Western Carolina quarterback Jonah Duggan, center, is brought down by Virginia Tech defenders Matt Roth (91), Deon Clarke (40) and Alston Smith (94) during Saturday's game in Blacksburg. (AP Photo/The Roanoke Times, Matt Gentry)
BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech’s to-do list after a season-opening loss to top-ranked Alabama:
• Clean up the special teams play. Check.
• Catch the catchable passes. Check.
• Take care of business against a team at the opposite end of the power spectrum, FCS member Western Carolina. Check.
It wasn’t flawless, but it was a big improvement over last week. The Hokies (1-1) rolled to a 45-3 victory Saturday over the outmanned Catamounts (0-2).
“We’re a work in progress,” said Hokies coach Frank Beamer. “I thought we took another step and did some good things.”
Those good things included better special teams play after giving up touchdowns on punt and kickoff returns in last week’s 35-10 loss to the Crimson Tide. The lone blemish was a muffed fair catch by Kyshoen Jarrett at the Virginia Tech 11 that led to Western Carolina’s only points, a 28-yard field goal. Beamer said he thought a Western Carolina player interfered, causing the ball to glance off Jarrett’s foot.
Hokies quarterback Logan Thomas also got more help from his receivers, who dropped twice as many as they caught in his 5-of-26 performance last week. Ten different receivers caught passes and Thomas finished 17-of-31 for 200 yards and one touchdown. Little-used Willie Byrn led the way with four catches for 58 yards.
“I think it was stressed that we were going to spread the ball around more than against Alabama,” Byrn said.
Added Thomas: “I’ve been really comfortable with everybody the entire time. It’s just having confidence in themselves and going to make plays.”
It wasn’t all smooth for the fifth-year senior, however. He had two passes intercepted in the end zone in the first half.
Beamer said Thomas and the receivers looked better despite the interceptions.
“I really believe that as we get more used to each other and get to know each other and get our timing down, that’s really going to cut down on the interceptions, and I think the passing game is going to get a lot better,” he said.
Catamounts quarterback Eddie Sullivan struggled mightily against relentless Hokies pressure. He was sacked only once, but was harried into three interceptions — all in the first half — and finished 4-of-14 for 51 yards.
Detrick Bonner had two of those interceptions, returning the first one 37 yards for a touchdown — the first defensive TD for the Hokies since the 2010 Atlantic Coast Conference championship game. Bonner brought the other one back 35 yards just before the half, but that was followed by Thomas’ second pick of the game to kill a Hokies scoring threat.
With the Catamounts’ passing game doing more harm than good, they went conservative in the second half, attempting only three passes despite trailing 21-0 at the break and 28-0 after a 76-yard touchdown run by redshirt freshman Chris Mangus early in the third quarter.
Even after Jarrett’s muffed fair catch set up the Catamounts in the red zone, they ran three times into the teeth of Virginia Tech’s defense and settled for Richard Sigmon’s field goal.
“We didn’t feel like we could hold up in protection down there,” said Western Carolina coach Mark Speir. “We had spurts we felt like running was just our best option to control the game and give us a chance.”
Sullivan attributed his troubles to a combination of scheme and athleticism.
“They played a very unique cover-2 defense,” he said. “That defensive coordinator (Bud Foster) is brilliant for doing that. They have pretty good athletes over there, and they blitz you.”
The Hokies also showed balance on offense, grinding out 237 yards rushing to go with their 225 passing. Starting tailback Trey Edmunds finished with 68 yards on 15 carries, including two 1-yard touchdowns. Joel Caleb also had a 13-yard TD run.
Playing a lower-tier team that has now lost 12 in a row overall and 28 straight to FBS opponents took a toll on attendance. The less-than-capacity crowd of 61,335 ended a streak of 93 home sellouts dating to 1998.
“I appreciate the ones who showed up,” Beamer said. “We’ll keep trying to get better for them.”
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