- - Wednesday, September 19, 2012

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Disappointing non-conference losses in the first month of the football season are nothing new for Virginia Tech. A Hokies’ defense getting pushed around, however, isn’t something that’s a regular occurrence.

But that’s exactly what happened in Saturday’s 35-17 road loss at Pittsburgh. And now, a unit that was being touted as potentially one of the best in Tech’s history, finds itself with something to prove going into this week’s home game against Bowling Green.

“We were just getting it handed to us,” junior defensive end James Gayle said this week. “They were just the better team that day. When someone starts running for five yards, six yards, five yards, six yards, it just started to get ugly.”

Tech has now lost six non-conference games before Oct. 1 over the last six seasons. The list of teams that have delivered those defeats includes the mighty (Boise State in 2010, Alabama in 2009 and LSU in 2007) to the unlikely (James Madison in 2010 and East Carolina in 2008).

It’s unclear where Pittsburgh will fall. The Panthers were 0-2 under new coach Paul Chryst but certainly showed the potential to compete for a Big East title with the way they played against Tech.

The Hokies, on the other hand, failed to live up to their preseason billing as a national defensive power.

Instead, Tech statistically is a middle-of-the-pack unit three games into the season, ranking fourth in the ACC in defense (348.7 yards per game), sixth in scoring defense (19.7 points per game) and a seemingly-unfathomable ninth against the run (201.7 yards per game).

“It’s humbling for a lot of guys that were kind of listening to what everyone was saying about us being one of the better defenses,” senior linebacker Bruce Taylor said.

Last season, the Hokies gave up 100 yards to a back just twice in 14 games. Miami’s Lamar Miller ran for 166 yards and a score in a 38-35 loss to Tech on Oct. 8 and Clemson’s Andre Ellington picked up 125 and a touchdown in a 38-10 win over the Hokies in the ACC title game.

This year, two backs have hit the century mark against Tech in the first three games.

First, Austin Peay’s Wesley Kitts rushed for 110 yards on 22 carries in a 42-7 loss to the Hokies two weeks ago. Saturday, freshman tailback Rushel Shell picked up 154 yards for Pittsburgh, which also got 94 yards on the ground from Ray Graham.

“We weren’t getting pushed back. It was just kind of a stalemate,” Tech defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins said. “We just weren’t as physical as we usually are.”

Sophomore Anthon Samuel, who led Bowling Green (1-2) in rushing last season as a true freshman, will try to join that list this weekend.

In Saturday’s 35-17 loss at Pittsburgh, Tech gave up 537 yards of offense, the most the Hokies have allowed since LSU piled up 598 yards in 2007.

“No intensity. No passion. Inconsistent effort. Lack of communication,” defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “We needed to be more physical. We got pushed around.”

The secondary, shuffled after an injury to cornerback Kyle Fuller, struggled in coverage and making tackles on the edge. Fuller (shoulder) practiced this week and is expected to play Saturday.

The defensive line allowed itself to be made a non-factor for much of the game, being content to fill gaps and not pursuing to the edge or disrupting plays in the backfield.

“We didn’t get off many blocks,” defensive line coach Charley Wiles said. “They made our corners and safeties tackle, for the most part. And we missed some tackles out there. But we didn’t get off many blocks and make tackles either.”

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