BTP: It's been an up and down season for the Hokies so far. Coming off of two straight losses to ECU and Pitt, what is the general sentiment around Blacksburg about the state of the program?
PB: To put it bluntly, the sentiment is certainly not positive. After the Hokies' 10-win season streak ended in 2012, Tech has really struggled to recapture the blue collar, hard-nosed mystique that characterized Frank Beamer-coached teams for over fifteen years. Recently we've seen the Hokies rise to the occasion (2014 versus Ohio State) and completely crap the bed (2014 versus Wake Forest). The fan base rationalized these Jekyll & Hyde performances by pointing to years of poor recruiting and then widespread youth that needed time to mature. This team should be better and more consistent than what we've seen, yet we continue to see up-and-down performances that confuse us further.
Most fans seem to be at the point where they're unsure what team is going to exit the tunnel on a given week. Any confidence is a product of flashes of brilliance, rather than a full four quarters of sound and dominant football. Shoot, I would argue the Hokies have really only played six complete quarters all season.
What this has led to is increased calls for change at the head coaching position. Many will argue that Tech is quickly sliding towards that critical juncture other programs with legendary coaches have recently found themselves at: Is Coach Beamer losing his touch and what impact will a lack of action have on the long-term viability of the program? If so, how long can you realistically wait before you set the program back 5-10 years? It hasn't been an enjoyable conversation of late, but lucky for us there is still a lot of football left in 2015.
BTP: I mentioned in my responses to you that I saw Michael Brewer is practicing this week, and according to ESPN here, he could be a game time decision Friday night. If he does play, how much better does that make Virginia Tech's offense?
PB: My colleague Joey Coogan caught up with Brewer after Tuesday's practice. Brewer noted that he split first team reps on Tuesday, his first practice in pads since injuring his collarbone against Ohio State. Brewer had six screws and a plate installed after he broke his collarbone in three places, yet he was running and throwing only 10 days after his surgery. He is still awaiting full clearance from the medical staff, which ultimately hinges on whether or not he can take a hit to that shoulder without causing further damage. Considering how porous our offensive line was last Saturday against Pitt, he may want to wait another week.
Throughout the off-season, we constantly heard about how dialed in Brewer looked throwing the football. He benefitted from a full off-season working with the offense and studying OC Scot Loeffler's complicated system - keep in mind, Brewer enrolled at Virginia Tech in May 2014 and only had a few months to get up to speed after injuries derailed his career at Texas Tech. In the first half against Ohio State, Brewer certainly looked as good as advertised. Brewer's back-up, Brendan Motley, took a little time to settle into the starting job but really found his stride during the second half of the Furman game. He followed that up with great rushing and passing performances against Purdue and East Carolina, but struggled mightily (along with the rest of the offense) last week against Pitt.
If Motley was coming off of another solid outing, I would probably argue that they should stick with him because of his arm strength and ability to run the ball. Loeffler was able to introduce a number of intermediate and deep throws that Brewer couldn't confidently make, and Motley's strength at the mesh point provided an additional threat in the zone read game. What Brewer would bring is leadership, confidence and accuracy; how much better he makes the offense is sort of an unknown. We're probably headed for a quarterback rotation. Ugh.
BTP: Although the Pack struggled offensively against Louisville, they have shown several times this season that they are capable of explosive plays offensively. Which Wolfpack player scares the Hokies the most, and what will be Bud Foster's gameplan to contain them?
PB: I have to go with Jacoby Brissett, if only because the Hokies have had trouble with athletic quarterbacks in recent years. He's a talented, efficient passer that can extend plays with his feet and make a heck of a lot of throws with his arm. He's surrounded by a number of talented playmakers, relieving some of the burden from him. That's a guy that terrifies me. The other player that I will be keeping an eye on is Jaylen Samuels. I'm not saying he's Braxton Miller, but the Hokies struggled in their opener to contain the multi-dimensional threat that could line up all over the field.
Foster admitted earlier in the week that the Pack's skill position players are the closest match, talent-wise, to the Buckeyes on Tech's schedule. The depth at running back leads me to believe that the Hokies' primary goal will be to try and contain the NC State rushing attack and limit big plays. It should help them defend against quick passes, but I worry about the short and intermediate crossing routes that could find Samuels, Bra'Lon Cherry and Jumichael Ramos in space. The Hokies strength is their defensive front four. All teams are aware of this and have worked hard to neutralize them and attack the less consistent linebackers and young secondary. I have no doubt Bud's scheme will be solid. The questions are how consistently does his unit execute, and can they avoid the back-breaking chunk plays?
BTP: Aside from Brewer, do the Hokies have any major injury concerns?
PB: The big one right now is DT Corey Marshall, who left the Pitt game after the first defensive snap with a hamstring injury. He is listed as questionable and we expect to hear more as we get closer to the game. He is a super athletic defensive tackle that really came on last season after an enigmatic first few years in Blacksburg. He was replaced by #3 DT Woody Baron, who has had some dominant stretches and should alleviate any concerns of a weaker d-line.
The most notable injury news over the last week was standout corner Kendall Fuller's season ending knee injury. Fuller looked gimpy during the first three games, leading many of us to wonder how healthy he was. After sitting out the ECU game, Tech revealed that Fuller had torn his meniscus during pre-season camp and would have season-ending surgery. Though the Hokies have a deep and talented (albeit young) secondary, Fuller was a leader that limited what opposing offenses could do versus the Tech defense. The group has played well in back-to-back monsoons, but it will be interesting to see how they perform against a talented passer in better conditions.
BTP: For Wolfpack fans that may be heading to Blacksburg this weekend (I wish I was one of them!) what's the tailgating scene like, and what are some good restaurants or bars to hit up while they are there?
PB: Tailgating in Blacksburg isn't The Grove, but it's a fantastic scene nevertheless. NC State fans will have a great time, and the fact that it's a night game in Lane means the atmosphere will be that much more electric. Experiencing "Enter Sandman" during a night game in Lane Stadium should be on every college football fans' bucket list.
My recommendations will probably differ from some younger Hokies, as the town seems to be constantly changing. On your way into town, I would stop at Lefty's on South Main for lunch. For those staying overnight, try and grab brunch Gillie's or pastries at Our Daily Bread. Most of the solid bars and restaurants can be found right on Main Street next to the Tech campus. I would recommend Top of the Stairs (TOTS), Hokie House, Big Al's, Sharkeys and The Rivermill.
BTP: So, who wins Friday night under the lights?
PB: Given the Hokies' recent struggles, it's really hard for me to pick them against such a dangerous offense. A few years ago, I would never think of picking a visiting team during a night game in Lane Stadium, but I think that speaks to how much the program has changed in recent years. I think the Hokies offense improves and we end up seeing a relatively close game. I worry about NC State's big play ability and Tech's penchant for giving that up. Because of that, I think NC State comes away with the win, 27-23.