I’ve had the night to think about yesterday’s game between Louisville and Virginia Tech, and the cold light of Sunday morning hasn’t changed my initial opinion.
This Hokie team – for some reason I can’t and don’t understand – did not look ready to play.
It’s not because of not winning. I’ve seen far more talented Virginia Tech teams go out on the road and lay eggs bigger than what happened Saturday. Some days you have it and the bounces go your way, and some days you don’t.
It was more the team’s demeanor when they came out of the locker room. Improvement in a rebuilding program usually isn’t linear, with two steps going forward followed by one step back is not uncommon. But in the last three games for the Hokies, as I pointed out in this story earlier in the week, they’ve shown promising signs of chemistry, players pushing each other, and an atmosphere displaying a bit more fight in the dog that was in the fight.
Yesterday I didn’t see much of that. Yeah, it was a road game, and the Hokies have struggled with these, but pics on social media posted in the first quarter showed the upper deck in Louisville half empty. It certainly wasn’t what you’d call an intimidating atmosphere. And yes, Louisville has some good players, but they’re not a modern version of the ’85 Chicago Bears.
Did the Hokies have as much talent as Louisville yesterday? Maybe not, but Virginia Tech has shown they do have some talent at key positions, so you can’t say the Hokies came to a gunfight with no bullets.
Instead, Saturday may have showed that maybe that talent wasn’t as prepared as it possibly could have been.
I mean, it doesn’t matter how talented the man on the other side of the line is for you to not jump offsides or move before the snap. Just takes moderately average short-term memory to retain the snap count and not move before the quarterback says it. That can be done with a little focus and mental discipline, regardless of whether the defensive linemen is a high schooler or an All-American.
Combine that focus with emotion and it can get better. The last few weeks, the team has come out breathing a little fire. Maybe it was jumping around to Enter Sandman, or maybe it was the home crowd keeping them amped. But I’m pretty sure in all the team meetings and game-planning during the week, there was not a situation discussed that allowed for 3 Louisville defenders to sprint untouched to the quarterback on the game’s VERY FIRST PLAY.
I’d think a dog with a note in his mouth could at least get in the way of one of those black jerseys. To not be prepared on the very first play from scrimmage for such antics does cause one to question exactly how focused and prepared the team was.
Maybe the previous three opponents were so predictable that the coaching staff didn’t have to work that hard to come up with a game plan, and Louisville was the first opponent in a while who disguised things to confuse the Hokies. When the other team’s running backs don’t even draw contact until 10 yards down the field, that’s usually not just the other team having superior talent. That’s the other team doing something your club didn’t expect.
The offensive magic the likes of Kyron Drones, Bhayshul Tuten, Malachi Thomas, Jaylin Lane Da’Quan Felton and Stephen Gosnell conjured the last three weeks just wasn’t there Saturday. It wasn’t because overnight someone put kryptonite in their hotel rooms and they lost most of their ability, but more because the offense ran a half-step slow and it seemed on-field decisions were made in something more akin to slow motion than real time.
If you watched the Alabama-LSU game last night, for example, the difference was stark. Alabama QB Jalen Milroe seemed very well-prepared for everything thrown at him and made his decisions to throw or run (oftentimes while on the run himself) at near light-speed compared to Drones, because he seemed to know exactly what to do when he saw LSU’s defense lined up a certain way. Drones, conversely, tended to string plays out for longer periods of time hoping something would break open.
Early in the year after a similar performance, I’d have just shrugged my shoulders and thought the Hokies just don’t have the horses, and there are many drawing that same conclusion this morning.
But I no longer accept that. This team has shown me it has some talent and can be good. It’s shown me it has coaches who can make adjustments and make play calls to fit the right situations. It’s shown me when properly fired up, they can make stops on defense and big plays on offense when they have to.
But they can’t go out next week using a majority of this week’s game plan, and not be prepared for new wrinkles they might be facing. This is particularly true with road games, which are more difficult because players are thrown out of their routine. They don’t sleep in their own beds, they don’t go to their own facilities, everything is different. Mental discipline is crucial. It’s why pro teams prepare for an opponent to the point of scripting the first 20 plays they expect to see; they practice being prepared for curveballs thrown their way…so three opposing linemen don’t sprint through untouched on the game’s first play like the running of the bulls at Pamplona.
At one point, because the team seemed to emotionally be going back into its shell, I just wanted to see an assistant go all Bud Foster and break a whiteboard on the sidelines just to show some emotion and frustration. Or a player yelling encouragement in the huddle to get people going. Football’s not a job, it’s an adventure, and you need to play it at a high emotional level.
That didn’t happen, however. I was hoping for habanero peppers after the slow start, but what I got was cream of wheat.
All the noise about playing for the ACC Championship all week was just that – noise – and the loss won’t make or break the season. What mattered was that win or lose, the Hokies came out and made it a fight with Louisville, showing the team was continuing to grow, improve and moving in the right direction.
For whatever reason, they didn’t Saturday.
One day later, it’s still something I just don’t understand.