Virginia Tech's defense delivered plenty of big plays last season.
It gave up almost as many.
Although the Hokies led the nation in turnover margin, they also ranked eighth in the ACC and 52nd nationally in total defense. The breaking point came when Virginia Tech allowed five touchdowns that covered at least 25 yards in a 40-12 Orange Bowl loss to Stanford.
"We gave up a lot of long plays last year," Hokies coach Frank Beamer said. "I think it's a matter of taking your responsibility and being accountable."
Virginia Tech showed signs of getting back to playing its typical brand of defense Saturday by holding Appalachian State scoreless for the first 41½ minutes of a 66-13 rout, but a much bigger obstacle awaits Saturday at East Carolina.
East Carolina averaged 36.8 points per game last season and opened this season with a 56-37 loss to South Carolina. The Pirates have a prolific passer in Dominique Davis, who threw four touchdown passes against South Carolina. They also have an explosive receiver in Lance Lewis, who caught 89 passes for 1,116 yards and 14 touchdowns last season.
Davis and Lewis are extremely capable of providing the big plays that Virginia Tech allowed much too often last season.
"There's no question we've got a challenge," Beamer said. "It's a team that averaged 37 last year and got their quarterback back. ... He's accurate. He knows what he's doing. He's got some experience. They've got some athletic guys at receiver. It's a challenge for us."
Davis should head into this game with plenty of incentive. He began his college career at Boston College and threw two interceptions and was sacked five times when the Eagles lost 30-12 to Virginia Tech in the 2008 ACC championship game. He was picked off twice more last season as East Carolina fell 49-27 to the Hokies.
"We know he's going to come out there with a chip on his shoulder," Virginia Tech free safety Eddie Whitley said. "He lost to us at Boston College and lost to us last year, but it's a new year."
Of course, it also is a new year for the Hokies, which means a new opportunity to return to that same old Virginia Tech defense. Tech led the nation in total defense in 2005 and '06 and ranked among the nation's top 10 teams in scoring defense for six consecutive seasons before slipping to 26th last season. The Hokies had talent, but they made too many youthful mistakes. Miscommunication and botched assignments often resulted in long completions or breakaway runs.
Now the Hokies have more experience.
Jayron Hosley is back to anchor the secondary after leading the nation with nine interceptions last season. Bruce Taylor gives the Hokies one of the ACC's top linebackers. Although Virginia Tech lacks proven pass rushers, James Gayle showed plenty of promise in the preseason and recorded a sack against Appalachian State last week.
Virginia Tech won its third ACC title in four seasons last fall by relying on a high-risk, high-reward style of defense. Virginia Tech often would fall behind early in games before a takeaway or two sparked a comeback. The Hokies don't want to walk that tightrope again.
"We had to buckle down," Whitley said. "This year we don't want to [allow] those big runs, but we want the same amount of turnovers or more."
Virginia Tech forced four turnovers last week and allowed two long touchdown passes only after building a 52-0 lead. But the real test comes this week.
Best matchup: Wake Forest QB Tanner Price vs. the NC State secondary. Wake Forest's collapse down the stretch in a 36-29 overtime loss at Syracuse last week overshadowed how well the Demon Deacons played before Price got hurt. Price went 18-of-31 for 289 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions until a knee injury knocked him out of the game. Price had established a nice rapport with Chris Givens, who caught seven passes for 170 yards and two touchdowns against Syracuse. Price has said he expects to play this week, which should give the Demon Deacons a chance of winning their ACC opener against North Carolina State. Wake won't have much of a shot unless Price stays healthy and avoids mistakes against a ball-hawking NCSU secondary that features four returning starters.
Players on the spot: Boston College WRs Johnathan Coleman, Colin Larmond and Bobby Swigert. Boston College fans brooding over the Eagles' 24-17 loss to Northwestern last week at least could take solace in that senior Ifeanyi Momah had established himself as a go-to receiver by catching eight passes for 157 yards. Then came the news that Momah had torn the ACL in his left knee, knocking him out for the rest of the season. Coleman, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, will replace Momah in the starting lineup. Coleman has 14 career catches, so Swigert and Larmond will have to pick up the slack in Momah's absence. Swigert led the Eagles in receiving as a true freshman last season and caught five passes for 68 yards last week, but has the talent to emerge as a big-play threat. Larmond caught 29 passes for 596 yards in 2009 before sitting out last season with a knee injury. He caught four passes for 84 yards against Northwestern.
Keep an eye on: Georgia Tech's offense. The biggest surprise in the ACC last week was that Georgia Tech threw for 365 yards in a 63-21 blowout of FCS member Western Carolina. The Yellow Jackets hadn't thrown for that many yards in a game since 2001 and hadn't come close to that total since Paul Johnson arrived and instituted his option attack in 2008. In fact, Georgia Tech's first-quarter total of 148 passing yards last week exceeded Georgia Tech's highest output for an entire game last year. Nobody's expecting Georgia Tech to institute a balanced offense all of a sudden. Johnson's teams always will concentrate on the running game. But the Jackets will be able to run more effectively if they have at least some semblance of a passing attack. Johnson's first two Georgia Tech teams benefited from the presence of wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, a deep threat who could keep defenses honest. Stephen Hill struggled to fill that role last season, but he came up big Thursday with four catches for 181 yards and two touchdowns. If Hill continues his improvement and Tevin Washington becomes a more accurate passer than predecessor Josh Nesbitt, Georgia Tech could emerge as a legitimate Coastal Division contender.
Numbers game: North Carolina QB Bryn Renner went 22-of-23 for 277 yards Saturday while leading the Tar Heels to a 42-10 victory over James Madison in his first career start. Renner's .957 completion percentage was an ACC single-game record for a quarterback with a minimum of 20 attempts. The previous ACC record for a passer with 20-29 attempts was held by North Carolina State's Terry Jordan, who went 23-of-25 for a .920 completion percentage in a 27-20 victory over North Carolina in 1992. The NCAA single-game completion percentage record for a passer with 20-29 attempts was set by Tennessee's Tee Martin, who went 23-of-24 for a .958 completion percentage in a 49-14 triumph over South Carolina in 1998. Renner's only pass that didn't end up in the hands of a North Carolina receiver was intercepted.
Quotes of the week
"Coach Stoops does a really big thing, every yard is personal. Every snap is personal, so we try not to give up any yards. ... We could be up like 100-0. He could still be like that. And that's why we love him." - Florida State DE Bjoern Werner, talking to Warchant.com about defensive coordinator Mark Stoops' animated nature on the sideline in the latter stages of the Seminoles' 34-0 shutout of Louisiana-Monroe
"I liked it. If they're not going to be talking about us because of the program, they're going to be talking about us because of the uniforms. We're the Oregon of the East right now." - Former Maryland LB and current Philadelphia Eagles LB Moise Fokou, to The Sun of Baltimore about the ostentatious uniforms the Terps wore in Monday's 32-24 victory over Miami
"I was thinking that this is probably one of the greatest experiences of my life." - Clemson true freshman LB Tony Steward, describing to TigerIllustrated.com the thrill of entering Death Valley for the first time in his college career last week
"I'd like to be like the Big Ten and play your four non-conference games and then go into conference, but this is the way the schedule breaks, so this is how we have to do it." - North Carolina State coach Tom O'Brien, on playing a conference game in the second week of the season
"This is tougher to lose than going to Stanford and getting blown out by 60 [actually 68-24]. To lose something like this, it kind of hurts deeper. But those guys in the locker room, as well as myself, we're going to keep our heads high and we know it's a long season. You can't put everything into one game. So I'm pretty confident we're going to bounce back next week." - Wake Forest WR Michael Campanaro, to the Winston-Salem Journal after the Demon Deacons blew a 15-point, fourth-quarter lead in a 36-29 overtime loss at Syracuse
Poll watch.: The pollsters agree with the sentiment that everyone else in the league is chasing Florida State and Virginia Tech. FSU is fourth in the coaches' poll and fifth in the AP poll. Virginia Tech is 11th in both polls, a jump of two spots from its preseason ranking. No other ACC team is ranked.
Etc.: Clemson and Virginia each played 12 true freshmen in their season-opening wins last week. The only FBS teams to play more true freshmen in their season openers were Texas (18) and Auburn (13). North Carolina used 10 true freshmen in its opener, which tied for eighth-highest among FBS programs. ... Clemson FS Rashard Hall is doubtful for the Wofford game with a knee injury. Hall likely will try to play next week against Auburn. ... Duke S Matt Daniels tied a school single-game record with six pass breakups in a 23-21 loss to Richmond. He should have quite a workout again this week as Duke faces Stanford QB Andrew Luck. ... Florida State will be playing this week without CB Greg Reid and MLB Telvin Smith, who were suspended for a violation of team rules. ... Miami has named Jacory Harris its starting quarterback for next weekend's game with Ohio State. Harris had been competing with Stephen Morris all summer before getting suspended for the season opener with Maryland. Morris started against Maryland and went 19-of-28 for 195 yards with no touchdown passes and two interceptions, including one pick that was returned for a touchdown with 39 seconds remaining. ... North Carolina FB Devon Ramsay will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL and a torn MCL. UNC is expected to petition the NCAA to grant Ramsay a sixth year of eligibility. ... This marks the fifth consecutive season that NC State has gone on the road for its ACC opener. ... NC State's seven takeaways against Liberty last week tied a school single-game record. ... Virginia's game at Indiana this week offers Virginia TE Colter Phillips a chance to see his younger brother, Indiana redshirt freshman TE Paul Phillips. Their older brother is former Stanford G Andrew Phillips, who is now taking graduate courses at Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce.