Between the bad memories of FedEx Field from two seasons ago, and the worse memories of facing a Big East opponent from just last week, Tech’s upcoming game against Cincinnati in Washington D.C., will have plenty of demons for the Hokies to dispel.
The team is coming off a big win over Bowling Green, but it’s clear that the Pittsburgh loss has made this game against the Bearcats take on grave importance.
“We needed a big win after last week,” said quarterback Logan Thomas. “Hopefully we can respond with Cincinnati and show that Pittsburgh played well, but we played badly too.”
Thomas had one of his better games of the season last week against the Falcons, and he’ll have to stay sharp to be successful against Cincinnati, as they currently rank third in the country in scoring defense.
“Obviously, I’d like to have the one back, a couple were throwaways, but I can’t complain about how I threw the ball (against Bowling Green),” Thomas said. “I’m not worried about statistics as much as the win.”
The running game also rebounded after a poor showing against the Panthers, with Tony Gregory carrying the load with 11 carries for 69 yards. Although Michael Holmes has been the starter for most of the year, coaches are still evaluating what the rotation will look like on Saturday.
“They were cycling all of us at practice, but we talked in practice like it could have been any one of us as the starter,” Gregory said.
Every running back undoubtedly showed an improved burst against the Falcons, and coaches credit the run blocking as being stronger as well.
“A couple plays popped in there, and I think the speed we put in the backfield also was better, and that helps,” said Head Coach Frank Beamer. “It’s one of those things that’s got to tie in there together. You’ve got to block better and wall off, and I think it’s one of those things that we did better.”
Stopping the run will be equally crucial against Cincinnati, given senior running back George Winn has amassed 242 yards in just two games and quarterback Munchie Legaux has run for 142 yards as well.
“(Cincinnati’s) probably to date the most athletic team we’re going to play all the way around,” said Bud Foster, defensive coordinator. “(Legaux’s) going to present a lot of problems from the standpoint of containing him and not allowing him to get outside and make plays. Because he can get outside the pocket and throw it and he can get outside the pocket and run it.”
After allowing more than 500 total yards to the Panthers, the defense rebounded in a big way last week, allowing just 266 yards on the day. Maintaining this type of performance will be essential to help the offense if it continues to struggle early on Saturday.
“I feel like we did well, but there’s a lot of things we could do better, and we’ll fix that going into next week,” said cornerback Kyle Fuller. “We’ve just got to go out there and do our job and the rest will take care of itself.”
The defense should be bolstered by the return of linebacker Tariq Edwards from foot surgery. Edwards’ absence has forced Jack Tyler into the starting lineup and caused Bruce Taylor to play out of position, so the fact that he saw some limited action last weekend is encouraging.
“It’s only going to get better from here,” Taylor said. “You’re always going to favor it the first time out, but I think it’s getting better each week, and he’s going to work his way back into the rotation of linebackers, so we’ll get even better.”
Edwards may not be healthy enough to start this weekend, but coaches are confident that additional game experience will help him return to his former starting position soon.
“I still think he’s probably a couple weeks away from where we’d like him to be and where he’d like to be,” Foster said. “But the only way he’s going to get better is if he gets out and plays more and gets that leg stronger and gets into playing shape a little bit.”
The addition of Edwards may not be the only change that the linebackers see against Cincinnati. Although coaches have previously stood behind Jeron Gouveia-Winslow as the starter at whip linebacker, Ronny Vandyke played 24 snaps at the position against Bowling Green, and made enough of a difference to warrant more playing time in the future.
“He’s a player,” Beamer said. “He’s full speed, he’s athletic, he’s tough, it means a lot to him, so I think you’ll continue to see him on the field.”
Regardless of who’s on the field for the team, the Hokies haven’t had a lot of success in NFL stadiums in recent years. The team’s lost the last four games its played in arenas used by pro teams.
“You read the papers, and our records on pro fields hasn’t been great, but the way I approach it, it’s just the next game,” said Torrian Gray, defensive backs coach. “Obviously, we haven’t won in those situations, but we’ll go play wherever we’re supposed to play, and if we prepare well, then we’ll win.”
Players agreed that, regardless of the past, the team isn’t looking at the game any differently just because it’s in Washington, D.C.
“We just have to come out here and attack each day with a high intensity, as if we were playing a game,” said rover Kyshoen Jarrett. “Coming out to FedEx Field, it doesn’t matter if it’s a college stadium or an NFL stadium; we’ve got to be ready to play.”
Now, all that remains is for the team to stay focused and find the motivation to make some positive memories this week.
“I told the guys that after the game, this feeling of winning, we can have this every week,” Taylor said. “We had a great week of practice, and Pitt loss or Pitt win, it shouldn’t make a difference. If we go out and perform like that during practice every week, it makes Saturdays a little easier, so that should be enough motivation right there.”