It is a question asked about all new coaches.
It doesn’t involve a new coach winning. Conversely, it asks how a coach will react after a loss. Does he have his finger on the pulse of the team as to what buttons to push when it comes to fixing what’s broken? Getting more talent is a season-to-season thing, but can a new coach make the adjustments half to half or week to week to incrementally make his team better?
Where the answer is yes, those coaches usually end up being the good ones.
Brent Pry showed last night that he, indeed, is going to be one of the good ones.
In gaining his first win as a head coach, Pry didn’t dazzle or overwhelm anyone in Virginia Tech’s 27-10 over Boston College. But he showed an incredible attention to fundamentals, and specifically fixed what was broken last week in a surprising road loss to Old Dominion.
Last week three problem areas cost the Hokies in Pry’s coaching debut. The team committed 15 penalties for 106 yards, they turned the ball over 5 times (four via interception), and they made a huge special teams mistake that resulted in an ODU touchdown.
Against BC, special teams had no such mishaps. They only committed 5 penalties for 25 yards. Look up on the stat sheet where it says turnovers and you see one big fat ZERO.
Quite a change in only one week.
It appeared as if Pry and staff pared down the playbook this week and chose to run fewer plays, but ones the team had practiced over and over again and had more confidence in. It added a level of predictability that had some on social media already shouting for the offensive coordinator to be fired, but Pry was gambling that it would eliminate the penalties and turnovers, and maybe they’d break one or two long runs.
The Hokies also decided to give Connor Blumrick a bigger part in the offense, thinking this might provide quarterback Grant Wells a security blanket in the passing game. Last week quarterback and receivers were not on the same page, and Wells guessed wrong enough for there to be multiple interceptions. With Blumrick – a former quarterback who understood what Wells was seeing – those communication issues appeared to fade as the passing game wasn’t necessarily all that good, but it produced when it was needed.
Of course, you can enjoy the luxury of all these simplifications when you have a bedrock defense like the Hokie days of old. The defense played well last week, but Saturday night, the tackling was crisper (Dax Hollifield may have had his best game as a Hokie), the defensive line – particularly TyJuan Garbutt – harassed BC quarterback Phil Jurkovec into oblivion, and Lane Stadium felt a bit like a time capsule that transported everybody back to the 90s.
On the second play of the game, a hyped up crowd inebriated on a few minutes of jumping and singing Enter Sandman saw Armani Chatman intercept a Jurkovec pass at the BC 45 and return it to the 14. It took nine plays and two 4th down gambles, but the Hokies scored on a short run to go up 7-0.
The two 4th down plays seemed as if Pry decided he was going to send a message to the offense: He’s committed to the run and when the chips are down, he believed in the offense to get a yard when needed. All too often in the past, the Hokie offense has abandoned the run quickly, thrown three fades, then settled for a field goal while people in the stands again called for someone to be fired.
The Hokies never trailed. Pry’s gamble that the running game would be predictable and boring, but they might hit a big one paid off on Keshawn King’s 65-yard touchdown run. William Ross was outstanding as a kicker, drilling a 49-yarder and a 38-yarder with ease. Kaleb Smith caught a 43-yard pass with one hand while a BC defensive back interfered with him, then 8 plays later caught a 2-yard touchdown pass to make it 24-10.
It was far from an artistic masterpiece, but I’d argue that’s what made it so impressive. As people on social media shouted “It should have been 50-10,” I’d point out this is a team coming off a loss, without its top running back (Malachi Thomas) and would soon lose it’s next best when King left with an injury. The offensive line is a work in progress that’s going to take 4 or 5 games to feel comfortable together. The jury is still out on the quarterback, and no receiver has stepped up and become the main man downfield.
But despite all that, the Hokies led from start to finish. They rope-a-doped along, making plays when they had to, and when Boston College finally scored a touchdown, the Virginia Tech offense immediately answered with a 78-yard drive of their own. Pry stood on the sidelines with his arms crossed as if to say he didn’t need to take chances. He trusted his defense to make sure 27 points was enough.
It reminded me of the 1995 Hokies. They lost their first two games, and the offense struggled, scoring only 14 in the first game and zero in the second (it took them the first three games to score as many as the Hokies did last night). They forged an identity that showed a tough and resilient defense that manned the gates of the castle while the offense took a good 4 or 5 games to figure things out. Then it all came together and ended up with a berth in the Sugar Bowl.
This team doesn’t have anywhere near the talent the 1995 team had. But last night signaled the possible beginning of a new identity the team may be forging that is similar to the ’95 team: Tough defense, good-enough offense, getting better as a team each week. Pry knows that approach well since his first job in college coaching was as a graduate assistant on that ’95 team.
There will be more tough games and losses in the future as the program begins its rebuild. But last week after the loss to ODU, you could hear the whispers as people wondered “can this new guy get it done?”
Saturday night, the whispers were silenced.
Brent Pry answered that question with a resounding yes.