Virginia Tech’s season unraveling without QB Brewer

Virginia Tech allowed seven sacks in a 17-13 loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday.

Peter Casey/Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 Virginia Tech Hokies once held a halftime lead over the No. 1 team in the country. That felt like long, long time ago when watching the Hokies fall 17-13 to Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon, their third loss of the campaign and perhaps their worst offensive performance to date.

There have been encouraging moments for this team since losing starting quarterback Michael Brewer, who broke his collarbone in the season opener, but it’s clear that Virginia Tech has not solved the issues that have plagued the program’s offense over the past few years. And while that’s not the sole, or necessarily the primary, reason Virginia Tech finds itself with a losing record at the moment, the problems were painfully obvious as Brewer watched from the sidelines against Pitt.

First and foremost, Virginia Tech’s defense has been a major disappointment.

Frank Beamer’s program lives and dies with its ability to keep points off the board and force opponents to make mistakes. Setting aside the Ohio State game, where things fell apart for the Hokies in the second half against the nation’s top-ranked team, defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s unit has underperformed against FBS competition. Teams have gashed Virginia Tech on the ground — that trend continued as freshman Qadree Ollison and Pittsburgh ran up 166 rushing yards on Saturday. After punishing opposing quarterbacks in 2014, the pass rush has been problematic. Injuries to stars like cornerback Kendall Fuller never help, either.

A few of those defensive issues were cleaned up against Pitt, which has had its own problems scoring points without reigning ACC Player of the Year James Conner, despite the emergence of Ollison. Virginia Tech dialed up pressure on Panthers quarterback Nathan Peterman. The 17 points allowed were the fewest Foster’s group has surrendered to an FBS team this season.

That didn’t matter with the offense sputtering through the first half and stalling in the second.

For every step forward the defense took on Saturday, the offense took three steps back.

(The flip side of this equation: Pittsburgh is now 3-1 with its only loss coming to undefeated Iowa. Considering the circumstances, its an encouraging start to the Pat Narduzzi era.)

Before singling out the lack of production at the skill positions, it needs to be pointed out that the Hokies’ offensive line is not making life easy. Pittsburgh racked up seven sacks and held Virginia Tech to 0.3 yards per carry on 33 attempts — so while Beamer’s team is certainly lacking playmakers, it’s difficult to be that bad when the line is holding up. On Saturday, the line did not hold up.

Case in point: On Virginia Tech’s final drive of the game with the Hokies needing a touchdown to win, backup quarterback Brenden Motley took four snaps and was hit four times. He took two punishing sacks, threw a pass that should have been picked off and finished the job by tossing an interception on fourth-and-25. In other words, the Hokies backtracked 15 yards before gift-wrapping the ball for a Panthers offense that then simply needed to run out the clock.

Motley finished with 91 yards passing and three interceptions on 20 attempts. He’s now completing 57 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and five interceptions.

The running game did not fare much better.

The Hokies have brought in talented prep backs over the past few years, but none have emerged as true threats in offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler’s offense. Travon McMillian led the team with 14 yards on six carries, all of which is made worse by the fact that he rattled off a 15-yard run, meaning he rushed for a net negative on his other five carries. In total, Virginia Tech walked away with nine rushing yards. The blame can likely be spread around — the offensive line was porous, teams are not respecting Motley’s arm and are loading the box, the running backs, Loeffler, and so on.

This leaves Virginia Tech, one of the favorites to win the Coastal Division, in a precarious position moving forward. The Hokies own a 2-3 record and, without significant improvement, it’s unclear where the wins are going to come from with the remaining slate of NC State, Miami, Duke, Boston College, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Virginia.

That could leave the program’s 22-year run of bowl eligibility, the second-longest active streak in the country, in question.

Fuller is out for the year, but Brewer’s return could be on the horizon. He returned to throwing at practice this week, but has yet to be cleared for contact. Judging by how Virginia Tech’s offensive line protected Motley on Saturday, the former Texas Tech transfer’s collarbone will need to stand up to some contact when he gets back on the field.

Brewer’s return could bring an added level of efficiency back to the offense, but Loeffler’s system has yet to deliver a scoring offense that ranks in the top-75 nationally to the jury is still out on whether the Hokies can right the ship.