BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech's wide receivers combined to catch four passes in a season-opening loss to Alabama. Sure, the Crimson Tide is the two-time reigning national champion and is coached by defensive savant Nick Saban, but the Hokies dropped more throws than 'Bama broke up.
As if to drive home that point, Texas A&M's Johnny Football — granted, he's unique — passed the Tide dizzy two weeks later.
Meanwhile, Tech's receivers worked and worked and worked. Before, during and after practice. Position coach Aaron Moorehead — he caught passes from Peyton Manning in the NFL — even broke out the Jugs machine, a bargain online for $2,385, to spit balls at his guys.
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Lane Stadium, Blacksburg
The dividends have been measured but indispensable, never more so than Saturday's 27-17 victory over North Carolina, the Hokies' fifth straight since the Alabama setback.
Indispensable because opponents continue to stuff Tech's running attack by crowding the line of scrimmage. The Hokies rushed for 48 yards on 34 carries Saturday, their third game during the winning streak with 55 yards or less, but Logan Thomas threw for a season-best 293 yards and matched his career-high with three touchdown passes, all to wideouts.
"If they're going to gang up on you," Tech coach Frank Beamer said, "you gotta be able to throw it, and I think we're getting closer and closer."
Saturday the Hokies' receivers approached flawless. Joshua Stanford and Willie Byrn dropped third-down passes in the second quarter, but otherwise, Moorehead's group made both routine and difficult catches.
"Thanks for bringing it up," Byrn said with a laugh when I asked him about the drop.
That's as accurate a gauge of Tech's progress as any. Once frequent and troubling, drops have become unusual and not an overriding concern.
Consider Byrn. He converted a second-quarter third-and-10 with an 18-yard reception that included a replay-worthy juke of a defender and led to the Hokies' second touchdown.
On the first play of Tech's next possession, with the Hokies pinned at their own 2, Byrn raced behind free safety Tre Boston for an 83-yard gain that set up their third score.
Byrn, who leads Tech with 298 receiving yards, blamed a cranky left knee he injured at Georgia Tech for preventing him from scoring and professed shock at offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler's play call from the 2.
"We're all getting a feel for what he likes to do," Byrn said, "and how he likes to keep people off balance a little bit. … I'm excited to see what he's going to do the rest of the year. … If he keeps doing that, making those masterful play calls, then we'll be pretty dangerous."
Byrn's four receptions for 123 yards headlined an afternoon in which five receivers combined for 15 catches and 272 yards. Demitri Knowles split coverage on a 45-yard post route for the opening score, and Joshua Stanford had three receptions for 59 yards, including a diving 18-yarder against blanket coverage.
And then there's D.J. Coles, a fifth-year senior whose playing time is limited by nagging knee pain and subsequent weight issues. He caught two more short touchdown passes, giving him five for the season, on just 11 receptions.
"We haven't forgotten what people said about us," Coles said.
Coles is a primary reason Tech's receivers have quieted critics, and not just because he's posting stats that make fantasy football geeks swoon. To a man, Coles' fellow receivers say he's their leader, the one they listen to and admire.
Indeed, as Byrn nursed his knee injury last week, Coles channeled Allen Iverson, telling Byrn not to worry about practice, to instead focus on mental preparation and North Carolina's defensive tendencies.
The Tar Heels (1-4, 0-2 ACC) limited the Hokies (5-1, 2-0) to 64 yards after halftime, and Tech's lone second-half score came on a 17-yard touchdown drive after a muffed punt. If Loeffler's offense is truly to thrive, if his eccentric play-calling is to be effective, then the Hokies need far more balance.
"I think it's all in our hands," Byrn said. "If we execute … all 11 of us in sync, we're not going to be stopped."
Credit Bud Foster's defense — nasty as usual Saturday — and a manageable post-Alabama schedule with helping the offense bring Tech to the regular season's midpoint better off than many envisioned.
"I really see us continuing to get better and better, and taking advantage of how (opposing defenses) line up," Beamer said.
"We're proving (critics) to be wrong," Coles said of the receivers, "and that's what we're going to continue to do."