- - Saturday, September 17, 2011

BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech’s first four opponents this season are its least compelling since 2001. That year, the Hokies rolled over Connecticut, Western Michigan, Rutgers and Central Florida to begin the season. Every year since, the first four games have included a sexy non-league opponent and/or a conference game.

After beating Arkansas State 26-7 Saturday at Lane Stadium, the 13th-ranked Hokies are now three-quarters of the way through a September that figured to be something of a yawner. They are 3-0 for the first time since 2006, when they started 4-0 — a record many believe they will have after next Saturday’s trip to Marshall.

Though the Hokies won’t learn how good they really are until they begin ACC play Oct. 1 against Clemson, their September non-conference scheduling makes sense, because they are breaking in their new starting quarterback, sophomore Logan Thomas. And his performance Saturday, as well as that of a defense on a mission, had to encourage the Hokies.

Nobody in their right mind thought Thomas would be flawless this month. He struggled at times last week at East Carolina, where he completed 8-of-20 passes for 91 yards and an interception. But this schedule allows room for error, because the Hokies are more talented than each of their first four opponents. So they pulled out a 17-10 win over the Pirates.

On Saturday, Arkansas State committed to stopping Tech’s running game by stacking defenders near the line of scrimmage. The Red Wolves’ coaches saw the film of Tech hitching its hopes last week to tailback David Wilson, as he ran for 138 yards. They were intent on not letting that happen again. So even as Thomas threw early and often, they kept defenders near the line, allowing him to throw more.

It was the type of day he had to experience before playing against better teams, a chance to pass consistently against a game-speed defense, though not a particularly great one. He completed 21-of-33 passes for 292 yards (195 in the first half) and two touchdowns.

“He needed that and we needed that offensively,” said Mike O’Cain, Tech’s quarterbacks coach and play caller.

Thomas was 11-of-16 in the first half and 10-of-17 in the second, when his performance was marred slightly by two interceptions, though the game’s outcome was already certain at that point. O’Cain knew Arkansas State would give Thomas opportunities to throw, but was surprised the Red Wolves (1-2) kept committing to stopping the run

“I think they did it a lot because my stats last week weren’t the greatest,” Thomas said.

O’Cain also knows teams will focus on stopping the run — Wilson had 21 carries for 88 yards and a touchdown Saturday — if Thomas doesn’t prove he can beat them with his arm. Thomas was prepared to throw the ball more coming into the game, and for the most part, O’Cain felt pleased with his performance.

Still, his interceptions probably left some points on the field, as the first came after Tech reached Arkansas State’s 31-yard line, and the second (on the very next drive) after the Hokies got to the 35. On the first pick, Thomas threw behind Marcus Davis — something O’Cain said Thomas needs to work on.

Tech’s defensive players, meanwhile, seem intent on putting last year behind them. The Hokies allowed 361.5 yards per game — 94.5 more than they gave up on average in their previous six seasons combined. After limiting East Carolina to 112 yards, Tech gave up 59 on Arkansas State’s first possession, a touchdown drive that started with a 51-yard deep ball on which cornerback Kyle Fuller bit on a pump fake.

After that, Tech allowed 210 yards for the rest of the game and got two interceptions and a safety. While tougher tests lie ahead — see Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd going 30-of-42 for 386 yards and four touchdowns Saturday in a win over Auburn — Fuller said that last year “just gave us that hunger to be that dominant defense. I think that’s what we’re working toward this year.”

• Read Darryl Slater’s blog at VTeffect.com