There are two more regular season games, and a bowl to play before the 2017 season wraps. Gee, I just stated the most obvious fact set of the last year, and it should be a great thing. Well, in many ways it is a good thing, but ‘great’, nozzomush… The reasons are pretty obvious as well, but there are more. First the two most glaring reasons for the finale let down; no Coastal Division race, and no shot at the ACC Championship. The ACC Championship game is all notched up and set. The very surprising Miami Hurricanes (surprising because their offense struggled for most of the season… but their defense was amazing) will face off against the “ho hum that was expected” Clemson Tigers for not only the ACC Championship but a shot at the final four in the FBS Select-a-bowl Champeenship. It is undoubtedly exciting for the Hurricane Shippers in the Sports Media, but they still have to get by Dabo Sweeny’s Pizza, Tractor, Googly eye, Chicken Leg offense. That game is one to watch just to see what sort of brawl develops on a cheap shot at the sideline.
The not so obvious reasons for the let down at the end of the Hokies’ 2017 effort are a scattering of “things” that have crept up and now present themselves as serious issues before we take the field against Pitt for Senior Night at Lane Stadium, and then head up to Scott Stadium for the annual Commonwealth Cup victory. Unfortunately, the first serious issue is that neither game is a guaranteed win, anymore.
Pitt is awful, if we had some sort of head of steam, going into Saturday, I’d say that we cruise, put up big points, pitch either a near shutout or shutout, and end the Senior class’s home record on a high note. The problem is that our offense, which spent the entire first half of the season as a work in progress, never progressed anywhere. Josh Jackson tried; I can say that with confidence. The young man hung out every ounce of effort that he had to give for every game that he played. It just didn’t work.
As I noted in the beginning of the season quarterback roster review, Josh Jackson was not going to be a big runner. For him to shine, it was going to be necessary to use running backs, and more classic pass plays. We saw some of that in the 2nd and 3rd quarters of several games, but for some reason, the coaching staff just would not implement an offensive scheme that complimented Jackson’s style of quarterback play. The first problem was the failure of the running game to develop much of anything substantial. We ran quite a bit most games, for not a whole lot of yards. Jackson was constantly challenged to convert longish difficult situation 3rd downs, and in those situations, the blocking just wasn’t good enough to keep a static pocket stable enough to allow Jackson to throw. I was thinking Tyrod Taylor back then, eventually it looked more like Sean Glennon.
The play design and selection during the first quarter of each game was so programmatic, predictable, and leaden that it was impossible to believe that any sort of offensive points would be put on the board before sometime in the 2nd quarter; but first only after a big break and a short field. Long drives just didn’t occur often. We could sustain things between the 25’s but as the offense neared the opposition’s end zone the field narrowed to a 20x30 yard box on the right hand side of the formation. Plays called beyond the first down marker didn’t happen much. When a pass was actually thrown it was often a low percentage fade pass to a covered receiver. There was rarely an effort to play on the left side of the formation, and even then if those sorts of counters did happen they occurred when the ball was on the left hash. The concept of using the wide side of the football field to assist in stretching out the defense and allowing for running and throwing lanes just didn’t seem to be part of the offensive play calling package.
Of course the Offense’s love for the right side of the field and right hash didn’t help Joey Slye’s accuracy much since he was routinely pushing the ball on kicks. For short field goals this wasn’t too bad, but for anything outside of 40 yards it was nearly impossible to do more than wince and hope for the ball to find the air between the poles.
Then there was this odd difficulty with Jackson and the chronic and annoying short passing game. There just never seemed to be an attempt to push the patterns out and beyond the sticks. I cannot count the number of attempts ‘at’ or short of the line of scrimmage when the need was for at least 3-5 positive yards. Some of that is receiver bound. Until Eric Kumah finally started getting regular snaps, we had no big receiver available to throw to.
Dalton Keene and Chris Cunningham were never a big part of the passing game this season. Most of their work looked to be the last chance blocking role instead of a tight end. Cunningham did the work from the line of scrimmage, and Keene did his work from H-Back, but they were almost always blockers and almost never receivers. That was a shame because both are capable of getting critical first down yardage on digs, crosses, and drags past the sticks in the middle of the field. Speaking of the middle of the field, since when does a coach not use the middle zone for getting hard yardage in critical situations? The “out” bias of the offense allowed defenses to ignore inside routes and concentrate their best coverage on those plays happening on the right side of the offensive formation near the line of scrimmage. It doesn’t take a defensive genius to figure out how to stop that sort of fixed operation.
Cam Phillips is a wonderful player, a solid leader, and a good unselfish teammate, but he’s SMALL, OK? Cam was put in the position of going up for balls that he had no hope of corralling and certainly over the season proved that jump balls were, more often than not, just not going to fall his way. Even when the Hokies scored that fluke long touchdown, Cam had the ball knocked away and Steven Peoples came up with the catch. On a brighter note, get the ball to Sean Savoy as often as possible. He’s going to have a great career as a Hokie as long as he stays healthy.
As to the running game, there aren’t too many words that can describe the bitter disappointment at the lack of imagination, and use of more effective players to get the ball moving. The insistence on pushing Jackson into the Jerod Evans role has been a serious error. He’s slow reacting, his reads were good in September, dropped off in early October, and almost always wrong in the last month. He keeps the ball when he should hand it off, and hands it off when he should keep it or pass it. That’s the regression that most people are thinking about, and I am not aware of how to cure that issue except replacing him with a fresher face with some better wheels. The questions that continue to come to mind are obvious. Where is Coleman Fox? He was good. Why aren’t Jalen Holsten and someone else in the backfield together to get some lead blocking going? Why do we keep running plays into piles of ineffective blocks when there is space and time to go around?
The final observation that I have is that we are hearing from sources, that Fuente is considering a “two Quarterback system” for the end of the season. Oh please, make this a big goof; a huge mistake, a clever diversion, something, but not the dreaded “two quarterback failure” that is guaranteed to happen when a coach is so disappointed and frustrated with his offense that he just chooses to do anything to break the logjam and that effort breaks the team.
If Coach Fuente has lost confidence in Josh Jackson to run the offense the way that he, Fuente, wants to run it, then put in A.J. Bush and leave it at that. Bush presents some issues. He’s not a particularly accurate passer – but since Fuente’s passing game looks more like Toss-Across than an actual down field game, I don’t think that Bush’s issues with minute-of-man targeting skills will hurt too much. At least he can run the Cheeto with confidence, and maybe his fresh legs, size, speed, and eyes will help. BUT!!! Make the move! Don’t equivocate! The biggest part of this Offense’s problem this season has been the inflexible game planning and play calling. Don’t double down on the error by being intransigent on what you are doing, and then indecisive on who does it.
Virginia Tech has its work cut out for it for three games. We have to find a way to defeat the Panthers, keep the suddenly up for grabs Commonwealth Cup, and then manage to win the bowl game, hopefully matched with an opponent that isn’t going to kill us like UCLA did in the Sun Bowl.
It’s time for the entire team to reach down and do something that it really hasn’t done this season; find a personality and go out to win the last three games.