of this team. For them, 2014 wasn’t so much a disappointment as it was a sneak preview.
“I know the best way to get experience is to play, and there are so many young guys that played,” Shane Beamer said. “They went through some growing pains, but they’ll be better for it.”
At the end of it all, 7-6 is what matters, and Beamer understands that. But look at the context, and his optimism doesn’t seem misplaced.
Of Virginia Tech’s six losses, five came by a touchdown or less, and in four of them, the Hokies were tied or had a lead in the fourth quarter.
The injuries were immense. Virginia Tech cycled through four starting tailbacks, watched multiple offensive linemen go down, played without star defensive tackle Luther Maddy and defensive back Brandon Facyson for much of the season.
The offense was effectively a complete makeover from 2013. Quarterback Michael Brewer transferred from Texas Tech and had just two months with the team before starting his first game. Forty-two percent of Virginia Tech’s rushes and 56 percent of its receptions came from freshmen.
Given all those limitations, perhaps those close losses shouldn’t have been such a surprise.
“No one was happy with 7-6, and that starts with us as coaches and players. Nobody feels like we should be better than that more than we do,” Shane Beamer said. “This was a strange year with the injuries and the youth, but that’s every year that it’s a thin line between winning and losing.”
And, of course, there were highlights, too.
Bud Foster’s defense was exceptional once again. Virginia Tech finished seventh nationally in defensive efficiency, and even without Maddy, finished third in tackles for loss per game.
Hokies fans want a championship, and certainly Virginia Tech didn’t approach that level of success in 2014, but the win in September over Ohio State, which will play for the national championship on Monday, is at least a small consolation prize.
And perhaps most encouraging was the way the Hokies finished the season. On Nov. 15, Virginia Tech was 4-5 and had lost three straight, but it went into Duke and came away with a win. A week later, the offense struggled mightily against Wake Forest and lost 6-3 in double overtime -- one of the most embarrassing setbacks in program history. At that point a bowl bid seemed a long shot, but the team rebounded a week later to beat Virginia in the regular-season finale, then toppled Cincinnati in the bowl game.
“We’re really proud of the resiliency that our team showed,” Shane Beamer said. “We’re certainly capable of beating any team in the country, but it has to be a consistent thing. It has to be every Saturday. We had a young team this year, and I’m hoping they learned that lesson.”
And yet, there’s no spin to put on 2014 that will assuage the concerns of an increasingly impatient fan base.
In its first eight years in the ACC, Virginia Tech was 79-23 against FBS foes, 56-13 in conference and won three division titles. In the past three years, the Hokies are just 19-17 against other FBS teams and 12-12 in ACC play. They’ve finished no better than fourth in the Coastal Division, and in many minds, 2014 was the low point.
For much of the year, it was Brewer who took the brunt of the criticism. While the defense stood tough again and again, the offense lagged badly. The Hokies found the end zone on just 17.2 percent of their drives this season -- the sixth-worst mark of any Power 5 team, and Brewer was at the helm of an offense that failed to score a touchdown in that ugly overtime loss to Wake Forest.
“When you see your quarterback -- people put a lot of stuff on him, and a lot of times it wasn’t his fault,” tight end Bucky Hodges said. “But people didn’t see that. They blamed it on him. But that comes with the position. People love you when you’re winning, but when you lose, they point the finger. He’d take shots during the game, get hit big, and he’d get back up and still deliver the ball and make plays, and that gives you confidence.”
This is what it’s all about at Virginia Tech right now. There’s no ignoring 7-6, no forgetting that loss to Wake Forest. No one denies that 2014 was a bust, but look ahead and there’s cause for optimism.
The letter from the coach and AD was indeed an ultimatum. There’s too much talent on this roster for 2015 to be a disappointment, too. But inside the locker room, that’s not a concern. The Hokies all see the future the same way.
“This was a learning season,” Hodges said. “We had a bunch of highs, but we had some lows. We lost a bunch of games we feel we shouldn’t have lost. But we’re young, and we’re going to get better. That’s the best thing with it. This year was a season building to next season.”
Strength in the trenches: The best battle on the field Saturday will be between Virginia Tech’s aggressive defensive front and the sturdy offensive line of Cincinnati. The Hokies (6-6) arrived in Annapolis thanks to their trademark aggressive defense. Led by defensive ends Dadi Nicolas and Ken Ekanem, Virginia Tech finished the year second among FBS teams in both sacks per game (3.83) and tackles for loss per game (8.75). The Bearcats (9-3) are the second-best team in the country at not allowing tackles for loss this season. A veteran offensive line that includes two first-team all-conference players (Parker Ehinger and Eric Lefeld) has quietly been a large part of Cincinnati’s success on offense this season.
QB transplants: Both teams feature first-year starters at quarterback who began their careers at different schools. Cincinnati’s Gunner Kiel transferred from Notre Dame before showing this year why he was once considered the best high school quarterback prospect in the country. Kiel completed 60 percent of his throws in a pass-heavy offense this season while picking up 3,010 passing yards and 30 touchdown passes.
Michael Brewer joined the Hokies' roster last spring after graduating from Texas Tech and leaving in search of playing time. Brewer has been a bright spot for a Virginia Tech offense that has struggled this season. He’s thrown 14 interceptions along with his 17 touchdown passes. Bearcats coach Tommy Tuberville should have no problem scouting Brewer, who played in nine games at Texas Tech in 2012 when Tuberville was the Red Raiders’ head coach.
Streaking into bowl season: Virginia Tech’s rough year on offense meant the team’s streak of 22 consecutive bowl trips came down to beating Virginia in the regular-season finale. Florida State is the only team that has gone longer without missing the postseason. Cincinnati enters the weekend on a streak of its own. The Bearcats won seven straight to close out the season with a share of the American title. Their last loss was to Miami on Oct. 11.
A common thread: Both teams faced No. 4 Ohio State early in the season with notable results. Virginia Tech pulled off one of the bigger upsets of the year by beating the Buckeyes in Columbus during the second week of the season. The Hokies won 35-21 in their most productive offensive performance of the year (although one of the scores came on a late, game-clinching interception return). Three weeks later, Ohio State and a more confident J.T. Barrett took out some frustrations on Cincinnati’s defense. The Bearcats lost to the Big Ten champs 50-28, despite Kiel’s 352 yards and four touchdowns. That game started a three-game losing streak for Cincinnati.
Virginia Tech DL Dadi Nicolas: The Hokies needed a win to continue a decade-long streak of wins over rival Virginia, but more importantly, to get bowl eligible. Michael Brewer, Bucky Hodges and the offense did just enough to get the win in the end, but it was the defense that set the stage, and Nicolas was the star. He racked up nine tackles, including two for a loss, a sack and five QB hurries in the game, and Nicolas helped stifle the UVA running game to the tune of just 38 yards allowed.
Clemson QB Deshaun Watson and WR Artavis Scott: Watson’s passing numbers certainly looked a lot better Saturday thanks to his roommate. Scott took three short throws and raced downfield for big gains, finishing with seven catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns. Watson played on a torn ACL, as Dabo Swinney admitted after the game, but still accounted for four touchdowns. And most importantly, for the first time since 2008, Clemson toppled its in-state rival.
Georgia Tech RB Zach Laskey: The senior had never beaten Georgia, but he did his part to ensure it happened Saturday. Laskey ran 26 times for 140 yards with three touchdowns, including a 2-yarder that proved to be the difference in overtime. Of course, a big hat tip still goes to kicker Harrison Butker, whose 53-yard field goal as time expired sent the game to OT, and to D.J. White, who picked off Hutson Mason to seal the win.
Louisville WR DeVante Parker: Down both of its top two QBs, Louisville didn’t need to worry. Parker makes everyone look good. Kyle Bolin came on in relief of Reggie Bonnafon and connected with Parker three times for scores. Overall, Parker caught six passes for 180 yards to help the Cardinals knock off Kentucky. But a special helmet sticker also goes to Gerod Holliman, who sealed the game with an INT -- his 14th of the season, tying the NCAA record.
NC State QB Jacoby Brissett: Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was the Wolfpack thumping North Carolina, and Brissett was the star. He completed just nine passes for 66 yards, but threw three touchdowns and added another on the ground, while rushing for 167 yards in the win. Teammate Shadrach Thornton chipped in with another 161 yards and a TD, too.
Florida State RB Dalvin Cook: The storyline is getting awfully familiar. FSU falls behind early. Jameis Winston coughs up some costly turnovers. And then the freshman tailback saves the day late. It was more of the same against Florida as Winston slumped through four INTs, but Cook was spectacular. He rushed 24 times for 144 yards and caught two passes for 28 yards. Overall, Cook had eight plays of 10 yards or more in the win.
Pitt receiver Tyler Boyd: The Panthers needed a win in Miami to get bowl eligible, and Boyd did all he could to ensure it happened. He caught five passes for 72 yards and scored on an all-out dive for the end zone. He also added 190 yards in the return game to set Pitt up with terrific field position throughout the game. The end result? Two 6-6 teams headed in completely opposite directions.
Virginia Tech fans are getting restless. There are some valid excuses for Virginia Tech's struggles this season. Quarterback Michael Brewer didn't arrive until the summer. Freshmen are receiving playing time all over the offense. Injuries have decimated the starting lineup. But for all the reasonable explanations, what Virginia Tech fans care most about is the Hokies are just 12-13 against Power 5 teams in the past three seasons, and Thursday's home loss to Miami might have been the most listless performance Frank Beamer's squad has had in a while.
Georgia Tech is going bowling. After a 5-0 start to the season, this seemed obvious, but two straight losses soured much of the early momentum the Yellow Jackets had created. Add an injury that kept second-leading rusher Zach Laskey off the field against Pitt, and things weren't looking good. So what happens? Pitt fumbles on each of its first five drives, Tech rushes for 465 yards -- most in the ACC this season -- and the power dynamic in the Coastal shifted yet again after a 56-28 Georgia Tech win. More importantly, though, Georgia Tech got back to doing what it does best: Running the ball down the opposition's throats, avoiding mistakes and capitalizing when the opposition coughs up the ball. The result, of course, is Tech will be in a bowl game for the 18th straight season.
Mitch Trubisky can throw it, too. North Carolina entered Saturday's game at Virginia with the ACC's hottest quarterback in Marquise Williams, but it was Trubisky, the backup, who won the game for the Tar Heels with a 16-yard touchdown pass with 4:05 to play. Trubisky was in the game only because Williams' helmet popped off on the previous play, but his toss to T.J. Thorpe on a third-and-15 was the difference in the 28-27 UNC win. It was his only throw of the game. For the second straight year, a once-struggling Tar Heels team is finding ways to win down the stretch and is right back in the thick of things in the Coastal.
Clemson's defense is frightening. The offense hasn't done much in Deshaun Watson's absence, but the Tigers have managed to win their past three games behind a defense that has utterly smothered the opposition. Clemson manhandled Syracuse 16-6, held the Orange to their lowest yardage total since 2008 and racked up 12 tackles for loss along the way. In its past four games, Clemson's defense has allowed just three touchdowns, given up an average of just 3.5 yards per play and recorded 40 tackles for loss.
BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Earlier in the week, Willie Byrn said he expected an air of desperation between his Virginia Tech team and Miami in Lane Stadium on Thursday night.
One team played with desperation.
The other looked desperate for answers.
With each team needing a win to stay alive in the Coastal Division, Miami dominated from start to finish, playing its most complete game of the season in a decisive 30-6 win. Duke Johnson was unstoppable, running for a career-high 249 yards as Miami racked up 364 yards rushing -- the most ever given up by a Frank Beamer-coached team.
The defense, meanwhile, played with an unmistakable edge, holding Virginia Tech scoreless until the final 1:30. It added up to the first road win of the season for the Canes, and it came at the best time imaginable.
"No one wants to go on the road and lose. No one wants to take a plane ride somewhere and not come back with a W," Miami offensive lineman Shane McDermott said. "We take pride in that. This is an ACC Coastal game and we wanted to execute. We needed to execute to keep alive in the Coastal. We came out and did that."
For Virginia Tech, it looked about as hopeless as it has over the last three uncharacteristically weak seasons. That might seem like a harsh assessment, but this team has regressed after showing some early glimmers at Ohio State. Indeed, that victory in September continues to confound many. How could Virginia Tech look so good in that game, but so bad in its four losses?
After falling behind 24-0, three third-quarter fumbles sealed their fate against Miami. Now, the Hokies are staring at a 1-3 deficit in ACC play, strange and uncharted territory for a program that has made its name as the Coastal flag bearer.
As bad as it has been for Virginia Tech, the Hokies have never before been 1-3 in conference play, calling into question not only why this team has failed to progress, but how much progress can definitively be made as long as Beamer is in charge.
Yes, there are some terrific young players. But Miami also has terrific young players who have gotten better each week. Take the quarterbacks, for example. Miami freshman Brad Kaaya looks nothing like the player that started the opener against Louisville. Three times in the last four games, he has not thrown an interception and is finding ways to make plays.
While he was not asked to do much against the Hokies, Kaaya made some good throws and did not get the Canes into any trouble. Michael Brewer, a transfer from Texas Tech, does not have nearly the same type of command. Perhaps it is because Kaaya has a much better supporting cast. But there is no denying Kaaya has made improvement. Brewer does not give Virginia Tech an edge at the position.
"It wasn't a pretty picture all night, but I saw some things we can certainly build on," Beamer said afterward, trying to put an optimistic spin on the night. "We are going to be a better football team. We have a lot of good players on this team. I look forward to the future because I think we are going to be pretty good."
While that might be true, the reality is Miami ran circles around Virginia Tech in every imaginable way -- and Beamer is being judged not on potential in 2015 but what he has in front of him now. The Miami coaching was better; the play calling was better; the game plan was better; the talent was better.
Miami's problem this season has been an inability to put everything together in one game. Finally, the Canes got the best out of their offense and defense. Maybe that was due to the Hokies, not exactly a juggernaut this season. But after weeks of criticism and questions, Miami and its coaches deserve some credit.
They got the most out of their players in a place that has vexed the program since 2005. What awaits next is tougher: sustaining that edge, effort, drive and intensity for the final four games.
"We're getting better," coach Al Golden said. "We had really good practices leading up to this game, good attitude, everybody concentrating on what they need to concentrate on and block everything out. We've got a long way to go. But I think the guys have made a commitment to get better each week and each day and are staying positive."
Plenty of ACC teams wrap up their nonconference slate on Saturday, but there are several important league games, too, in addition to Notre Dame's foray into semi-ACC play. Here's what's on deck. Be sure to follow along on Twitter using the hashtags below.
Colorado State at Boston College, ESPN3, #CSUvsBC: A 4-1 start would be huge for the Eagles, with the heart of ACC play fast approaching. They are the nation's No. 2 rushing team, tallying 1,345 yards, a by-product of Florida transfer quarterback Tyler Murphy, who has tallied at least 99 rushing yards in each game so far. The defense hasn't been too shabby, either, surrendering less than 20 points per game despite plenty of new faces. Garrett Grayson and the Rams can throw the ball, but they'll need more to go their way if they want to escape Alumni Stadium with an upset.
Western Michigan at Virginia Tech, ESPN3, #WMUvsVT: Which Michael Brewer will the Hokies get? The transfer signal-caller was a tremendous ball distributor in Virginia Tech's Week 2 upset win at Ohio State, but last week he had three costly turnovers in letting a home tilt slip away against Georgia Tech for the Hokies' second straight home loss. Coach Frank Beamer liked what he saw out of his quarterback otherwise, and the Broncos should provide an opportunity for Brewer and the rest of the Hokies to shake out of their rut and gain some momentum heading into the rest of league play.
Akron at Pitt, ESPN3: Can Pitt bounce back from a tough home loss to Iowa? The Panthers probably let one get away, but the Zips are not to be slept on, as the 1-2 squad has had no shortage of early-season tests itself so far, losing to Penn State and Marshall. This is a homecoming of sorts for Akron coach Terry Bowden, a Morgantown, West Virginia, native who went to Pittsburgh regularly. The Panthers need this win more, though, as they look to get back on track before their first Coastal game next week at Virginia.
Wake Forest at Louisville, ESPNU, #WAKEvsLOU: This here is a battle of the ACC's two first-year head coaches, Dave Clawson and Bobby Petrino. It's also a rematch of the 2007 Orange Bowl, which Petrino was a part of with the Cardinals. Both teams will be starting true freshmen under center, with John Wolford showing plenty of growth in his fourth start last week against Army and Reggie Bonnafon returning to Louisville after the tragic loss of his father, and after starter Will Gardner suffered a knee injury that will keep him out of action against the Demon Deacons.
No. 1 Florida State at NC State, ABC/ESPN2, #FSUvsNCSU: We know all about how Carter-Finley Stadium has been a house of horrors for the Seminoles lately, as the Wolfpack have won three of their past four home contests against FSU. A win would be a very tall order for the still-growing Pack, who are in their second year under Dave Doeren. But this could be a great measuring-stick game for them after a 4-0 start against subpar competition. NC State has already topped its win total from last season, and Jacoby Brissett has been magnificent under center. The Noles, by the way, will trot out a certain Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback after surviving a one-game suspension without him.
Kent State at Virginia, ESPN3: First things first: How about those sharp throwback unis the Cavaliers will be wearing? As for who will be under center wearing them when things kick off, well, that appears less clear, as Greyson Lambert recovers from an ankle injury he suffered in last week's loss at BYU. The Hoos know the offense is in capable hands with Matt Johns regardless, and their defense will look to revert to its early-season form after stumbling in Provo, Utah.
North Carolina at Clemson, ESPNU, #UNCvsCLEM: The Tigers might be getting the perfect medicine following a heartbreaking overtime defeat at Florida State. They have a talented and growing offense, led by Deshaun Watson, who will be making his first career start. And they are facing a UNC team that laid a major egg defensively last week against East Carolina, surrendering 70 points and nearly 800 yards of total offense. The Tar Heels have given little indication through three games they are ready for the challenge that awaits them in Death Valley, but that's why they play the games, right?
Duke at Miami, ESPN2, #DUKEvsMIA: We should learn much more about both of these teams when they face off at Sun Life Stadium. The Blue Devils are 4-0 but were hardly challenged during nonconference play, while Miami struggled against the two good teams it faced. It will be interesting to see what kind of response the Hurricanes defense shows after Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah gashed it for 229 yards and two touchdowns last Saturday. Perhaps more importantly, Duke dominated the Canes' D to the tune of 358 rushing yards last year, running away in the fourth quarter. If Miami has any hopes of competing for the Coastal crown this year, it has to show more this time around at home.
No. 8 Notre Dame at Syracuse, ABC, #NDvsCUSE: The Irish unofficially kick off their ACC football alliance by taking on old Big East (hoops) foe Syracuse at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. It is the first "road" game for the 3-0 Irish, though they will likely have most of the home crowd on their side. One thing to watch out for is how Notre Dame's offensive line performs, as it used the bye week to shake up a so-so unit and will now take the field featuring four players in different spots than before. Can the Orange's aggressive defense take advantage of this? Ball protection is key for Syracuse if it wishes to pull the upset, as Terrel Hunt and the offense are capable of putting points on the board when they stay out of their own way.
The game screamed trap! -- and letdown! -- in the week leading up to kickoff.
Yet Virginia Tech failed to see all the signs, failed to heed all the warnings -- and fell into the same pothole that has become all too common after big wins.
The No. 17 Hokies saw all that they earned in a victory over Ohio State last week come falling down in one big heap following a 28-21 home loss to East Carolina on Saturday afternoon.
Virginia Tech has now lost four of its last five games immediately after beating a ranked team. What was particularly galling about this loss was the way it happened.
East Carolina blitzed the strongest part of the Virginia Tech defense right from the start, daring the Hokies' supposedly top-notch secondary to slow down Shane Carden & Co.
Cornerback Brandon Facyson had a particularly brutal day, getting beaten on several long plays, and before the first quarter was over, the Pirates were ahead 21-0 -- all on touchdown passes.
Meanwhile, the Virginia Tech offense reverted back to its familiar ways. No run game. Dropped passes galore. Terrible decisions from its quarterback. Michael Brewer, the picture of poise against Ohio State, had a difficult time getting the offense going for most of the game. Virginia Tech had two first downs and 14 yards in the first quarter. But even when Brewer came around in the fourth quarter, it was too late.
The Hokies tied the game at 21 with 1:20 left, and there was hope because Virginia Tech had not allowed a point in nearly 45 minutes. Surely the highly touted defense would come through.
Yet the defense was exposed again -- giving up the game-winning drive on three plays that took just more than a minute.
So many times last season, Virginia Tech failed to win games because its offense failed to deliver. On Saturday, Virginia Tech had equal parts fail on offense and defense. Given the returning players in the secondary, it is inexcusable for Virginia Tech to allow Carden to throw for 427 yards -- the most against Virginia Tech since 1993.
Last week, the Hokies won as an entire team. This week, they lost as an entire team, and now there are serious questions about what exactly we saw against Ohio State and whether the Buckeyes are any good at all.
And that schedule that appeared as if it laid out so perfectly for Virginia Tech? It cannot lay out perfectly without victories. Today, all that premature playoff talk goes the way Virginia Tech does.
Out the door.
Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Brewer: He had three turnovers, and that nearly cost the Hokies, but few players in the nation showed more poise Saturday than Brewer, making just his second start for Tech. The Texas Tech transfer completed 23-of-36 for 199 yards, two touchdowns and two picks, but he converted myriad third downs, hung in on a number of tough runs and, after coughing up a fumble that set up the tying score in the fourth quarter, led a gutty six-play, 65-yard drive to regain the lead.
The Hokies' defense: Brewer gets tons of credit, but it was Bud Foster's D that carried the day. The line was dominant, pushing around Ohio State's young offensive line and utterly dismantling QB J.T. Barrett. From the time the Buckeyes tied the game at 21 to when Tech iced it, Ohio State ran 14 plays. Six ended in sacks, two in turnovers. The defense controlled the game throughout, led by lineman Dadi Nicolas, who had three tackles for loss and two sacks.
Pitt running back James Conner: The Panthers got off to a strong start in ACC play, toppling Boston College 30-20 behind a huge game from Conner. The sophomore tailback carried 36 times for 214 yards and a touchdown, and in his last three games dating back to last year's bowl win, Conner has racked up a whopping 596 yards and six touchdowns.
Georgia Tech defense: Once again, the Yellow Jackets were far from crisp against lesser competition, but Tech's defense ensured Tulane's upset bid never came to fruition. The Yellow Jackets intercepted three passes during their 38-21 win, and Georgia Tech found the end zone following each one, including Quayshawn Nealy's 10-yard INT return for a touchdown.
North Carolina QB Marquise Williams: It wasn't an entirely stellar performance, and the Tar Heels' offense remained stuck in neutral for much of the night, but Williams' 91-yard touchdown pass to Mack Hollins early in the fourth quarter gave UNC new life and sparked the rally ending in a 31-27 win over San Diego State. For the game, Williams was 20-of-29 for 255 yards and two TDs and also led the Heels in rushing with 63 more yards on the ground.
Clemson's freshmen: Forget the competition (Clemson 73, South Carolina State 7). The goal for the Tigers was to get the kids some work, and they certainly looked sharp. Freshman QB Deshaun Watson led the Tigers to touchdowns on each of his four drives, completing 8-of-9 passes for 154 yards and three TDs. Freshmen tailbacks Wayne Gallman, Adam Choice and Kurt Fleming combined for 31 rushes, 200 yards and a TD. And freshman receiver Artavis Scott topped them all, catching six balls for 164 yards and two scores. The test, of course, gets much tougher in Clemson's next game against No. 1 Florida State.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The program has been there before, and Frank Beamer still expects his Virginia Tech team to act like it.
But after a couple years out of the spotlight, maybe the Hokies deserve a little bit of slack when their exuberance spills over and their emotions catch the attention of the officials.
That won’t really be determined until an early morning meeting Wednesday, when Beamer will sit down with his Shmoney-dancing tight end Bucky Hodges. Saturday night and the wee hours of Sunday morning were reserved for an old-fashioned Virginia Tech party, even if the program happened to get started too early before officially thrusting itself back in the national picture by upsetting Ohio State 35-21 at the Horseshoe.
Hodges couldn’t resist flashing them after snagging the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, an athletic grab in the corner of the end zone that was merely one of many eye-popping plays that were a callback to Virginia Tech's heyday under Beamer.
There hasn’t been nearly as much for the Hokies to feel good about, coming off consecutive seasons with at least five losses, disappointing campaigns that kept them out of the preseason polls and far removed from any conversations about the College Football Playoff after long being a fixture in the Bowl Championship Series. But almost from start to finish, it was the Hokies who looked every bit the part of a national contender and not the Buckeyes, who were playing in front of a record-breaking crowd, hadn’t lost a regular-season game under Urban Meyer and still hadn’t lowered their expectations despite the loss of star quarterback Braxton Miller.
They couldn’t resist cutting loose and having a some fun while reminding the country the program is alive and well.
“It had had been on my mind, and when I finally scored, I just felt like I had to hit the dance,” Hodges said. “The coaches were hot, and they were letting me have it. ... Was it worth it, though? Yeah.”
The Hokies clearly weren’t intimidated by the noise or the long win streak, and there was nothing the Buckeyes did on the field that appeared to really bother them, either.
Quarterback Michael Brewer was harassed throughout the game by a talented Ohio State defensive front, but he weathered every hit, kept rattling off third-down conversions and never looked fazed. There was no true standout at the skill positions, but the Hokies found a way to manufacture four scoring drives by giving touches to 16 different players as either rusher or receiver.
That was more than enough to complement another virtuous performance by the defense, with coordinator Bud Foster ruthlessly unleashing his full array of pressure packages and racking up seven sacks of Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett.
“Yeah, the last couple years haven’t been what we wanted,” Foster said. “But I think every program goes through that at some point in time. We had been on a stretch of pretty special years and putting them back-to-back-to-back-to-back. You look at every program in the history of football, even this program, there are down years here and there.
"But this was a credit to the kids and our staff. We had a good plan, they were well-prepared, and they played really hard.”
They even seemed to dial it up when the stakes were highest, looking every bit like a program that played in six BCS bowl games should.
The Hokies were challenged late after Barrett delivered a touchdown strike in the face of a blitz and Ezekiel Elliott tied the game by slicing through a handful of defenders for a 15-yard scoring run. But Brewer and Hodge answered with the throw that launched a dance party, and the defense supplied repeated uppercuts with six sacks in the fourth quarter before Donovan Riley landed the knockout blow by nabbing Virginia Tech’s third interception and returning it 63 yards for a touchdown.
Of course, there was also an unsportsmanlike penalty after that play, but by then there was no stopping the celebration for the Hokies.
A coming-out party? No. More like a welcome-back affair.
“The last two seasons, they were not bad seasons,” cornerback Brandon Facyson said. “Some things didn’t go our way, but I feel like everybody has overlooked us. When it comes to big games now, they still overlook us.
“I hope this win has really opened up some eyes. We are still a dominant team. We are not out of it by any means. We are still a team to be reckoned with.”
The Hokies have obviously been on the big stage before. Now they’re acting again like they belong there.
1. Virginia Tech is for real. Virginia Tech defensive tackle Luther Maddy guaranteed the Hokies would beat Ohio State during ACC Kickoff back in July. Not many people took him seriously until Saturday night. Virginia Tech went into Columbus and took down the No. 8 Buckeyes 35-21 behind an aggressive, attacking defense and an offense that has finally found its footing behind Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer. When Braxton Miller got hurt, many thought this game would be more winnable for the Hokies, but not many predicted the upset. Coach Frank Beamer has been telling reporters since the fall he liked the makeup of this team. It was easy to see why during the game. Brewer brings poise and moxie to the quarterback spot, and young players such as Marshawn Williams, Shai McKenzie and Deon Newsome add a dimension to the offense that has been missing the past several years. Couple that with an always-stellar defense -- Virginia Tech finished with seven sacks and three interceptions -- and the Hokies have the makings of a darkhorse playoff contender. There. I said it.
Several crises were averted -- Georgia Tech, NC State, Duke and North Carolina all had to come from behind to beat their non-Power Five opponents. Virginia Tech grabbed the biggest win, of course, and there’s no diminishing its significance for the program. The Hokies earned a reputation for failing to win the big game because of their BCS failures. But Beamer can hold his head high. Virginia Tech posted its first win in 35 tries away from home against top-8 teams.
3. Watch out for Pitt. It was easy to dismiss the Panthers’ 62-0 win over Delaware in Week 1. But it’s not so easy to dismiss the Panthers now, after a 30-20 win over Boston College on Friday night that was not as close as the final score indicates. Once again, James Conner bulldozed through the opposing defense and racked up 214 yards on a career-high 36 carries. He accounted for more than half of Pitt’s offensive yards. The offensive line continued to block well, and Tyler Boyd had 108 all-purpose yards of his own. The Pitt defense also held firm, especially up front, and limited BC to 276 total yards. Up next is FIU, so the Panthers’ train should keep on rolling.
4. Earth to North Carolina. The Tar Heels seem to start every preseason with high expectations, only to crash and burn. This year might not be so different. For the second week in a row, No. 21 North Carolina struggled to put away an opponent from a non-Power Five conference. Last week, it used a second-half blitz to beat Liberty. But on Saturday, the Tar Heels nearly lost. Tim Scott saved the day when he secured an interception with mere seconds remaining in the game and gave North Carolina the 31-27 win over San Diego State. The Aztecs had more first downs, total yards and dominated time of possession. But they also turned the ball over three times, including a pick-six that Brian Walker returned for a touchdown. In two games, North Carolina has given up 855 total yards and has looked totally out of sync on offense and defense. The schedule only gets tougher from here. Following a bye, they play at East Carolina, at Clemson, Virginia Tech and at Notre Dame.
5. Lots of young faces. We saw plenty of young faces play well across the league in Week 2. In addition to the aforementioned players at Virginia Tech, freshman quarterback Reggie Bonnafon went 8-of-11 for 112 yards and a score, and freshman running back L.J. Scott had 126 yards and a touchdown for Louisville. Clemson freshman receiver Artavis Scott set the school’s single-game record for receiving yards by a freshman with 164 yards, while Tigers freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson went 8-of-9 for 154 yards and three touchdowns, and Tigers running back Adam Choice had 72 yards and a touchdown. Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford went 30-of-38 for 291 yards with two touchdowns, but he also threw three interceptions. Florida State running back Dalvin Cook led the Seminoles with 13 carries for 67 yards and a score, while Miami running back Joe Yearby had 14 carries for 95 yards. Plenty to look forward to from all these players into the future.
South Carolina State at Clemson, Raycom, #SCSTvsCLEM: The Tigers look to rebound after a punishing loss to Georgia in Week 1. While Clemson looked sharp at times in the first half against the Bulldogs, the second half was a disaster. Getting the ground game going will be Step 1. Clemson averaged just 2 yards per carry in its opener. But the focus from fans will likely be on the quarterbacks, as freshman Deshaun Watson could push for more playing time against an FCS opponent. With No. 1 Florida State up next for Clemson, this is the last chance to iron out the issues that plagued the offense during its final 30 minutes in the opener.
Richmond at Virginia, ESPN3, #RICHvsUVA: Mike London has waited all week to announce his starting quarterback, with Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns both expected to play. Johns performed admirably in relief of Lambert last week against UCLA, and the Virginia defense nearly allowed the Hoos to pull off the upset. Adding some intrigue to the proceedings this week, Richmond features two more former UVA QBs in transfers Michael Rocco and Michael Strauss.
Old Dominion at NC State, ESPN3, #ODUvsNCSU: The Wolfpack needed some late-game drama to escape Georgia Southern with a win in their opener, and while the early struggles weren’t necessarily encouraging, Dave Doeren hopes Jacoby Brissett’s impressive second half -- 18-of-23 for 213 yards, three TDs and no interceptions -- was a better indicator of what’s to come for the Wolfpack’s offense. In its opener, Old Dominion allowed 407 yards of passing offense to Hampton.
Gardner-Webb at Wake Forest, ESPN3, #WEBBvsWAKE: The Dave Clawson era got off to a rocky start as the Demon Deacons couldn’t muster any offense against Louisiana-Monroe in their opener. Wake’s total of 94 yards of offense was the second worst in the nation in Week 1, as was its rushing total of minus-3 yards. Clawson hopes to find some answers against FCS Gardner-Webb, but the Deacons clearly have a long way to go.
Murray State at Louisville, ESPN3, #MURRvsLOU: Coming off an impressive win over Miami in its first ACC contest, Louisville will need to avoid a letdown this week against Murray State. No. 2 rusher Michael Dyer is likely to miss his second straight game, but starter Dominique Brown proved in Week 1 he could provide the offensive foundation, carrying the ball 33 times -- three more than any other tailback in the nation.
Florida A&M at Miami, ESPN3, #FAMUvsMIA: Brad Kaaya's debut wasn’t one Miami fans will want to remember, but he should have an easier time of it this week against FCS foe Florida A&M. It may also be a chance for backup Jake Heaps to get in some reps, too. But regardless of the QB, the Hurricanes’ offensive line needs to show some improvement if Miami is really going to be a contender in the ACC Coastal.
Duke at Troy, ESPN3, #DUKEvsTROY: The Blue Devils didn’t have much trouble in their opener against Elon, but a road trip to coach David Cutcliffe’s home state of Alabama should prove a bit tougher. Jamison Crowder picked up right where he left off in 2013, hauling in 93 yards and two scores, but the bigger reason for optimism is that Issac Blakeney caught two more scores and could emerge as a reliable No. 2 option in the passing game. With linebacker C.J. France out with a leg injury, Duke’s battered defense could be tested, but Troy’s offense showed little flash in mustering just 4 yards per play (112th nationally) against UAB in Week 1.
The Citadel at Florida State, ESPN3, #CITvsFSU: This certainly wouldn’t have been circled on No. 1 FSU’s schedule as a big game, but the opportunity for the younger players -- particularly on the defensive line and receiving corps -- to get some game action suddenly looks crucial after the Seminoles' turbulent Week 1 performance against Oklahoma State. Getting Travis Rudolph, Jesus Wilson (who is returning from a one-game suspension) and others involved in the passing game will be a major priority.
San Diego State at North Carolina, ESPNEWS, #SDSUvsUNC: Larry Fedora says San Diego State’s chaotic defensive scheme should be an exceptional test for his young offensive line, which may be the Tar Heels’ weakest position group. Marquise Williams has solidified his spot as UNC’s starting quarterback, however, and the strong second half for the Heels in Week 1 offers some optimism that the preseason hype was warranted.
Virginia Tech at Ohio State, ESPN, #VTvsOSU: With conferences battling for marquee wins in the new era of the College Football Playoff, this game could be huge for both the Hokies and the ACC. Virginia Tech is eager to prove it’s ready to contend on a national stage again, and few stages are bigger than Columbus, Ohio. “Virginia Tech hasn’t been where we’d want to be in the past couple years, and this is a chance on a big stage to regain some confidence in people and put our name back up on the map,” QB Michael Brewer said. It’s also a chance for the ACC to garner a big win over a powerhouse program in the conference it’s chasing in ESPN’s FPI rankings.