I woke up this morning and couldn't go to work. I'm not sick by the technical definition of the term (no fever, no headache, runny nose or sore throat) but my stomach is killing me. It feels like I ate a crushed glass sandwich. I'll go to a doctor later today for a more clinical diagnosis, but maybe this is what a truly broken heart feels like. Or I could just have a raging ulcer.
The funny thing is, the Hokies losing 33-30 to Boise State wasn't surprising, but it hurts worse than any loss since BC in 2007. Why wasn't it surprising? Let's check the past 10 HUGE games the Hokies have played with the whole country watching against top opponents -
1999 National Championship against FSU - Tech fell behind 28-7 before clawing and fighting back to a 29-28 lead only to lose 46-29.
2001 hosting #1 Miami - The Hokies fell behind 20-3 and somehow miraculously overcome the worst big game performance by a QB in history by Grant Noel to fight back to 26-24 only to lose on a dropped 2 pt. conversion
2002 @#2 Miami - The Hokies fell behind 28-7 only to fight, scratch and claw their way back to 56-45 in a great never-say-die performance
2003 hosting #2 Miami - Hokies got ahead 10-0 and went on to win 31-7 in a completely dominating performance by a talent-laden head-case of a team.
2004 - neutral #1 USC - The Hokies fell behind 7-0 early but exhibited great resolve in battling what was essentially a semi-pro team and the game turned on a completely phantom offensive pass interference call on Josh Hyman, and I still can't believe the ref made that call. Wonder if it was the same ref that overturned the block-in-the-back call last night?
2004 - Sugar Bowl against #3 Auburn - The Hokies fell behind 16-0 and the only reason it wasn't more than that was the greatest defensive performance I've ever seen by a college defense playing against four first round NFL talents on Auburn's offense. The Hokies managed to fight and claw their way back to a 16-13 loss.
2005 hosting #5 Miami - The Hokies fell behind 27-0 and were completely overwhelmed in the spotlight. No fighting and clawing here, just a late TD to make it 27-7.
2007 hosting #2 Boston College- The Hokies went ahead 10-0 in the rain only to lose by an unbelievable performance by Matt Ryan in the final 4 minutes of the game when he rallied the Eagles to a 14-10 win which was also helped by a special teams breakdown on an onside kick with the game on the line.
2008 Orange Bowl against #7 Kansas - The Hokies fell behind 17-0, only to fight and claw and give up on the run when it was working, leading to a 24-21 loss to an overmatched KU team.
2009 - Kickoff Game against Alabama - The Hokies fell behind 7-0 to only to return the kickoff and miraculously stayed in the game, finally losing 34-24 while achieving only 155 yards on offense.
That is 10 games against the top competition, with the nation watching, only to see the Hokies fall behind early in 8 of them, often by more than one score. The team almost always fights back, only to come up short in the end which endears the program to many around the country as a bunch of hard-fighting blue collar guys taking on "The Man".
At the same time, this looked to be the team that would break that trend. Finally, the Hokies could match up against a top squad OFFENSIVELY, and all signs pointed to a group that was talented, experienced and handling everything this pre-season in a businesslike manner. There was real optimism that past 1st quarter disasters might not be repeated. And what happened? A lost fumble on the 2nd snap of the game and a blocked punt on the next possession led to 10 points and the next thing you know, the Hokies are down 17-0. Again.
And just like the scriptwriters would have them do, the Hokies fought back. They clawed and bled and Tyrod Taylor played his heart out and they found a way to take the lead 27-26 in the third quarter. Then Boise State missed a FG and Taylor put the team on his back one more time to lead them on a FG scoring drive to go up 30-26. The defense got a patented Bud Foster stop and the offense got the ball back with about 5 minutes to go. After some well-executed plays, they found themselves in an amazing situation. A chance to take the monkey off their back and show that this was the Hokie team we were all waiting for. You think I'm going to blast the pass on 3rd and 8? Read on my Calm and Beloved Reader.
The Hokies had just rushed for 4 yards with Darren Evans. Ryan Williams had DOUBLED his rushing total for the game on this one drive. You could see that Boise State's defensive line was getting tired. The Hokies faced 2nd and 6 with 2:10 left and Boise State called a timeout. This was the game. Boise State had only 1 timeout left. Get a first down and the Hokies were going to win the game. Two plays to get 6 yards. And Stinespring had an entire timeout to come up with two plays to get those 6 yards. The first play on 2nd down HAD to either be a WR screen (which was really working this game because of the physical advantage the Hokies WR's were having in blocking the Boise DB's) or a run with Williams or Evans. You have to keep the clock running and you need to gain a few more yards on 2nd down and then you have the entire playbook for 3rd and 3 or so. Or best case scenario, the 2nd down play gets you a first down right off the bat. One broken tackle by Ryan Williams or Darren Evans would do it.
The play call? A QB run. Sure, the man that had been hurting Boise all game was Tyrod Taylor but they were spying him with two guys on this final drive, which was why the running backs were starting to gain yards. Even the announcers agreed, saying for Boise to (unbelievably when you consider who the RB's are), make the RB's beat you, don't let Taylor run on you. And the run wasn't a quick hitter up the middle, it was a longer developing play where Taylor faked a handoff and tried to go outside. It lost 2 yards and Boise used their final timeout. In my heart of hearts, I really thought the Hokies had just lost the game right there. I thought Beamer would run it one more time, and then punt the ball and the young Hokie defense would be hard pressed to stop a Boise State offense with that much experience and that clutch of a QB. But to my pleasant surprise the Hokies threw the ball on 3rd and 8 to try and get the 1st down!!
Now let me be clear on a few things - first of all, don't imagine for a SECOND that this was Stinespring's decision. Everyone on that coaching staff knew that call was going to be the game decider. You were either going to put the game in the hands of your offense or your defense to try and win it for you and the way the Hokies were executing on offense up to that point, I liked taking a shot. So with the game on the line, you know it was Beamer that said, go for the first down.
The play call itself? A terrible choice really. The Hokies should have used slants or posts or crossing routes or even an out route to someone other than Boykin would have been very unexpected. A QB rollout to put pressure on the defense (is Taylor going to run or throw?) would have also been a great call IF you hadn't just run him off to the right side for a 2 yard loss. A simple crossing route would have been great. I also would have been happy with a pass to the flat with David Wilson or Ryan Williams against outmatched Boise linebackers. Anything to get one of the multitude of playmakers the ball in space. Even if they couldn't get the first down, the clock would have still run. I'll say again, the decision to throw for the first down felt like the right call to me, and it showed faith in an offense that has obviously improved. Convert that down and it's three knees and you're in the locker room with the biggest win in school history.
But execution with the game on the line is just not the offense's forte. They have done it, what, TWICE in 5 years? (Miami in '06 and Nebraska last season). And never against a top opponent. Ever. It's not who they are. Even with a legend like Taylor at the helm, the offense lacks that killer instinct, that clutch level of execution that was exhibited by Boise State on their game-winning drive.
Sure the Broncos were helped by an impossibly overturned block-in-the-back call (the ref who threw the flag was the closest one to the infraction, how did any other official overturn that?) Sure that call on Bruce Taylor for late hit out of bounds was a joke, because the whistle hadn't blown. But in the end, Coach Peterson knew the weakest link on this defense was the inexperienced whip and he and Kellen Moore attacked it with the game on the line for a perfectly executed touchdown. Conversely with the game on the line for the Hokies, Coach Stinespring went away from the bruising runners that were wearing down the Broncos at the end for a QB draw that lost two yards and stayed away from attacking the Boise State linebackers on 3rd down with a crossing route or a pass in the flat to go with a fade pass to the outside.
Make no mistake, I'm disappointed in Coach Foster's defense at the very end, but really, after they settled into the game, they went toe-to-toe with one of the best offenses in college football and don't forget that they gave the Hokies a chance to win by stopping the Broncos near midfield with 5 minutes left. I have all confidence that come midseason, this is going to be one of the fiercest defenses around.
Meanwhile, the offense is very talented as well and I think the Hokies are going to win a lot of games this year if they don't let this loss de-rail them. Incidentally, if I were on the team, this loss would de-rail me because hell, I don't even play for the Hokies and I can barely function today. So it will take a lot to regroup and refocus on an ACC championship, but at the end of the day, isn't that really all we, as Hokie Nation, truly want anyway? We say we want a national title and I know I'd love to see one in the trophy case, but it just won't be there until an overhaul in the offensive coaching takes place and someone who can prepare the team to execute in big games, both early and with the game on the line, is in place. And the fans aren't ever really going to force that issue as long as the team can contend for ACC titles.
It's philosophical more than anything. It's an overall approach that, despite widely varying differences in tactics, is taken by Nick Saban, Bob Stoops, Les Miles, Urban Meyer and Boise's own Chris Peterson have all exhibited over the years and it rubs off on the players - you make the biggest plays in the biggest games seem routine. The players on teams led by those men have time-in and time-out had the confidence to make game winning plays on defense AND offense AND special teams against Top 5 competition and the Hokies have not. That's why, despite this loss not being surprising, it is so painful. Because I thought this was the year that the team could really do that and that I would be wrong about Coach Stinespring. Alas, I was not. And it breaks my heart.