Thursday, October 24, 2013

Duke vs. Virginia Tech: Ask a Hokies’ beat writer

Each week, I'll (hopefully) talk to a beat writer who covers Duke's opponent. Today we have Andy Bitter, who covers the Hokies for the Roanoke Times/Virginian-Pilot. Links to his work can be found here and check out his blog here. Andyis also on Twitter at @AndyBitterVT.

1. After last year's 7-6 campaign and near-losses to Conference USA's Marshall and East Carolina, many were declaring the end of the Frank Beamer era of dominance. Since then, though, the Hokies have gone 3-0 in conference play and risen to No. 16 in the AP Poll. Is everything back to normal in Blacksburg?

In a way, yes. The offense, at least since Michael Vick left Blacksburg, has never really been anything special. Even during the Tyrod Taylor years, Tech had some pretty statistically bad offenses. So the fact that Scot Loeffler's crew ranks 110th nationally in total yards isn't really too much of a departure from what the Hokies have been like in the past decade. But they're doing some things more effectively on offense. Quarterback Logan Thomas looks sharper, especially with his progressions and mechanics. The receivers are making plays. They're not making crippling turnovers like they were last year. In essence, they're doing just enough.

And just enough is more than enough for this defense, which is a vintage Bud Foster group, limiting the yards but also disrupting things by getting to the quarterback and forcing turnovers. Even the tight wins against Marshall and East Carolina -- who I think are actually pretty decent teams -- were how Virginia Tech normally wins games: lean on the defense and get enough offense to do the trick. It's been a successful formula for Beamer for the last 20-plus years. It makes sense that it's working again this season.

2. Last year's defense was a surprise disappointment, but this year's has been a pleasant surprise, ranking No. 2 in the country in total defense. Why is this year's group so much better?

If you ask Foster, he'll say experience and depth. The starting defensive line and inside linebackers have five seniors among them. The secondary has everyone, except for Antone Exum so far, back and in the same spot they were playing last year (they shuffled things around in the 2012 offseason). And on top of that experience, Tech doesn't drop off significantly when it gets to the backups, especially up front. The d-line goes about eight deep. It's good enough that the Hokies are trying to find a role for sophomore defensive end Dadi Nicolas, who had three sacks in a hybrid DE/OLB position against Pittsburgh.

The other big thing has been the true freshman cornerbacks, Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson. They've played well beyond their years, enough that the Hokies haven't had Exum, a second-team All-ACC performer last year, play in a game this season and they still rank third nationally in passing defense and interceptions. Fuller has been able to play both a regular cornerback spot and a nickelback position, which Tech has used the vast majority of the time (and will against Duke). Facyson has thrived when he's been in, with a team-high four picks (although he's dealing with a concussion this week). Last year, Tech didn't have anybody after Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum at corner. This year, they do.

3. If Duke is going to stay in this game, it's going to be because the offense is putting up points. Where is the weakest spot in the defense?

There aren't a ton of weaknesses, although I will say the Hokies have occasionally been vulnerable on passes across the middle. Safety Detrick Bonner hasn't had the most consistent season in pass coverage and has given up some yardage in one-on-one matchups across over the middle. Other than that, there aren't many chinks in the armor. The key is probably protection. The Hokies' pass defense has been good, but that's in large part thanks to the pressure the defensive line is putting on the quarterback. Duke will have to protect well and Anthony Boone will need to get rid of the ball quickly, because Virginia Tech's opponents haven't had a whole bunch of time to throw this year.

A mobile quarterback has a much better shot. Pitt's Tom Savage was a sitting duck a few weeks ago (Tech sacked him eight times and probably could have had 12), but Marshall's Rakeem Cato and North Carolina's Marquise Williams had some success moving around in the pocket and getting some decent yardage scrambling. It definitely gives the Hokies at least one more thing to think about.

4. Part of the reason the Hokies almost lost to C-USA teams was because of that anemic offense, led by the uneven performances of QB Logan Thomas. You look at the point totals from the three ACC wins - 17-10 over Georgia Tech, 27-17 over UNC and 19-9 over Pitt -- and they don't jump off the page. Has the offense improved of late, though?

I think it has, even though the running game has still been abysmal, one of the worst the Hokies have had under Beamer in fact. But Thomas has played better. In ACC play, he's completing 65 percent of his passes for 251 yards a game, with five touchdowns and no interceptions. He's thrown 109 straight passes without an interception, which is approaching his career-best streak. It's helped that the receivers, who had about 10 drops in the season-opening loss to Alabama, have come around, turning into viable options for Thomas to throw to. The offensive line has been OK at pass blocking but leaves plenty to be desired on the ground.

The Hokies aren't going to have an offense that goes up and down the field and put up great stats, but with a defense like they have, they don't really have to. So far, they've controlled the clock (36th nationally in time of possession) and haven't turned the ball over. Last year's team struggled with both of those things, and it stressed a defense that wasn't quite up to the task of carrying things. This year, Tech has that defense, so Beamer is content with winning ugly. The key is Thomas. If he's off, there aren't many players on the offense who can carry the day.

5. How and why is Cody Journell still the Hokies' kicker? He's 7-of-11 on field goal attempts this year and has missed at least one kick in the last four games he's lined up for a field goal (and he went 0-for-2 against ECU)?

Beamer seems to have a soft spot for Journell, who was the first scholarship kicker he's had straight out of high school since Shayne Graham and who has had some missteps -- an ugly breaking and entering arrest that led him to miss the '11 Sugar Bowl and a recent one-game suspension for a violation of team rules -- that most coaches wouldn't put up with.

On top of that, he was genuinely bad in the East Carolina game earlier this year. He technically only finished 0-for-2 on field goal attempts, but he also missed an extra point and had another field goal miss from a reasonable distance wiped out by a penalty. He was suspended for the Marshall game and has since been OK, although he has some strange misses. He was good from 39 at Georgia Tech but then had a dead pull from one of the hashes on a 25-yarder that would have put the game away. He went 4-for-5 with a career-long 48-yarder against Pittsburgh (earning ACC Specialist of the Week honors), but he also missed from 33.

Bottom line: he's a senior and Tech doesn't really have anybody else. Ethan Keyserling stepped in during Journell's suspension against Marshall and went 0-for-3 (although the weather was horrible that game). Journell is good enough to hit from 50, and he saved the Hokies' butt on three or four occasions last year, but I don't know if anyone in Blacksburg, outside of Beamer, is entirely comfortable whenever he's lining up for a kick.

Bonus: I was asked to do this after dropping the ball last weekend in Charlottesville: where are good breakfast spots in Blacksburg for the early arrives, and where should out-of-towners head to get dinner and a drink after the game?

I don't know of too many good breakfast spots. Don't get out that early too often. I think Lefty's Main Street Grille has a solid breakfast. Bull & Bones also has a breakfast, although I haven't sampled it yet.

As for afterward, both of those places are good dinner options too. Cabo Fish Taco is one of my personal favorites for lunch/dinner. I recommend the Soy Ginger Shrimp Tacos. Downtown, TOTS is probably the bar most people will suggest for post-game drinking (order a Rail). I'd also suggest Bull & Bones for drinking afterward. It's a little bit away from downtown and they brew their own beer.

Thanks to Andy for his time. Be sure to check Duke Now for more Duke football news.

- Laura Keeley

Friday, October 18, 2013

UNC coach Larry Fedora has difficulty explaining costly delay-of-game penalty

CHAPEL HILL — At the end of a confounding loss, the greatest question that surrounded North Carolina focused on its most confounding play: With three timeouts and with less than six minutes to play, how could the Tar Heels, inches away from a first down, take a costly delay of game penalty?

UNC allowed Miami to drive 90 yards to score the game-winning touchdown that gave the Hurricanes a 27-23 victory on Thursday night. The Tar Heels faltered in the red zone, and scored a touchdown on just one of their five trips inside Miami’s 20-yard line.

Amid all that went wrong, though, the delay of game penalty might have stood above the rest. Before it, UNC was preparing for a 3rd-and-inches play from its own 49-yard line. The Tar Heels needed less than a yard for a first down. Had they converted it, they likely could have burned at least another minute or two off the game clock.

Instead, the penalty moved UNC back five yards. Instead of a 3rd-and-inches, it was now a 3rd-and-5. And then it was 3rd-and-10, after Jon Heck, the freshman right tackle, committed a false start penalty. In the span of two whistles, UNC lost 10 yards without even taking a snap.

On the 3rd-and-10 play, Miami sacked UNC quarterback Bryn Renner and the Tar Heels punted, setting up the Hurricanes’ final drive. Had UNC called a timeout on 3rd-and-inches, maybe the game ends differently. Instead, the Tar Heels were left to wonder, again, what-if?

Larry Fedora, the UNC coach, afterward explained the delay penalty like this:

“I was hoping to pick up a first down,” he said. “And it was third and about one yard or less than a yard. We substituted and (the officials) felt like they needed to stand over the ball until we couldn’t snap it. So I’m not sure I still understand that yet. I’ll have to get an interpretation there. … That’s my fault.”

UNC made substitutions on the play, and Fedora said the officials told him that because of that substitution, Miami needed to be allowed three seconds to make its own substitutions.

“I thought there was a lot more than three seconds on the clock when we substituted,” he said. “Maybe there weren’t. I don’t know. I thought there was well over that.”

Either way, UNC had three timeouts left. There were less than six minutes left. It needed just inches. A quarterback sneak likely would have gotten the job done. The Tar Heels finished the game with 500 yards of offense, but they didn’t have an opportunity to get the one yard they needed most.

A screenshot that began circulating early Friday morning shows one of the officials standing over the ball with one second left on the play clock before the delay of game call. posted the picture on its Twitter account, and the screenshot verifies Fedora’s explanation that an official was standing over the ball.

Even so, it doesn’t explain why UNC simply didn’t just call a timeout.

-- Andrew Carter

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

UNC football holds invite-a-professor-to-practice day

CHAPEL HILL -- North Carolina coach Larry Fedora on Wednesday night addressed his team after practice, like he usually does. Then he walked over to a group of UNC professors, who had gathered to watch the Tar Heels' practice as part of the football team's "invite a professor to practice" day.

This has become something of a tradition, Fedora said. Each player has an opportunity to invite one of their professors to watch UNC practice. A crowd of about 20 professors showed up on Wednesday. Tom Ross , the president of the University of North Carolina system, was among the attendees, though he arrived toward the end of practice.

Fedora said he held a similar event during his days as the head coach at Southern Miss. When Fedora arrived at UNC, he spoke of the importance of bridging the gap between academics and athletics. After a two-year investigation into impermissible benefits and academic fraud, the NCAA in March 2012 placed the UNC athletic department on probation, cut football scholarships and handed out a one-season postseason ban, which kept the Tar Heels out of the ACC championship game last season.

Since then, questions have been raised about how suspect classes in the Department of Afro- and African-American Studies helped keep UNC athletes eligible over a range of years.

Fedora has said that one of his goals is to work more closely with the academic side of the university. Which is part of the reason, he said, why professors were invited to practice on Wednesday. Fedora said when he greeted the professors after practice, many of them asked him questions - mostly about football.

"They had a lot of questions - why we were moving from where we were moving," Fedora said. "Who was on this field, who was on that field, why we play music. Those kinds of questions.

"And then it was just why we're doing this in the first place - to bridge the gap between academics and athletics that's on every campus everywhere in the country, and to try to get both sides more involved."

Fedora said the crowd of professors who came to practice on Wednesday was the largest yet. Kareem Martin , a senior defensive end, said he invited one of his policy professors from a 600-level class. The professor couldn't make it, though, Martin said.

Even so, Martin said the event allows professors to better understand the players' daily schedule, and the demands of practice.

"They only know us from the classroom, and I guess what they see on Saturday," Martin said. "So they don't see all the hard work that we put in. It's hard being a student-athlete - all the hours that we put in on the field and the practice fields, and in the classroom and study hall, and all.

"So it gives them a chance to see how hard we really work."

Fedora said the professors would receive a post-practice tour of the Loudermilk Center, which houses UNC's athletic academic support department. While professors received that tour, Fedora said the players would shower and then meet their professors for dinner in the team dining hall.

"I think the best part of it is that they actually sit down and they actually talk and communicate," Fedora said. "They find out about each other, and the player, the kid realizes that the professor is a normal person, and then I think the professor also finds out the kid's a normal person."

- Andrew Carter