J.C. Coleman heard you loud and clear, Virginia Tech fans.
Known as @JC_Coleman4 in the Twitter world, Coleman said the criticism came pouring in during the first half of the season as Virginia Tech’s offense mucked its way to a 3-3 start.
“Towards me, towards Virginia Tech, towards the running game, it’s just crazy,” he said. “The running backs as a whole, we’ve been taking a lot of heat as a group. It’s frustrating to read things, guys posting things on Twitter and calling us names. It’s very stressful. For it to finally get started and finally get going, it was very good.”
The challenge now is to keep it going -- despite a patchwork offensive line that will be missing its veteran leader in center Andrew Miller, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury in last week’s 41-20 win against Duke. Virginia Tech will travel to Death Valley on Saturday to face No. 19-ranked Clemson, the third time in a little over a year the two programs have met. In order for the Hokies to garner some redemption after last season’s two losses, they will have to build upon the progress they made in the running game last weekend against Duke.
“The running game means everything,” said quarterback Logan Thomas. “You’ve got to be able to honor the run. Once they start having to put an extra man in the box or become conscientious about the run, then they open up themselves to us throwing the ball downfield. That’s just how our offense runs, is the play-action and being able to throw the ball downfield. That’s when we’re at our best.”
Since the start of the 1999 season, Virginia Tech is 121-13 when outrushing its opponent, and 15-29 when being outrushed. Two of those losses came this season. The Hokies were outgained on the ground 339-40 against UNC, and 254-59 in the loss to Pitt.
For three quarters last Saturday, Virginia Tech was definitely the best it had looked all season. Much of that can be attributed to the breakout performance of Coleman. In his first career start, the true freshman ran for a career-high 183 yards on just 13 carries (14.1 yards per carry) with two long touchdown runs. The 183 yards rushing were the most by a true freshman under coach Frank Beamer.
“I finally had an opportunity to get some more carries and have some more attempts,” he said. “The offensive line in particular, they really came together last week and opened up plenty of holes for me. I was just hitting holes and taking it the distance, so it was really exciting.
“Clemson has a very good defense,” Coleman said. “If we want to win, we have to establish the running game against them. It would help out Logan, it would help out the receivers, it would help out the whole offense. And then we can keep our ball control to give the defense a rest.”
Running backs coach Shane Beamer said the staff wants to get Coleman more touches and praised his toughness.
“I’d be dumb and lying if I said we don’t look at what J.C. did on Saturday and realize he brought something to the table and gave us a spark,” Beamer said. “At the same time, I do think every game is different. Saturday all four of our guys played, and we’re doing some different things. We’ve got a couple of different personnel packages where it might be Martin Scales and Michael Holmes in the game at the same time, or it might be Tony Gregory and J.C. in the game at the same time. All of our guys are in there at different points throughout the game.”
As a team, Virginia Tech ran for 269 yards against the Blue Devils. Clemson’s rushing defense has been kind, allowing 202.67 yards per game -- 99th in the country.
“They want to run the zone, the power, get downhill on you in a heartbeat,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. “But they got it going against Duke. Looked like they started to click, get their confidence, probably played some of their best football of the year in that game on both sides as that game continued to move forward.
“I think all those backs are really good players,” Swinney said. “All of them have done some good things. Those two freshmen look like they have a chance to be good. The [Martin] Scales kid is a big, strong, physical runner. Mixing it up, creating some hesitation with the shifts and movements they've done, the speed motion, the timing of the snap, when that motion is coming. All those things I think helped them get the running game going.”
It also helped silence some critics.