I suppose it’s just a function of age, but the older I get, the more things I don’t understand. For example, I don’t understand some of the music my daughter likes. Or the appeal of avocado toast. Or why anyone would spend over $1,000 on a cell phone.
Then there’s the Virginia Tech game plan for yesterday’s loss to North Carolina.
Since I’ve never been a coach, perhaps there are secrets to the coaching fraternity I haven’t been privy to. But going into yesterday’s game, the Hokies seemed to have one big strength and one big weakness which UNC had to deal with. A proper game plan could have and should have accentuated the strength in such a way that it might have covered or at least minimized the weakness.
VT’s game plan didn’t.
The weakness was obviously the defense. That side of the ball has seriously been hit hard by COVID, with depth being so slim, walk-ons were seeing significant playing time. Add to that a change in schemes after long-time defensive coordinator Bud Foster retired, and you had inexperienced players under a new coach in a new scheme against UNC’s explosive offense.
A recipe for disaster.
Common football wisdom would say part of the solution is how you approach the game on offense. Shorten the game with long, time-consuming, run-oriented drives. Do your best to get ahead and possibly force the opponent’s offense to become more one-dimensional while trying to play catchup. Doing so then allows you to blitz more, apply pressure and possibly force a mistake or two. Keep your defense rested in the first half while battering your opponent’s defensive line, and good things can happen in the second half.
It’s easier said than done. But the Hokies had all the tools to execute such a strategy. They came into the game with a big, experienced offensive line that blew huge holes open in the first two games. They had one of the nation’s premier runners in Khalil Herbert, who averaged 17.3 yards per carry in the first game against N.C. State, and 10.9 yards per carry in the second win over Duke. Statistically, he’s the best running back to play in Blacksburg in decades, and virtually every coach in America will tell you that when you have a fast horse, you load the wagon and ride him all day.
On top of that, Virginia Tech won the toss and could choose offense to start the game, possibly take an early lead, and set the tone for the game.
For some reason, the Hokies didn’t. They deferred to the second half and put that suspect defense on the field from the very beginning. UNC said thank you very much and moved down the field 75 yards in 11 plays, eating up almost 5 minutes off the clock to take a 7-0 lead. They did exactly what Virginia Tech needed to do.
Then it really got hard to understand what was going on.
On its first offensive play, the ball went to Herbert for a 5-yard gain. Perfect play, I thought. Just keep running plays like that and you will tie the score, take time off the clock and get control of the game.
They didn’t. Plus that would be the only play Herbert touched the ball in the first quarter. It was like buying a brand new driver, bringing it to the golf course, hitting a 300-yard drive right down the middle on the first tee and then putting it back in the bag and not using it until the back nine. Instead of good ol’ fashioned hard-nosed running football, the Hokies got cute. After Herbert’s run, they threw two passes, didn’t make a first down and punted. On a day they needed to consume time and shorten the game, they went 3 and out and took 1:15 off the clock.
North Carolina then scored again to lead 14-0.
The next possession was almost a mirror image of the previous one. No plays to Herbert, but a QB run, an incomplete pass and another QB run. Three and out, time of possession was a minute, 18 seconds.
North Carolina then scored again to lead 21-0.
That’s how the first quarter ended. The tone was set. Virginia Tech to its credit battled back and put 45 points on the board. But the mountain was too high to climb with that big a deficit that early.
Asked why Herbert only got one carry in the first quarter, Hokie Coach Justin Fuente said ““We didn’t make any first downs. I mean, he’s not getting carries if it’s three-and-out. I mean, that’s the way it was. He’s not going to get 20 carries if we’re punting every three plays.”
I mean, this makes no sense.
Herbert is a rare back who makes something out of nothing. In the first two games, he kept showing the ability to take the handoff, find the seam, then patiently find a way to get past defenders and turn a 3-yard play into a 30-yard play. In the third quarter with it 3rd and 8 from his team’s own 48, he was given the handoff on what looked like a give-up play, since you normally throw on third and long. He turned it into a 52-yard touchdown run.
Players like that prevent you from having to say “we didn’t make any first downs.” Because they find a way to make them.
There were many other things going on yesterday, like why Hendon Hooker didn’t start, or why the defense tackled with the same technique I use when wrestling Maggie the WonderBeagle, but that’s for another day.
I just know the best thing a coach can do for a team is put it in the best possible position to win when it takes the field for the opening kickoff through preparation and strategy. Joe Gibbs was a master of that in Washington and his teams would get excited when they were handed the game plan, believing this was the secret sauce that would lead to a win.
Yesterday in Chapel Hill, I’m not sure that happened.