Defense, coaching and special teams part of takeaways from Tech win over Pitt

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By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – For the second time this season, Virginia Tech’s defense kept an opponent out of the end zone in the waning moments to preserve a victory, as the Hokies held on to beat Pittsburgh 20-14 on Saturday at Lane Stadium.

The game was similar to the Hokies’ season-opening win over West Virginia, which drove to the Tech 15 with nine seconds left, but couldn’t punch it in against Tech’s defense. Saturday’s stand was more impressive, though, as Tech faced four Pittsburgh attempts from the 1 – and yet kept the Panthers out of the end zone.

The victory moved Tech to 8-3 on the season and snapped a two-game losing streak. The Hokies, who jumped back into the national polls, sent their seniors out as winners in their final home game and kept alive their chances of winning 10 games this season.

For three quarters, the game wasn’t overly exciting, as both squads struggled to muster any rhythm offensively. Yet the fourth quarter featured a fake field-goal attempt that resulted in a touchdown, an interception that led to a touchdown, a receiver breaking a record with a touchdown reception, and of course, the goal-line stand.

There were numerous things to dissect following the game. Here are a few of them – the takeaways from a thrilling Senior Day victory:

The decision – The coaching staff makes hundreds of decisions over the course of a football game, but credit Tech head coach Justin Fuente for not letting Pittsburgh just score when it got the ball to the 1 with roughly 30 seconds left in the game. He ran the risk of the Panthers running down the clock, scoring and not leaving the Hokies with any time to counter.

Yet Fuente trusted the strongest part of his team – the defense – in spite of the situation. He trusted those players to make a goal-line stand, and they rewarded his faith in them. They stopped two rushing attempts, and then Greg Stroman made a nice play to break up a pass in the end zone on third down. On fourth down, Khalil Ladler and Reggie Floyd swarmed to Pittsburgh tailback Darrin Hall to stop him and end the game.

“We did have all those calls in place,” Fuente said, referring to letting a team score in that situation. “We talk about it all the time, but it’s pretty hard for me to take it out of that group of men’s hands. It’s hard in that situation to take the game out of their hands.”

Backup DBs get the job done – Defensive coordinator Bud Foster and his staff put together a successful game plan in spite of all the injuries in the secondary. Tech played without Terrell Edmunds and Adonis Alexander, and of course, Divine Deablo suffered a season-ending injury in the Old Dominion game.

Foster moved Mook Reynolds to free safety to replace Edmunds, and then he mixed and matched guys like Anthony Shegog, Deon Newsome and Ladler, putting them in roles where they could contribute. These guys played well, combining for 10.5 tackles.

Perhaps it was fitting that Newsome and Ladler were in on the final play, with Newsome taking on two blockers to keep Hall from breaking outside and then Ladler teaming with Floyd to tackle Hall for a 3-yard loss to preserve the win. Foster gave these guys an opportunity, put them in the proper spots, and they made the most the opportunity.

“That’s part of the game,” Foster said afterward. “You get some guys hurt, and the next guy has got to step in – but we expect them to step in and perform, not just step in.”

Perfect ending for Cam – The soft-spoken, hard-working Cam Phillips went out in perfect style, becoming Tech’s all-time leader in career receiving yardage in his final home game. In fact, he broke the record on the game-winning 23-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter.

Phillips now holds the record for career receptions and receiving yardage despite playing in the shadows of guys like Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges for three years. The ending seemed only fitting for a young man who worked his tail off over the past four years and never once complained about not being the go-to receiver for three years. He has set the standard for how to approach being a terrific player.

“People will remember Cam because he set records, but I'll remember Cam because he beat the coaches up in the film room to watch film after practice,” Fuente said. “That’s how I remember Cam – his quest to perfect his craft. I think it's fantastic he got the record.”


Solid day by backup kicker – For sure, there are easier situations to walk into as a kicker than having to replace Joey Slye, the program’s all-time leading scorer on Senior Day. Slye sat out the game while nursing a hamstring injury, and yet unknown Brian Johnson held his own. The redshirt freshman from Washington, D.C. connected on two short field goals, hit both extra points, and he also placed three of his five kickoffs into the back of the end zone for touchbacks.

Every point matters for Tech’s offense at this point in the season, and Johnson’s field goals put the Hokies in position to win. Not many were talking about his work Saturday, but he certainly made the most of the opportunity.

Bottling up Henderson – Tech’s staff didn’t try anything particularly gimmicky to shut down Pittsburgh’s sensational returner, Quadree Henderson, who has returned seven kicks back for touchdowns in his career. The coaches obviously felt confident in the Hokies’ coverage units, and that confidence was rewarded, as those groups kept Henderson from making a big play to change a close game.

Henderson returned four punts for just six yards, and he returned just one kickoff for 20 yards. Again, not many are talking about this, which makes sense considering the ending, but the Hokies were outstanding in this area.

“It was huge,” Fuente admitted of keeping Henderson under wraps. “To add to our concern, no Terrell [Edmunds], no Divine [Deablo], no Adonis [Alexander], who has been fantastic on our punt team. We had [Jovonn] Quillen and [Bryce] Watts as our press players – our ‘go’ players down the field. They did a good job as young players. And you kept seeing [Sean] Huelskamp and [Andrew] Motuapuaka down there, which I thought was really fitting.

“That [containing Henderson] was a huge point of emphasis. He is an incredible player and a very talented punt returner.”

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