In Brent Pry's First Year at the Helm of the Hokies, How Do They Look Halfway Through the Season?
2-4. That is how, halfway through the season, Brent Pry’s first year as Virginia Tech’s new head coach has started. For a program - also 1-2 in ACC play - looking to launch itself into a new era, it’s nowhere near where Pry or Virginia Tech fans would like it to be.
First came the shocking loss to Old Dominion to start the season in Norfolk. The Brent Pry era started out with a whimper instead of a bang, with sloppy play holding the Hokies back. A blocked Will Ross field goal was taken back for a scoop-and-score touchdown. Marshall transfer quarterback Grant Wells, who had excitement buzzing around his name during the preseason, coughed up four interceptions to the Monarchs' defense. Virginia Tech was penalized 15 times, the most since a program-high 17 against the Florida State Seminoles in 2005. And the cherry on top? Assistant coaches were even stuck in an elevator heading up to a booth, delaying the start of the second half.
The Hokies rebounded nicely from the nightmarish start to the season the following week, defeating Boston College under the lights of Lane Stadium 27-10, mainly thanks to the defense, which only allowed 20 rushing yards and 135 through the air for the Eagles. A week later, the team would climb above .500 with a victory against Wofford 27-7 to move to 2-1.
Since Tech’s back to back victories they’ve lost three straight games, and reality has struck down hard. First, a crushing defeat to West Virginia 33-10 at home, in a game that was nationally televised on ESPN. It would be the last time the two teams will play each other in the foreseeable future, meaning the Black Diamond trophy will be staying in Morgantown, and the Hokies were back to .500.
Then came a humiliating loss to UNC in Chapel Hill 41-10, in which the defense got manhandled by true freshman quarterback Drake Maye, who threw for 363 yards and three touchdowns. 2-3.
And just a few days ago against Pitt, Virginia Tech allowed junior running back Israel Abanikanda to run all over the Hokies. Abanikanda rushed for 320 yards and found the end zone six times which set a new school record previously set by Tony Dorsett in a 45-29 loss. It was also the most yards gained on the Hokies' defense since UNC’s Giovanni Bernard in 2012 and most touchdowns ran in by a running back against Virginia Tech since Miami’s Willis McGahee in 2002. 2-4.
So, with heated ACC rival Miami in town for the seventh game of the season and Virginia Tech’s homecoming weekend, how has each side of the ball looked up until this point? And what can Virginia Tech do to turn the latter half of the season around?
Before I dive into the different units, I can’t avoid one of the most nagging aspects of this Virginia Tech team: penalties. Virginia Tech is one of the most penalized teams in the nation. The Hokies have accumulated 51 flags called for a whopping 419 yards and a lousy average of 69.8 yards per game. The discipline of this team needs to be better moving forward.
Many penalties have come up in make-or-break situations. One example is the drive against West Virginia in which linebacker Dax Hollifield was called for roughing the passer on fourth-and-six, and defensive lineman Norell Pollard later in the possession was called for illegal hands to the face on third-and-14. Additionally, The Hokies were flagged eight times for 74 yards against Pitt, and penalties are one of the biggest keys that the team must minimize in the second-half of the season.
It’s been a rough first half of the season for the Virginia Tech offense. The unit in all of the FBS ranks 94th in passing offense, 110th in rushing offense, and 111th total offense. In the ACC, it’s ranked 13th in efficiency, with Virginia being the only team the Hokies are ahead of. There are multiple reasons why this is the case, and they combine to make for some ugly football.
Quarterback Grant Wells has started the season off shakily, posting a 58.3 completion percentage with 1,260 yards thrown and a 6/7 TD/INT ratio - not the statline expected whatsoever this season, and Wells' numbers have taken a significant dip compared to what his lines were at this time of the season when Wells was with Marshall.
For the rest of the offense, the lack of talent up front on the offensive line and depth at skill positions isn’t helping Wells. Experience, skill, and talent are what the Hokies desperately need, and that’s not something that can appear out of thin air. The offensive line is one of the weakest in the Power Five and can’t create enough clean holes for the running backs to make it to the second level. Additionally, the wide receivers are hit or miss, with dropped passes occurring all/far too often.
However, the Hokies have shown positive glimmers of hope recently. Although Wells hasn’t been producing like many expected, he performed respectively against Pitt, throwing for 277 yards on 25 completions in 47 attempts and posting one TD and a pick.
Wide receiver Kaleb Smith had a career day against Pitt, hauling in 152 yards off of nine receptions, the most in both categories since he’s been with the Hokies. It also made Smith the first Virginia Tech wide receiver since Tre Turner in 2021 to eclipse 100 yards receiving in a game. The performance against the Panthers named Smith the ACC wide receiver of the week. On the ground, running back Malachi Thomas was very noticeable in his first game of the season after coming back from injury, running for 84 yards on 15 carries and punching it into the end zone once.
It’s clear that Brent Pry and Tyler Bowen are still figuring out the offense. Coaching is all that can help this offense improve, but given the talent disparity, it’s difficult to improve the overall system.
Early on it appeared as though the days of “Beamer Ball” had returned: the offense was the yin that had trouble finding its rhythm, while the defense was the yang and shining jewel that bailed out the offense. The defense was making noise nationally in the first few weeks, with the squad cracking into the top of the FBS categories in rush defense, third-down defense, and total defense.
But in the last two games against UNC and Pitt, the lunch-pail defense has been completely dismantled and exposed. Against the Tar Heels, it gave up 527 total yards - 160 rushing, 367 passing. Then last week against the Panthers, it allowed 496 total yards - 326 on the ground and 170 through the air. On average, the defense still looks good on paper, but the last two games have been concerning to say the least.
A few players have stood out in the wake of the recent turbulence. Linebacker Dax Hollifield is now graded as the second highest linebacker in the ACC and ninth in the nation per PFF. TyJuan Garbutt was named ACC defensive lineman of the week after he tore Boston College to shreds in week two. Chamarri Conner is also proving his worth as a trustworthy corner for the Hokies.
It’s clear that Virginia Tech is relying on their defense heavily to stay in the fight in games in which the offense can’t get going. The offense not staying on the field long enough to give the defense enough rest on the benches might have something to do with their recent performance woes. But after the last two games, the defense must reign themselves back in and find the magic within that made them so fearful to opponents earlier this season.
Punter Peter Moore and place kicker Will Ross have been solid for Virginia Tech this season. The story of Will Ross and his path from soccer goalkeeper to starting place kicker is incredible, and so is his play: Ross is 8/9 on field goals and 12/13 on PAT this season, with his first misses of the season coming against Pitt. Ross is 5-5 on field goals longer than 40 yards, and is the only kicker left in FBS to have such a feat (Texas’ Bert Auburn was the last remaining kicker heading into this week, but missed one from 42 yards against Oklahoma).
Besides a rocky game against Pitt, Moore has been fantastic this season. Moore is averaging 40.7 yards per punt on 37 punts, and his longest has been 67 yards. But against the Panthers, Moore struggled mightily: he averaged 33.4 YPP on 8 attempts, and had one of his punts blocked.
In coverage, the punt and kicking units have been serviceable and reliable, not giving up plays of more than 20+ yards on opposing punt returns and 30+ yards on kick returns this season.
But the most irritating part of the Hokies’s special teams play is the punt returning, or lack thereof. It seems that Virginia Tech’s punt returners are simply too afraid to run out punt returns which is evident by the Hokies' abysmal 2.43 yards per punt return average. And on kick returns? 19.69 yards.
It’s been tough watching the Virginia Tech Hokies play football so far this season, and it doesn’t appear to be getting better in the latter half with NC State and Duke on the horizon. But in Brent Pry’s first season, what matters most is that these mistakes and growing pains can be learned from by the new staff. Given what Pry was handed in his first ever season as a head coach of a Power Five program, it was a tall task for him and his coaching staff to turn this ship around. Whether or not he is capable of doing so won’t be answered this year, rather two or three years from now.
The entire team needs better discipline and fewer penalties. The offense needs to pick it up, and build on their small but steady improvements. The defense has to get back onto their horse and play lockdown once more. And the special teams need to take risks and actually be willing to return the ball instead of calling for fair catches seemingly every time.
The rest of the season may be long and painful. But the only way out of rock bottom is up, and it will hopefully get better Virginia Tech fans. Even the legendary Nick Saban lost against Louisiana-Monroe en route to a 7-6 record in his opening season with Alabama, and look at where the Crimson Tide are now.
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All stats from Hokiesports.com, ESPN, PFF, and CFBStats.com