“The plaque for the alternates is down in the ladies room” - Iceman from the movie
After watching the game footage of the College-Virginia Tech game from last Thursday night, I felt the same nausea I felt while watching it in person. It just hurts to lose a game in that fashion and it hurts to watch it again. But I’m glad I did because I saw some things that changed my understanding of why the Hokies lost. And it only cost me a broken remote watching it on TV when I already knew the outcome. If I had been watching the game live at home when this happened, who knows what household items would have been lost?
First of all, with 4 minutes left in the game and ahead 10-0 with BC on their own 8 yard line, Bud Foster did not go to a prevent defense in the strictest sense of the word. Yes, he dropped the defensive secondary and the linebackers back a few yards, but that’s not really a prevent defense. However, what had worked throughout the game was mixing up the defense. Sometimes bringing a five man rush, sometimes bringing three. Sometimes dropping a defensive end into zone coverage, sometimes blitzing a cornerback. This confused and bewildered Matt Ryan into a 16-37 performance for 128 yards and 2 interceptions until that fateful drive with 4 minutes remaining. Truly it was one of Foster’s crowning achievements and the defense played its tail off. But then, Foster ran his standard defense nearly that entire drive with the secondary playing back. It was always a three or four man rush and there was a busted coverage on the tight end twice. What that did was let Matt Ryan get into a rhythm. And we saw what happened when Ryan got into a rhythm. He led two TD drives making some phenomenal throws that were certainly Heisman-worthy. So Foster deserves some blame for going to a vanilla defense, if not technically a “prevent”.
The special teams deserve some of the blame as well. The game may have ended very differently had Josh Morgan either recovered the onside kick or let it go past him to be recovered by another Hokie. I can’t remember and can’t find anywhere the last onside kick the Hokies kicked and recovered. If you know, please post it below. But I do know that three of the last four onside kicks tried against the Hokies have been recovered by the opponent. That is ridiculous. The special teams have been special all season, but if Morgan wants to step up and get the ball before it has gone 10 yards, he had better be damn sure he GETS THE BALL!!!
Interestingly, the failure to recover the onsides kick wasn’t the worst screw-up on special teams. Even if the onside kick been recovered by Tech it wouldn’t have guaranteed a victory. BC had two timeouts and had they forced the Hokies into a three and out (very likely), they would have gotten the ball back with about 1:10 left deep in their territory. The way Ryan was playing against VT’s vanilla zone defense, he very well might still have led the Eagles to a TD or a game-tying FG.
No, the worst mistake on special teams was the personal foul on BC’s punt attempt from the back of their endzone late in the 3rd quarter. With BC facing a 4th and 32, the Hokies decided to come after the punt. This was an awful decision. Similar to Beamer’s decision to kick onside with 3:30 left in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl last year, he demonstrated a complete lack of recognizing the game situation and just went to what he’s done in the past. In this situation, the Hokies had all the momentum. The defense had just pushed BC from their 20 yard line back to their 4 yard line. The crowd was into it. The Hokies had the 2nd leading punt returner in ACC history at midfield and were already ahead 10-0. A safety, which is all you would get if you block the punt there, would make it 12-0 which is still only a two score game and you would get the ball back in worse field position. It was a terrible decision to not set up for the return that might have led to a game clinching TD or at least run more clock off on the BC side of the field. I was yelling and screaming my head off about this as soon as I saw that the Hokies were going to come after the punt. But even with that bad decision, it looked like Tech was going to get away with it when Dustin Pickle bumped the shoulder of the punter with his facemask as he tried to pull up. It was very clearly a 5 yard running into the kicker penalty and BC would have declined it. But the Hokies already had a running-into-the-kicker penalty earlier in the game and the ref wanted to make an example showing that he was going to protect the BC kicker, so he called the 15 yard personal foul variety and gave BC a first down. This “flipped the field” and when the Hokies finally got the ball back they were in their own territory instead of taking over at midfield. Worse than that, the BC drive burned away all the energy and momentum the Hokies had built up. It was a devastating play, a bad play call by Beamer and a bad call by the ref that added up to keeping the Eagles in the game.
While at the game, the atmosphere was so electric due to the high caliber defense, I didn’t notice just how many opportunities and screw-ups the offense made. The offense had three critical drive killing penalties, two of them in BC territory. After what should have been a game clinching interception by DJ Parker with 6 minutes left, the Hokies didn’t do jack or squat with the ball and ended up only running off a minute and a half from the game clock. I am sure you are thinking – MadJay, it was the defense that lost this game, the offensive play calling was pretty good. Well, I will admit the play calling was decent. In fact, the play calling is definitely improved over last year. But the execution is far worse and to be worse than last year’s execution, you really have to dig deep into the Pit of Terribleness, which is not a good place to be.
The reason I chose the quote I did at the top of this piece is that Virginia Tech has been trying to join the college football elite for some time now. They have definitely secured their position among the “good” teams due to a nationally elite defense and solid special teams play. This has been enough to win against other good teams that they play. But in order to sit at the table with the big boys you have to win the big games. VT is now 1-27 against Top 5 opponents all-time. Folks that is embarrassing. That gets your name put on the “alternates” plaque in the ladies room. Sure, for years VT was a doormat, but with the teams the Hokies have had the past 5-6 years, having only one win against an elite team shows that despite getting the athletes and the talent, Tech is NOT elite yet. The mentality on offense is “just don’t lose the game”. That’s pathetic. The offense is a lead balloon keeping this program from reaching the heights that the players, coaches and fans aspire to. That national trophy case will stay empty until a well-executed offense joins the defense and special teams. And by “well-executed” I simply mean among the Top25 offenses in the country. The Hokies don’t need the most yards or points in the country to win, they just need more than what they are getting in order for this program to become elite. Whether the offensive coordinator is replaced, or suddenly finds a well of inspiration to tap into, I don’t care. But neither one seems likely to happen and that is a real problem. The Hokies use a three legged stool to symbolize the total team. Right now they are trying to stand on a two-legged stool to reach the big boys table and it isn’t working.
Let’s go over what an elite team that knows how to finish off games does in almost the exact same situation VT found itself in – . Michigan State two weeks ago. The Buckeyes dominated the entire game and were up 24-0 with 4 minutes left in the 3rd quarter. Suddenly Michigan State scored on two straight Ohio State turnovers and then got a field goal to make it 24-17 with 3:42 left in the game. Despite Michigan State having two time outs left, Ohio State proceeded to run out the clock getting three straight 3rd downs and winning the game. That is how a good overall team gets it done. Since 2005, have the Hokies won a game because of a clutch play by their offense? It didn’t happen either. The defense is phenomenal but you can only go to that well so many times.
Despite the loss , the Hokies do have a chance at redemption. As in life, you either pick yourself up after getting knocked down or you curl up in a ball and cry for your mommy. The goal of this team that was laid out at the beginning of the season – winning the ACC championship – is still completely in their control. If they win the rest of their games they will have a chance to play for the title. If they don’t they can sit around one day when they get old and tell about how this one time, they beat the #2 team in the country for 56 minutes. And that will have been the highlight of this season for them. How they respond will be on display against Georgia Tech.