There is an old saying that goes something like “when they tell you who they are, believe them.”
If Virginia Tech’s football team ever told me that, I would believe them. Except after watching Saturday’s loss to N.C. State, it appears the Hokies have no idea who they really are.
Put aside their inconsistency the past month where on some days they look like Hokies of old, and on other days look like moldy bread that’s just old, this team truly has no identity. They think they do, but if you judge the level of play and the calls from the sideline, what they believe and what is reality seem to diverge.
I’ll guess that because of Hokie history with the strong defenses of Bud Foster and head coach Brent Pry’s background on the defensive side of the ball, they think part of their identity is tough defense. Saturday’s showing certainly exposed that as not being true.
They’ve had their moments this season that created great video highlights when the sun was shining and the opponent was struggling. But when the skies turned stormy and the opponent had a winning record, how the Hokies played against N.C. State was more the rule than the exception.
N.C. State has had its issues of late, going from one quarterback, to another, and back to the first QB, Brennan Armstrong. They’d averaged 18.25 points per game over the last four games, yet just over the midway point of the third quarter, they already had 35 points that came on a series of wide open receivers and Armstrong running at will.
Not exactly a steel curtain.
I’d argue instead of defense, the offense is now the Hokie identity, although only played in a particular style. Kyrone Drones is a dangerous quarterback when he’s on the move, he has a nice touch on the deep ball, and when he rolls out and forces a defense to guess at what option he’s going to choose, running backs Bhayshul Tuten and Malachi Thomas have taken advantage of the defensive indecision for big gains on the ground.
It’s not a CIA-type secret either. There’s a boatload of tape from previous games this season that show that. Yet Virginia Tech came out running a multiplex style movie theater game plan, where there were lots of screens but little to show for it. The screens didn’t work, and while some could say you do that to get the defense moving sideline to sideline to exploit a big run up the middle, they didn’t do that either.
For the game, Tuten had two carries. Thomas had one. That’s it. That’s the list. Three carries for the team’s best two running backs. Or any running back on the team roster, for that matter.
Somehow, Virginia Tech got the notion that screens and short passes would somehow work against an N.C. State defense featuring one of the nation’s best linebackers in Payton Wilson, who had 11 tackles Saturday, 8 of them solo. With a good QB and a host of equally good receivers, some might say you should throw deep or run reverses to loosen up that defense instead.
Down 14-0 and looking as disinterested as a fat man at an all-you-can-eat broccoli bar, the Hokies got a spark when one of those reverses was called, allowing Xayvion Turner-Bradshaw to go 47 yards untouched for a touchdown. His speed was so impressive, you couldn’t help but think “they need to come back to him later in the game.” They didn’t.
The Hokies then went back to the offense they are not, and managed to turn a 14-7 deficit into a 28-7 deficit before it appeared Tyler Bowen decided go with the “just throw it deep” offense that is becoming the Virginia Tech identity. By doing do, it only took two plays to cover 76 yards with Da’Quan Felton catching a 42-yard scoring pass from Drones.
You could make a case that had Pry & company started with that offensive strategy, the results would have been different. But the combination of more screens than a Best Buy Black Friday sale, total neglect for the running backs, and a passion that Richmond’s David Teel described as “a sense of urgency to seize a big moment (that) was strangely absent” all had me throwing my hands in the air and saying “I don’t understand this team.”
The team has shown flashes of improvement this season over last, as the 2022 team in Pry’s first season never even got to the point of having a big game to blow in November. They have some weapons, and with as good a job this year as last in obtaining more talent from the transfer portal, they are slowly but surely climbing the mountain.
But if they want to be more than just an average team that occasionally plays exciting football, they’ve got to figure out who they are and be that team instead of the team they hope to be. On their best days in 2023, they’ve been pretty good. On their other days when they’ve tried to be something they’re not, they’ve been pretty awful.
That’s all up to Pry and his coaches. They not only have to decide, they need to recruit players to that style and make everyone believe and show up each week with a sense of urgency to be that team.
I’m looking forward to the day they make that decision. But I won’t pay attention to the words describing who they are when that day comes.
Instead, I’ll be looking at the way they play on the field week in and week out to tell me.
Then I’ll believe it.