Tech's defensive disaster two weeks ago at Pittsburgh, where the Hokies surrendered 537 yards in a 35-17 loss, put an end to those comparisons. Yet, it's amazing what one dominant bounce-back performance against an overmatched opponent can do for your confidence.
As Tech preps for Saturday's game in Landover, Md., against the multi-dimensional spread offense of Cincinnati (2-0), one defensive starter feels like Tech's 37-0 win last weekend against Bowling Green put Tech at least in the neighborhood of being talked about again in the same sentence with the '99 defensive standard of excellence.
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"I think we're close," said Tech cornerback Antone Exum regarding this year's defense comparing statistically to the '99 defense, which was first in the nation in scoring defense (10.5 points per game) and third in both rushing defense (75.9 yards per game) and total defense (247.3 yards per game).
"(The Bowling Green game) was a big leap. We still did a couple little things wrong, technical things, but from the Pittsburgh game we got a lot better just playing fundamentally and everybody doing their job.
"Last year, we got better as the year went on. I feel like game-by-game we just continued to progress. If that's something we can do this year, then I feel like by the end of the season — or maybe sooner rather than later — we'll be that defense that we think we can be."
Tech (3-1 overall, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) will have far more challenging opportunities than the Bowling Green walk-over to prove whether it's capable of playing at a defensive level that was expected before the season — starting with Cincinnati.
Coach Frank Beamer believes there are three primary keys to keeping Tech, which is 23rd in the nation in scoring defense (14.8 points per game) and 32nd in total defense (328 yards per game), on the right track on the right track on the defensive side of things.
Those keys are staying healthy, getting linebacker Tariq Edwards back in the fold after his struggles with a knee and shin injury for six months, and depth and versatility on the defensive line.
Cincinnati, which Beamer called "by far the most athletic team we've played," and 6-foot-5, 199-pound quarterback Munchie Legaux will test Tech.
"I think they do a good job of stretching you horizontally, and they do a good job of stretching you vertically," Beamer said. "When you've got speed and athletes, that adds to the stretching. They've got a quarterback that can zip it, but you've got to account for him as a runner."
Legaux helped lead Cincinnati to a 34-10 win against Pittsburgh in the Bearcats' season opener by completing 14 of 28 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns to go along with six carries for 117 yards. With his scrambling ability, Legaux represents a much lighter version of Tech's Logan Thomas.
Cincinnati, which also has beaten Football Championship Subdivision opponent Delaware State, enters the game 12th in the nation in rushing offense with an average of 259 yards per game. Running back George Winn is averaging 121 yards per game. That's daunting for a Tech defense that gave up 254 rushing yards to Pittsburgh, and ranks 90th in the nation in rushing defense (184.5 yards per game).
Tech can't really stack this Cincinnati team against the one the Hokies beat 20-7 in the 2009 Orange Bowl. Yes, Cincinnati has a ton of experience on defense this season (nine senior starters and one junior) like it did in the '09 Orange Bowl (nine senior starters and two juniors), but there aren't many other similarities.
Not only does Cincinnati feature a different coach — in January '09, it was Brian Kelly, who now coaches Notre Dame; now, it's Butch Jones — but there's a new look on offense. Even a guy that only got to watch the '09 Orange Bowl as a redshirt can see the differences at first glance.
"They're a different team now," Tech linebacker Bruce Taylor said. "They've got a mobile quarterback. When they had (Tony) Pike in there (in the '09 Orange Bowl), he was more of a pocket guy … (Legaux) is more of a mobile guy, a dual-threat guy. You have to play to your (team's strengths). They're not just going to have him sitting in the pocket all day, because they know that's not his strength or he can make plays with his feet as well."