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Virginia Tech Hokies fall 35-42 a Touchdown Short: Clemson Wins ACC

It was an exciting football game that showed everyone that Virginia Tech Football is back, and will not go away. We lost and that’s disappointing; but we left everything on the field and walked away knowing that fact.

ACC Championship - Clemson v Virginia Tech
Jerod Evans is going to be better in 2017 and that should scare lots of folks.
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Before I go one step further there has to be something said; we here at Gobbler Country (Roy, Jay, Josh, Bryan, and yours truly John) are so proud of the 2016 Hokies we could all split. Yes, a surprise victory in last night’s game would have been amazing and wonderful. Yes, the Sports analysts and pundits were correct about the final outcome. However, their near dismissive attitude, and their sort of back-handed derision was handed to them on a platter. None of them had the slightest clue that the Hokies were more than the sum of their couple of stumbles this season. We won the Coastal when five minutes before the start of the Virginia game, last week, there were multiple stories about how Carolina was going to comeback from their final game dire straits and win the Coastal. They expected that Tech was going to stumble, again, against UVA… or at least they were rooting hard for it. Well, there was this famous closing scene in the John Wayne move “Big Jake”. The big bad, played by Richard Boone, has just been plugged and his kidnapping plot foiled. Wounded and confused that his brilliance has been dropped in a chamber pot, he looks up at the huge man holding a Cold Peacemaker and asks; “[W]ho the hell are you?”

In reply the big man states plainly in a big voice; “Jacob McCandles”.

To which the dying villain bleats, “I thought you was dead.”

“Not hardly.” McCandles deadpans in reply.

I love that scene. That was us last night.

Who could have predicted that the ACC Championship game between the high powered Clemson Tigers and the upstart, disrespected, and underestimated Virginia Tech Hokies would turn out to be a bona fide shootout? The Hokies don’t have that sort of offense, remember; Special Teams, Defense, run the ball? That’s the Hokies. If you break the Hokie D, you run away, right? We’ll to repeat a phrase, “Not hardly!”

Look folks, if you want a detailed go into depth play by play breakdown of the game, this isn’t the place. You can get that on Yahoo Sports, including relevant social media comments and the like. Pick this and go there for that.

What I am here to do, on this early Sunday morning is go over some of the more interesting observations of the game, and start opening the door for the 2016 Season’s final curtain call, the Bowl bid situation (which is a sort of a mess right now courtesy of Penn State), we won’t get a booger, but more about that a bit later.

Well, here goes with the observations, and we’ll do this by quarter in order. The opening drive was brutal. There is just no sugar coating how bad the Defense was on Clemson’s march straight down the field and into the end zone. The drive was 9 plays in just over three minutes. Clemson was never seriously challenged, Watson hit every pass, there were no third downs and no one on the defense looked remotely like they knew where they were and what they were doing.

When Tech got the ball back after the kickoff, Tech promptly attained negative yards on four plays with one penalty (amounting to a 3 and out) there was one positive dinky-dunk pass to Sam Rogers for a blazing 2 yards. With that sort of start, the headaches began to pulse to life. We were seeing another “we don’t get it, do we?” start to the game.

Mitchell Ludwig’s punt was the only bright spot of the 1st quarter. At some point, he figured out how to connect with the ball and it rocketed downfield to flip the field and put Clemson on the 20. It seemed that maybe Foster figured something out as the defense stuffed the line and dropped the Wayne Gallman for a short gain of 2. Then something weird happened. Watson got some heavy pressure in his face and sailed the ball, completely uncatchable, high over everyone’s head… and Tech still drew a pass interference call on what was really an Offensive foul. The receiver grabbed and held the defender’s arms. The last time that I checked uncatchable and past the play negates anything going on between the players. Not only that, but the Offensive player doesn’t get to hold the defender any more than the reverse occurrence. Hokie fans started to get the inkling that maybe Clemson was not going to be allowed to lose the football game. The convenient 3rd down conversion by unjustified penalty would be a first half feature. Clemson scored 14 by referee grace.

Something exciting happened on the next series. It seems that the Fuente-Cornelsen offensive plan if non-attack was finally filed where it belonged. (We thought so, but we’ll see later that they found it in the third… They should have burned it.) After another soul crushing few plays and punt, someone somewhere, Fuente, Shibest, someone, called for some punt trickeration. Mitchell Ludwig faked a punt and got a “jumpshot” off to Cam Phillips, who promptly pulled it in and grabbed enough yardage for a first down. The play was reviewed. Mitchell and adrenaline had a bit too much mixing and the pass(?) was caught beyond the line of scrimmage, therefore making the coverage guys guilty of being illegally down field. Thankfully the review showed that the ball was tipped before the line of scrimmage was crossed so the coverage downfield was legal. Tech retained the ball, and after a Clemson blatant Defensive PI (too obvious to ignore) on Bucky Hodges on the way to a potential TD pass, Tech drove the ball down the field including a nice 20 or so yard pass to Isaiah Ford. Travon McMillian would punch the ball over the goal line, and suddenly the Tigers were going to run away with the game quite so fast. Suffice it to say that Tech lost the 1st quarter 14-7, which was the final difference in the ball game.

The second quarter was another undeserved penalty assisted drive (Like Clemson needed the Refs to help them, the Tigers are dangerous enough by themselves.) followed by an exchange of punts. Tech actually managed a solid stop in that exchange, and that stop would be rewarded by a pretty convincing Hokie touchdown drive. Tech went five plays in 2 minutes with Jerod Evans getting a measure of revenge with a bone crushing 11 yard touchdown run.

The Tech defense, again got a stop, with a minute and a two-thirds left on the clock, Tech had a chance to get down the field for something in the way of points. They were on the 26 and with some quality throws and good play calling might have been able to get at least 3 up on the board, but after an incomplete pass on 1st down (I won’t mention PI’s on the defense because, well, I won’t.) the air seemed to come out of the offense. Tech punted with so little time left, Clemson just let the clock expire on the half.

Tech was supposed to get the opening kickoff in the 3rd, but it might as well have been the reverse. For some strange reason, that original game plan was rescued from its much deserved oblivion. Tech set up for what looked to be three dinky dunk at the line of scrimmage plays that resulted in a tortured three and out and Evans looking like he had no idea of where he was and what he was doing.

The Hokie Defense, specifically Vinnie Mihota with the tip, and Andrew Motuapuaka with the pick, tried to rescue the bad opening, but again, even deep in Clemson territory, the Hokie offense looked like it was completely lost. Two straight incomplete passes and a puzzling sack ended up with Ludwig’s toe again. This time Clemson made Tech pay. They drove down the field mixing passes and runs by Gallman and Watson to drive nearly 90 for a touchdown. Which began to take the wind out of Hokie Nation. It was back to a 14 point deficit, which then after an interception of an inexplicably bad Evans pass dropped us back to a 21 point problem to solve.

I don’t know what happened, but the play series that should have been called to open the 3rd quarter suddenly appeared on the pages of the correct play book. Jerod Evans would hit Bucky Hodges for a beautiful deep strike for about 40 yards or so. Two plays later Travon McMillian swept around the corner to put the ball across the goal line for a 21 yard touchdown run.

Suddenly the other Hokies showed up on the field. The defense rose to the occasion and got a major stop, and Jerod Evans seemed to want to take personal revenge for the earlier insults. Tech opened the 4th quarter with a convincing 12 play 65 yard touchdown drive. The gap was narrowed to 14, again. The Hokies would not be put away.

Look the rest is pretty much history. Clemson would score one more. But Tech would keep up and eventually narrow the game to a 7 point margin, with the ball on the final drive in Tech’s possession and a chance to Tie or Win with a 2 point conversion. Tech drove the ball down the field with less than 3 minutes to go in the game. The ball ended up around the Clemson 20, but a field goal wasn’t going to make it this time. For whatever strange kismet that is football on field decision making, the Hokie O just stalled out. Evans would not commit to a throw, we would not call a timeout to get a better bead on what was going on, and all hopes died on 4th and 6 when Evans threw his second interception. Which would have had the same result if it was incomplete.

So, we were 6 yards and 7 points short of potentially tying. 8 Short of winning. (Frankly, if we had scored, I’d have gone for the 2 point conversion because we weren’t going to win OT.)

So that’s the story of the game without the bloody play by play knockdown. What’d we learn, though?

Let’s start with the offense first, this team is (h/t to Josh last evening) is Rocky Balboa in Rocky I. We need to figure out how to get to Rocky II, though. We are flawed, raw, and often make inexplicable mistakes. We are, however, not going away. We are here, in your face, and going to do our level best to beat you.

Second, Fuente and Cornelsen have to get Evans settled down into a multiple read discipline. He’s still setting up too short to react to the rush without ducking and running. He’s still only single reading and pulling it in, anyway. He’s still really raw, and it would have been nicer to have had him for the last two seasons to scrub off those rough edges. He’s a smart physical young man, and he’s going to be a huge factor in next season.

Third, the game plans are still not completely matching the talent and situation on the O side of things. We are still expecting to do things that we cannot do; power running, deep patterns. Over the next few seasons as Fuente builds his own offensive line, there will be an opportunity to run more. Right now, though this team moves the ball through the air on intermediate routes with the occasional short or long through to loosen the zone. Running is an Evans or RB influence affair where counters and delays are the key.

Fourth and lastly, we are still brutally inconsistent in both play effort and design from quarter to quarter, not just game to game. This team was capable of beating Clemson and put up 35 which normally beats 95% of the teams out there. That’s wonderful, but we still bogged down at the last critical drive, and I wonder if the coaches would have taken that last chance for a 2 point conversion and the win, instead of taking it to a hopeless overtime situation.

On the Defensive side of the ball, there just isn’t much to say except we were just over matched. Folks, there was effort, imagination, spot execution, and even some really nice convincing stops. There is just no way except absolute perfection at all levels to keep the Watson & Williams combination in more than modest check. I am surprised at the fact that Watson isn’t that good under pressure. And my impression that the defense needed to make him run and scramble to throw instead of letting him pick us apart came true. Yes he was going to gash us with his feet, but the defense was shutting down the passing until those long 3rd down conversions. Which for some inscrutable and indecipherable reason were not stopped (great receptions of mediocre to poor passes didn’t help us much). In both cases there should have been maximum blitz pressure put on Watson, including a weak side blitz instead of a blitz from the strong side which slowed it down just enough to allow Watson to get off a better pass. (I’d have sent the house.)

At some point we’ll have to look at the same things that we have had to look at and solve for years. The Virginia Tech defense is undersized. It cannot be over emphasized that we are paying for that lack of size by not being able to cover running quarterbacks with any consistency. We needed to make Deshaun Watson run last night, but we needed to contain him and limit those runs. We did some of it, but not enough. Until Bud Foster figures out how to cover dual threat QB’s we are going to suffer these sorts of losses. It’s just the reality of football. There are 11 players on the field, and if they are too small they are going to get pushed around along with having major problems making one on one stops.

The season isn’t over, and we have one more game and it will most probably be against a team that we have never faced before. This will be Justin Fuente’s first bowl game, as a Virginia Tech coach, so I am not going to ring our stunning bowl mediocrity around his neck; but we struggle on Christmas/New Year’s week. Coach Fuente needs to turn that around.

All in all a loss is a loss, and no one likes losing. We lost and it’s disappointing. We need to convert that disappointment into determination. Spring Practice is around the corner. The offense has lots of work to do to get Evans comfortable at this level and help him step up to the next level. He’s really got talent and deserves to win. Someone really needs to get in the ears, minds, and hearts of Ford and Hodges. Neither are ready for the NFL, regardless of the silly money and “Not For Long” promises being offered. Fuller wasn’t ready and paid for it this season, he’s struggling.

One more game for 2016, and we’ll get you that information as soon as it’s available. We have heard the potential bids: TaxSlayer, Russell Athletic (which is weird since we are a Nike Team), Cotton (though probably not). That news is for later and we’ll get it out as soon as the information comes available.

This season was great. Yes, there were some stumbles, but Hokie Nation has to be proud of our team. We have a chance at a 10 win season, the team performed far above where most people thought, and we won an ACC Coastal Championship when those same people thought three teams would finish ahead of us.

Great 2016 Hokies… THANK YOU! You are the best!