If it’s possible to find both hope and discouragement in the same football game, I managed to do so watching Virginia Tech’s 22-21 loss to NC State last night.
In a season where it now seems like half of Hokie fans (mostly the younger ones) want to fire new coach Brent Pry, and the other half (the ones referred to in posts that start out with “OK, Boomer”) want to give him 7 years to turn things around, I’ve been looking for the one sign you tend to see when a new leader is about to get a turnaround going.
Which in the third quarter, I thought I saw.
That sign is one of a team believing in its leader, and that leader in turn believing in its team. It’s an overused expression coaches use all the time, and the sign I’m talking about is something you don’t see in media interviews and other off-the field activities, because to be honest, talk is cheap.
You instead see it in the play calling. Particularly as it relates to the offense.
Teams that believe in their talent take chances. They let a quarterback throw deep into tight windows and allow their receivers to make a play. They don’t create an environment where anyone is afraid to take a chance for fear of throwing an interception and it ending up creating a nice warm spot on the bench. They empower their players – within a scheme – to have the opportunity to do something extraordinary.
For more on this phenomenon, I refer you to the case of Hendon Hooker vs. SEC defenses as QB at Tennessee, circa fall 2022.
In the third quarter – after two quarters of stone-aged “let’s do what they’re expecting right into the strength of their defense” play-calling, that’s what the Hokies did. They rolled out Grant Wells, they had him taking deep shots that actually worked, and they went from being down 3-0 to leading 21-3.
“There is a noticeable increase in the energy of the players on the sideline” one friend texted me from Raleigh during the third quarter. And why wouldn’t there be? This was more than just scoring TDs to get ahead. This was an “I believe” moment that if you were a player, you couldn’t help but be excited about.
But then it ended. Right as the third period came to a close.
I don’t think it had anything to do with no longer believing. But it did have to do with a bunch of the same old undisciplined mistakes the team keeps making. These miscues put the Hokies in bad field position several times, and since they had an 18-point lead, I’m guessing the coaching staff decided playing safe and conservative was the better way to go.
Of course, as anyone who has followed any sport knows, playing not to lose is an almost guaranteed method to end up NOT winning.
The endless mistakes are the cause for my discouragement. These are issues you normally see in late August games, happening with the same frequency a few days before November. The fact they are not being dealt with harshly enough to correct them is starting to be a cause for concern for someone like me who always tries to see the positive side of Hokie athletics.
You can complain all you want to about lack of talent, lack of donations, lack of wi-fi or lack of just about anything else when it comes to why this team is not succeeding. But after 8 games, the inability to get a college-aged young man to not move before the ball is snapped should not be one of them.
It’s roughly similar to being the new boss at a company, you’re trying to be everybody’s friend, and certain employees just keep coming in an hour late no matter how many times you address it. At some point you – or a person the head guy empowers – needs to become a badass and have people running the stadium steps over and over again until they’re puking like it’s 5 AM the morning of New Year’s Day to drive home the point that this has to stop.
I keep reading on social media that this team has so little talent and that’s the reason they’re 2-6, yet I can make a case that if you eliminated all these mistakes and penalties, the team would be at least 4-4 with a win over a ranked team and four games left to play, giving them a shot at being bowl eligible.
Teams with no talent don’t explode for 21 points in a quarter on the road against a ranked team, showing there are seeds of better days in the debris of this season. Teams with little to no discipline, however, do squander winnable games and end up with a losing record when a winning season was attainable, something that may dissuade an athlete you really need in future years from coming to Blacksburg.
It’s like a text conversation I had with an old friend. He’s Mr. Sunshine when it comes to all his sports teams, and he finds positive things in the darkest of moments.
“I think we’re going to be fine,” he said. “But the most important day the rest of the year is going to be signing day.”
“I agree,” was my reply. “Then we can watch even BETTER players jump offsides.”
My friend is right, of course, and the Hokies will be fine. But they've got to solve this situation now.
Or one day, they won't be.