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It’s the day after another bad Virginia Tech loss. You’d think by now, I’d be getting really good at handling this sort of situation.
But yesterday’s loss really bothers me. This one showed me something I guess I’ve sort of known in the back of my mind, but the maroon and orange parts of my brain kept keeping it from rising to the surface.
I can’t ignore it any more.
It all centers around the state of the team in the third quarter of yesterday's game for the Hokies against Boston College. Virginia Tech played the first half with emotion, aggressiveness and momentum, and each good play seemed to feed that and create another good play. The team was confident, and they seemed to be having fun.
From the time they left the locker room at halftime, however, all of those elements were gone, specifically on offense. That's when the game for all intents and purposes was lost.
I'm not a guy who calls for people to be fired, as I don't know what was really called, what an athlete didn't execute, or what a quarterback did or didn't see when a play didn't work. I tend to judge those kinds of conversations as none of my business.
But I do tend to observe a team's emotional state in terms of confidence, body language, etc., and I do lay that on coaches. Yesterday's game reminded me a lot of how Joe Gibbs - who I believe was one of the greatest coaches/managers/motivators ever in the game - would have handled the situation.
Gibbs was a tireless student of film and tendencies of not only his opponent, but his own team. He'd run a play in a formation that always went to the left side of the field for 9 straight games, then when he needed it in the 10th, he would run the same players and formation and uncharacteristically had the pattern break off and go to the right so he could surprise the defense.
Jeff Bostic once said in a documentary on Gibbs that when the game plan was passed out each week, everyone would get excited because they knew they were going to win. Because Gibbs would stay at Redskins park until 4 AM every night and/or sleep on his sofa to come up with such a game plan, the Redskins were prepared for what they were going to face, and they knew they had a few wrinkles that would be a surprise the other team.
I've always found being prepared sparks confidence. In sales, if I train you to know all the details on one product, then give you five or six to sell, you'll always gravitate back to the one I trained you on. You're comfortable with it, there's no fear of looking like a fool if someone asks you a question, and you've had success with it.
Football plays are the same way for an offense or a defense. It's why Bud Foster is so good at what he does. He studies the heck out of the opponent, has prepared his team for different things that could happen, and his teams generally play with confidence because they believe they know what's coming. They may not always have the greatest talent (as injuries have dramatically affected his defense this year) but they do in most cases come to a game confident and prepared.
The offense played this way in the first half, which to me was a very positive sign. But when they came out and looked so flat in the third quarter, I would guess one of two things happened: Boston College made adjustments, and the offense was not prepared for them (BC stopped blitzing and just played its base defense in the third quarter), or Virginia Tech tried to respond by making adjustments of their own and the players were not prepared for those changes. They then made mistakes, which created doubt that led to more mistakes, and you could just see the momentum oozing out of the team. The sideline then compounded this by calling simpler and simpler plays, and BC shut them down as if they knew what was coming.
Whether you label the problem as play-calling or coaching, something certainly happened in that third quarter - again - that you'd have to suspect was self-inflicted. Long-time Hokie football fans have certainly seen this before (I'm convinced that in the Hokies’ two best seasons, one quarterback - Jim Druckenmiller - just got in the huddle and said "screw it, everybody go deep" and the other - Michael Vick - just took off and ran when things were confusing, regardless of the play). But by year 3 with this coaching staff, I was hoping for better.
It has caused me to admit something I really don’t want to be thinking: I like Justin Fuente. I think he’s a good man, I like the way he handles himself in the public eye, and he’s a very good cultural fit for the small-town world of Blacksburg, VA. He handled the transition from the Frank Beamer era to the Justin Fuente era with respect and dignity for all involved. He seems to be a classy guy.
But where I have been thinking this coaching staff could take Virginia Tech back to the top with a few good recruiting classes, I now have to admit that I'm just hoping. Frank wasn't the greatest X's and O's coach in the world, but he had a bond with his team where they believed what he said would work, and they'd break the huddle after the timeout and give it their all to make it happen whether it would work or not. It was one of the keys to his success.
This team doesn't seem to have that confidence or bond with its coaches on offense. Without changes in staff or approach, it probably never will.
I didn't really see that until yesterday.
Nobody is more disappointed than I am, just ask my wife, but I have been to the games and what I see on offense and defense is different. The offense just flat out fails to execute. The passing plays are there. Guys are open and they don't make the catch or Willis misses wide open receivers. The running game is a mystery and the play calling at time is puzzling.
On the defense, we have been more than decimated. At times, there are 8 redshirt or true freshmen out there. We lost what 8 or 9 starters from last year? We've had numerous injuries with some playing hurt every week. I think the defense is just overmatched right now. They don't have the physical tools to compete for a whole game. Bud and Charlie didn't lose it over the off season, but they are struggling with this group to be effective. With the exception of the GT debacle, I think they're the same good coaches and time and some JUCO help may help next year.
I think I can stand it if the bowl streak stops but the UVa streak ends, that will be tough to swallow.
Not going to a third-rate bowl game because you barely got to 6 wins isn't going to be that big a letdown. But as far as recruiting, state bragging rights, etc., the streak with your state rival ending would hurt a lot more....