I thought the strangest I would EVER feel after a Hokie loss was the the Pittsburgh game from 2012. It was the first one where I implemented my gameplan of recording the game but only watching it if the Hokies won. And when I saw that they had lost, I deleted the game from the DVR and felt the most bittersweet emotion I can imagine. Bitter because I couldn't believe I was going to NOT watch or attend a Virginia Tech football game for the first time in 20 years and sweet because I knew that my blood pressure, my stomach ulcer and my unbroken household goods were all the beneficiary of the decision to not watch.
I felt very disappointed and hurt that the Hokies lost to Pittsburgh - a team they should have beaten - but I had turned a corner in my life and knew that their losing would no longer wreck my personal relationships with my kids, my job attendance nor my health. And life went on. I proceeded to watch 7 and miss 6 of the games last year and was intent on doing the same this season. And truth be told I still will - except for the Alabama game last night.
You see, my new perspective allowed me, for the first time, to watch a Virginia Tech football game without the unbelievable terror of of the prospect that they would lose. With all of the injuries and departures, and facing a talent gap at some positions even with a fully healthy roster, the Hokies had almost no chance of winning. What I wanted to see last night was - what affect has the new coaching staff had, in gameplan and play calling, and what level of prospect did the Hokies really land in the past two classes with so many freshmen playing Saturday night? And in watching the loss, I didn't feel bittersweet per se, but a strange mix of excitement about the future, pride in how hard some areas of the team played, shock at how badly the receivers played and satisfaction in seeing the VT defense pick right up where they left off last season, if not even better.
If you want the play-by-play notes, box score and scoring summary, go see our good friends at Hokiesports. Suffice to say here are the 5 most important takeaways from where I sit:
1) Dat defense! The Hokies played easily the best team they will face in 2013 and the defense looked like more than they just belonged on the field, but they were BETTER than the Alabama offense. The defensive line repeatedly smashed the pocket and shut down running lanes. The secondary and linebackers (Jack Tyler, good Lord) were flying all over the field, knocking away passes and tackling fundamentally and the defensive MVP was Kyle Fuller who played the game of his life. In short, it's the best defensive performance I've seen the Hokies have against top-flight competition since the '04 Sugar Bowl vs. Auburn. If you want a barometer, think about the '07 LSU national champs - that's how good the Alabama offense is - and the Hokie defense was an order of magnitude better than the '07 squad at this point in the season. Of course, the '07 team went on to win the ACC Championship on the back of that defense (and a young freshman QB named Tyrod Taylor).
2) Beamerball is officially dead. The nail is in the coffin. Despite having a very good punter and kicker, the coverage teams have been subpar the past 3 seasons, (with very little in terms of defensive touchdowns as well). Even then, they haven't been as atrocious as the coverage from last night's game vs. Alabama. The gap discipline was nonexistent such that even if the missed tackles weren't there that resulted in TD's, there would still have been large amounts of return yardage for the Tide. If you want to see kick coverage as it should have been - watch Alabama's special teams. How embarrassing for a coach who built a program on the foundation of special teams and defensive scoring for the Tide to "Beamerball" the Hokies for 21 pts. Coach Beamer hasn't forgotten how to coach special teams, and he communicates the overall vision of the team well with his players and coaches. But with his elevated age and profile as a head coach, he clearly isn't getting through and reaching these players anymore in terms of specific X's and O's. Heartbreaking to watch that last night. I think Bama would have won anyway, but the game would have had a completely different complexion with even decent kick coverage.
3) The forward pass has been legal in college football for 107 years. I will argue until my deathbed that the worst performance by a quarterback since that day back in 1906 was Grant Noel's performance against Miami in 2001. Noel was 4-16 for 81 yds with 4 interceptions and a fumble. And while Ernest Wilford did drop a well-thrown critical 2 pt conversion in that '01 game, I was there and I can tell you that Noel's passes were so horrible throughout the day, that I just couldn't believe what I was watching. Logan Thomas didn't have a great night last night, but I went back and counted - out of his 26 passes, on 12 of them, the receiver dropped the pass or gave up on the route. He should have legitimately been at least 16 for 26 (one Knowles catch would have been very difficult but he had his hands on it on the sideline), which is very respectable against a defense like Bama's. And on Logan's pick six, WR DJ Coles completely gave up going across the middle. He didn't want any part of it. If I had been Coach Beamer I would have benched Coles for the rest of the game. I've seen receivers "hear the footsteps" or "get alligator arms" but I can't recall a player who kept looking into the middle of the field and jogging at half speed on a short slant route like that. Rece Davis called out the Hokies on College Football Final, saying that were "hot garbage". If anything that's an understatement. Without a 5 fold improvement in receiver play, the Hokies are going to be lucky to go to a bowl this season, much less compete for the ACC title. I expect to see a lot more of Josh Stanford and Charley Meyer next weekend.
4) The last two classes have obviously been amazing for Hokie recruiting. Players like DB Kendall Fuller, RB Trey Edmunds, LT Jonathan McLaughlin and DB Brandon Facyson weren't just good, they were incredible. DT Nigel Williams and WR Josh Stanford looked like they belonged on the field with Bama. DT Woody Baron and DB Donovan Riley may not quite be ready for primetime but they showed flashes and will be better players for it. I was disappointed in Sam Rogers missing the tackle on Christion Jones' kickoff return and disgusted by Desmond Frye who is fast, but didn't even touch Christion Jones on his TD reception (it's not "bump-n-run" coverage if you don't bump the guy!!!) But you're going to get some freshman mistakes as part of the learning process. Overall, I was truly amazed at how good the Hokies young players were on that stage, I'm very excited about the talent they showed, and I think it bodes well for me being able to watch a LOT of games over the next few years
5) I finally saw offensive line play to get excited about for the first time in 5 years at VT. True freshman Jonathan McLaughlin is going to be in the NFL someday if he stays healthy. That entire line was cohesive, they communicated and they executed. Adding Coach Jeff Grimes so far looks like the biggest win by a mile in the recent coaching changes that were made. The line was physical in run blocking the entire night and against Bama (!!!) they gave up 1 sack, which is nearly impossible to comprehend. If Grimes can do this with the guys we already have, I can't wait to see what he can do once he lands "his guys" with the 5 inbound freshmen in next year's recruiting class. The line was a joy to watch for once and I can't wait to see them continue to develop this year.
So there you have it. Now it's worth mentioning that there are no "moral victories". The Hokies lost and it still bothered me to see it. I felt so bad for the defense that plainly leaving their guts out on the field and the offensive line that was doing the same. But contrast this game to the win vs. Rutgers in the bowl game. I didn't see the identity of running the football that I wanted last night, but I saw the ABILITY to run it against a team like Bama and that was amazing. Thinking back to how inept the Hokies were against Rutgers, it looked last night like the offense actually knew how to run a play with cohesion. The one incomprehensible difference was that the receivers couldn't catch anything thrown to them against Bama, but if that gets fixed (and that's a huge if), VT could be in for an exciting season. If they don't get that fixed, than they'd better switch to a triple-option offense and try to run for all their yards and points.
Either way, I hope they win a lot, selfishly so that I can watch more games. It hurt to see a loss, but I was reminded about how much I love Hokie football watching that game. And I'm stoked about the prospect about getting to watch them vs. Western Carolina next Saturday!