BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech’s improvement in tackling didn’t happen by accident.
Coach Brent Pry and his team actually give players a “hunting grade” each week for their ability to get to football. If you react and drive to the ball, that’s a plus. If you’re not, that’s a minus – and there’s zero tolerance with grading.
“We have to feel the defensive unit is swarming towards the football,” Pry said. “There are things going on around the ball, aren’t there? Missed tackles, dropped scoops, overturned balls. I mean, things are happening around the ball, and you don’t know what game it’s going to be on.
“So you have to rally behind every snap of your fingers. And make sure the one time the ball comes out or there’s an opportunity for you, you’re there to make it happen. Otherwise, it’s an opportunity missed.
Swarming to the ball and sound tackling will be paramount when Virginia Tech (2-1) hosts West Virginia (1-2) Thursday night in what is expected to be noisy Lane Stadium.
Although the Mountaineers escaped the gates with losses to Pitt and Kansas, it’s hard to blame an offense that’s among the national leaders in multiple categories.
West Virginia, under new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and with USC/Georgia transfer JT Daniels at quarterback, ranks 14th nationally in yards per game (509.7), 11th in points per game (46.0) and top 30 in both passing (292.3 yards per game) and rushing (217.3).
The game will finally test a Virginia Tech defense third nationally with a third down conversion rate (17.1%). The Mountaineers convert on 54.3% of their third downs, the third best in the nation.
“They have multiple threats,” Pry said. “They have a solid, veteran offensive line, four or five starters behind. Good size. They have two talented fullbacks, three talented receivers, a solid tight end. And now they have a quarterback who can run the show, lead the offense and make the throws. So I think they’re just well balanced and there’s really no weakness in their offensive unit.
It will test a Hokies defense that has scored high against admittedly below-average competition so far this season. Tech has mostly stopped all the attacks he’s played so far, with the last two (BC and Wofford) failing to reach 200 total yards.
The Hokies did this largely by playing group defense. In three games, eight different players had a sack and 15 contributed a tackle for a loss.
“We have to play hard, all 11s,” Pry said.
What was the difference with a group that has struggled in recent years?
“I would say the reason we’re playing so well right now is because of how we train and how we go to work every day,” linebacker Dax Hollifield said. “We try to make practices simulate matches on Tuesday and Wednesday. This is really where it shows.
For Hollifield, who was on the defensive who gave up two quick touchdowns to the Mountaineers to fall behind by 14 just six minutes from an eventual 27-21 loss last year at Morgantown, he’s happy to get another shot. .
“We got punched in the mouth very early on,” Hollifield said. “Didn’t play as well as we wanted in the first half. But I was proud of how our defense fought back and gave us a chance to win the game. But yeah, just Being this close really hurts not to make it up there, and I want that trophy back.
Here are some other takeaways from Monday’s press conference:
1. Pry has roots in West Virginia.
Although he was born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, he spent most of his youth in West Virginia, where his father coached at Marshall as a graduate assistant, West Virginia Tech, West Liberty State and Lewis County High School.
In fact, the first college game Pry attended was Penn State at West Virginia.
“I don’t get carried away with emotions, but I know that means a lot to a lot of people in this field,” Pry said. “And I always respect that.”
Pry got a taste of the Virginia Tech-WVU rivalry when he was GA with the Hokies, who played West Virginia every year as Big East foes. Tech went 2-1 during Pry’s stint on the staff, with a shutout win at Morgantown in 1995 and a 31-14 win over ranked WVU in 1996, which Pry called a “fist fight.”
“They are like-minded institutions in many ways,” Pry said. “Football programs, schools. There are so many people, kind of like what I hear all the time with Penn State, we’re just pretty close together. You have a brother who went to West Virginia and a sister who goes to Tech. Or my mom went to West Virginia and my son goes to Tech. There are just a lot of intersecting relationships. So it’s an interesting match for sure.
2. Kaleb Smith looks like he’s on the mend.
The receiver had to leave late in the first half of Wofford’s game, appearing to hold his collarbone after landing on it when he was interfered with on a deep ball in the second quarter. Pry said he looked good on Sunday, though.
“He looked better yesterday than he did a week ago,” Pry said. “So I’m encouraged.”
Smith has been gassed in all three games so far this year, dealing with rib and knee issues. He missed the second half of two games.
“It’s tough,” Pry said. “He’s a little frustrated. Guys like Kaleb who give up their bodies and play so hard with every snap they get screwed. I like that about him. He’s one of those guys, he’s kind of a throwback.
While running back Keshawn King’s prospects look bright for Thursday, Pry said Malachi Thomas (lower body) was a “long shot” for West Virginia, calling it a game-time decision. not yet finished training since he was injured in pre-season camp.
3. Consistent ground play holds the offense back.
The Hokies are yet to top 30 points in a game this year and have the 93rd national offense in yards per game (364).
Although turnovers were a problem at Old Dominion, quarterback Grant Wells has turned things around since then, putting in a clean and solid performance against Wofford, when he spread the ball through the air. The running game, however, was still a bit stuck in the mud, averaging just 3.2 yards per carry against an FCS defense.
“I think we need to run the ball a little better, more consistently,” Pry said. “We had moments. I think our offensive line is certainly capable, but it’s also a bit about not being predictable. I think we have to keep people honest. I know what it’s like when offenses are predictable for us and what it means to call a game. So we had some healthy conversations this week.
It didn’t help last week that the Hokies didn’t have King, who showed home run ability that stands out among guards.
“I thought we just missed Keshawn’s ability to go the distance,” Pry said of the tailback, who was held off as a precaution last week. “I’d like to think he would have had an opportunity or two or three for him to do some special things on Saturday. These game-changing guys, you want them to be worth a touchdown or two every week. And he’s definitely there. one of those guys.
4. Cole Beck is now listed on the depth chart as one of two kick returners.
It was a slight change on the depth chart, with the Hokies elevating Chance Black to first place and moving star runner Beck to No. 2. They removed King from there, likely due to his increased charge in the ‘offensive.
But it’s also about possibly creating an opportunity for Beck, who joined the team in June after focusing on the track for a few years and becoming the ACC sprint champion.
“He must have removed a lot of rust,” Pry said. “He hadn’t played a lot of football in the last couple of years. So giving him a chance to kind of show what some of his strengths are. He’s playing a gunner role in our punt team and making good job there.
“But lucky to have the ball in his hands, obviously he’s a fast guy. When you talk about a guy who can make a difference and make an explosive big play, he’s definitely one of those guys. We just have to keep creating opportunities, and this is one way to do that.
So far, Beck has been used sparingly outside of special teams. He played an offensive snap as a catcher, on which Tech faked a throw sweep for him against Boston College after he went on the move.
5. Tight end Nick Gallo has been much more focused on offense.
It’s only three weeks into the season, and tight end Nick Gallo already has nearly as many receptions (13) as he did last year (14).
He had seven catches in the opener against Old Dominion and five against Wofford. Before that, the most he had in a game in his career was four against Maryland in the Pinstripe Bowl last December, when the Hokies’ receiving corps was decimated by absences.
The seven catches he had against ODU were the most by a Tech tight end since Sam Wheeler caught seven against East Carolina in 2007. (Excluding a seven-catch effort in 2016 against Miami by Bucky Hodges, who was then a wide receiver.) It helps that offensive coordinator Tyler Bowen also coaches tight ends.
“I think in this offense we look a bit more towards tight ends [on] the first tries, as well as the third tries,” Gallo said. “So I would say that’s the main difference.”
Gallo also seems to have a good relationship with Wells, who has a bit of a zip on his passes, even from close range.
“It’s awesome,” Gallo said. “He is really precise. When you turn around, you have to be ready. And he’ll put it right on you, right on the numbers. I actually like it because you get it and then you can turn around pretty quickly and be able to survey the terrain a bit. … Whatever he throws, I catch.
(Photo: Lee Luther Jr./USA Today)