By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Take away 21 points from special teams and a defensive turnover against Alabama and Virginia Tech would have given up 14, 3 and 10 points in three games this season.
Not a bad start for the Hokies, who are currently ranked second in the nation in total defense (190.7), second in passing yards allowed (106.3) and 10th in rushing yards (84.3) through a 2-1 start to the campaign.
Virginia Tech senior defensive end J.R. Collins isn’t ready to crown the Hokies’ defense as worthy of Top 10 acclaim, at least not yet.
“As a group right now, it is Tuesday, we have a Tuesday practice and it is supposed to be tough,” said Collins, whose Hokies are tied for 23rd in the nation, allowing 16.0 points a game, much of which came in the loss to the Crimson Tide. “We are not thinking too much about where we are ranked right now, we have a lot to work on.
“These past few games we have had success, but at the same time there is a lot of things we have got to work on.”
Up next for the Hokies is Marshall (2-1), which will visit Lane Stadium on Saturday. Kickoff is slated for noon, and will be televised by ESPNU.
Virginia Tech’s defense struggled to one of its worst seasons in years during last year’s 7-6 campaign, but the Hokies have enjoyed a solid start to this campaign, allowing just 206, 162 and 204 yards in three games.
“It has been real fun getting back out there and playing another season,” said 6-foot-2, 248-pound Collins. “Last year we didn’t have too much success. It is fun getting out there just showing everybody that we could be one of the top BCS programs.”
The defense will be challenged on Saturday when Marshall brings a potent offense that has run the third most plays of any team in America. The Thundering Herd, which is 2-9 against the Hokies, is coming off a 34-31 defeat last weekend at Ohio.
Marshall is led by quarterback Rakeem Cato, who has thrown for 849 yards and seven touchdowns. Cato was a young freshmen when the Hokies traveled to Huntington in 2011 and left with a 30-10 win.
The Hokies plan to put pressure on Cato, much like last week when the Hokies had 11 tackles for loss, seven sacks and three interceptions in a 15-10 win at East Carolina.
“During that time he really did get rattled, that has happened a lot as far as our defense,” Virginia Tech senior linebacker Tariq Edwards said. “You just want to put pressure on the quarterback and even the great ones — as far as much pressure as we usually put on them — they will rattle.
“During that time he was very young and I think he has probably has gained much more maturity and being able to compose himself in the pocket so we will still have to see this weekend.”
While the Herd was falling to the Bobcats, Bud Foster’s Virginia Tech defense shut down East Carolina, with the Pirates — who are expected to challenge Marshall for the Conference USA East Division title — managing just 204 yards, including 46 yards on the ground.
“Coach Foster spends a lot of time watching film and coming up with a good game plan, he just forces us to execute in practice and every day we go out an execute,” Collins said. “Really it was Coach Foster’s game plan and we were able to execute which gave us success.”
It was no secret that Virginia Tech was going to have to lean on its defense with so much inexperience on offense. Perhaps no position has done it better than the interior line, a talented-laden and deep unit that has been led by Derrick Hopkins with 14 tackles and 12 from Collins.
“I think the depth during the course of the game keeps the starters fresh since it is like we have eight starters,” said Collins, who leads the Hokies with three sacks. “When our d-line is out there, no matter if it is the starters or the backups, you know you have got a lot of guys that are hungry and want to get after the quarterback.”
That line has allowed more freedom for Edwards and the Virginia Tech linebackers to make plays. Edwards, who was limited to just seven games and 37 total plays last season because of a leg injury, has 16 tackles this year, trailing only Jack Tyler among linebackers. Tyler has 25.
“They play wonderful, they are aggressive and they don’t allow too much movement for the quarterback to get out of the pocket,” said the 6-foot-2, 234-pound Edwards. “I think they did a good job of keeping the linemen off of the linebackers and the DBs.”
The Hokies also have 12 sacks, and have seven interceptions, three by freshman Brandon Facyson.
“That was a big deal for us, just being able to come in and at least get three turnovers per game so we can help out the offense,” Edwards said. “I think the defensive line has done a great job getting pressure on the quarterback and allowing us to do that.”
No one was more happy to get a sack last week than Edwards, who hadn’t had a tackle of a quarterback since 2011.
“It has been a long time since I have actually been able to chase down a quarterback in a game,” said Edwards, with a smile. “Looking at film, I thought I looked pretty slow, but I just wanted to tee it up, I needed a sack in my hand.”
Despite starting the season with a loss against the top-ranked Crimson Tide, the fact that the Hokies were so stingy against an offense that showed its firepower last week by scoring 49 points at Texas A&M has helped build confidence for Virginia Tech’s defensive unit.
“Definitely, starting out the first game of the season with such a tough game and the competition level we had to play against,” Edwards said. “I think it gave us a good boost on what we needed to get started for the rest of the season.”
—Contact Brian Woodson