As is usual after a loss, the most important game is always the next one on the schedule.
For Virginia Tech, this is especially true.
The Hokies’ 32-29 loss to Notre Dame on Saturday served as a yet another heartbreaking loss. Tech’s defense battled exceptionally well for about 56 minutes and Braxton Burmeister gutted out a tough fourth quarter with one healthy shoulder.
But good teams find ways to win. Bad teams find ways to lose.
Notre Dame scored 11 points in the final four minutes, dashing the Hokies’ eight-point lead with 3:55 remaining. Burmeister had just loaded up the offense on his back and carried them 19 yards through a sea of defenders for a touchdown, giving Tech what should’ve been a cemented advantage.
Afterward, the pain and disappointment on Justin Fuente’s face was as present as ever. I’ve been fortunate to cover a lot of Fuente’s games in person; plenty of them were losses, yet I’ve never seen him as visibly disturbed as he was after Saturday’s loss.
“You walk into that locker room right now and you see those guys and they’re hugging, telling each other that they love each other, coaches are in there crying, and you see that and you realize that there’s a whole group of people that have given their all and there’s still more to give,” Fuente said.
Fuente continued in his postgame presser, opining on the struggles of bouncing back and how important it is to resist the temptation to let one failure defeat you again and again. It was the deepest I’ve ever seen Fuente dive into his players’ mindsets and his philosophy on coaching after losses. It was almost as if Fuente was one of those coaches in the locker room shedding tears for his players.
I’m not going to spend this column criticizing Fuente’s situational decision making, though it seemed like Fuente had plenty of second thoughts. Attempting the two-point conversion to take a three-point lead with 50 seconds left in the third quarter made sense, given Tech’s defensive prowess. Punting on fourth-and-one from your own 27 with 1:59 remaining also made sense, since a failed attempt would result in sure defeat.
Tech ended up losing anyway. But I don’t think criticism of Fuente’s decision making in those situations is warranted.
The Hokies are in a unique position. Virginia Tech is 3-2, though two of those wins came against far lesser opponents. Both losses came outside the conference, but those opponents represent Virginia Tech’s remaining schedule far more than Middle Tennessee and Richmond.
So at 3-2 with no landmark wins to their name — sorry, the victory over North Carolina seems rather middling at this point — Virginia Tech still controls their destiny in the chaotic Coastal.
And it starts this coming weekend against Pittsburgh.
Pitt is 4-1 with one solid victory, a 41-34 road win vs. Tennessee on Sept. 11. Since then, the Panthers have lost to Western Michigan and defeated New Hampshire and Georgia Tech.
The Panthers’ easy schedule to this point has put them in commanding position in the Coastal. Virginia has already lost two conference games, while the Tar Heels have lost three. Miami, considered another preseason contender, is 2-3 overall and 0-1 in the ACC.
Pitt has the keys to the Coastal right now. But they’re on the same footing with Virginia Tech, meaning this weekend’s game in Lane Stadium is quite possibly the most important game in Fuente’s tenure in Blacksburg.
Fuente’s detractors are at the gates and understandably so. Irritating losses to rival West Virginia and ranked Notre Dame haven’t sat well with folks and with his players’ hearts ripped out of their chest, Fuente must get his men to regroup.
Tech’s goals are still attainable.
It obviously won’t be easy — the Hokies’ defense has to figure some things out with Kenny Pickett coming to town. It gets worse on offense, where the Hokies have been downright offensive. Burmeister’s prognosis is unknown and Connor Blumrick was also knocked out of the game against the Irish.
Everything is working against Fuente and his Hokies this week. Pitt is coming off a bye and obliterated the Hokies by 34 in 2020.
A win on Saturday pushes the Hokies into sole possession of first place in the Coastal with tiebreakers over Carolina and Pitt. It’d be a shot of adrenaline for the entire Tech community, some of whom are ready to punt on the season.
Fuente can change the entire narrative with a win this week. And with his back against the wall, it’ll be one of the most difficult tasks of his coaching career. But if he and the Hokies overcome these challenges, it could be the most consequential win of Fuente’s tenure.
The most important game on the schedule is almost always the next one. But a loss this weekend might render the rest of the season a moot point.
So in this instance, Virginia Tech’s showdown with Pitt is as important as ever. And it could be the only game left on the schedule that has any meaning at all, should the Hokies lose.
It’s now or never.