The Hokies are wearing traditional home colors Maroon over white with maroon helmets for tomorrow night’s contest. Why in the world would I open a preview with that? Well, first it’s Orange Effect at the game. The crowd is encouraged to wear Orange, and the student government has been selling their Orange Effect Tee-Shirts since Spring. It’s going to be one of those “bleary” sorts of games where the color is so overpowering the camera struggles to adjust the exposure and the little computer inside goes nuts trying to adjust the white balance. In the old days you’d grab some sort of filter for the lens that would help reduce the effect. Orange can be that powerful.
Well, the numbers aren’t at hand, but the “Virginia Tech players wearing orange” phenom doesn’t strike me as being too, “lucky”, either. No one who knows better says that athletes aren’t anything but superstitious. We all remember the guy who wore the same unwashed socks to every game no matter how fierce the stink or thick the filth, because they were his “lucky socks”. It’s difficult to remember a clean really dominant game where the team was wearing orange jerseys; especially this season. That game is one for which this team will pay for the entire season, regardless of the final tally in January.
So, my guess is the VT Equipment guys boxed the orange stuff up and sent it back to Nike or burned it in some pit out by the quarry, while swinging a dead cat by the tail over their heads at midnight of a full moon while the pyre exhausted itself.
So, the crowd will be orange but the team will look pretty much like the home Hokies have looked since Bill Dooley brought us the Flying VT. The stripes are modern but the effect is old Home Team Hokie. Who knows? Maybe it will help. The Fuente Hokies could really use a break in the bad luck department with Georgia Tech, that’s for sure.
Let’s just toss the Beamer Era out the window for the rest of this piece. This is all about Justin Fuente, Brad Cornelsen, and Bud Foster. Bud might be a holdover from the Beamer Era, but he’s a “new and improved” Bud. So we restart him on road to trying to stop the Ramblin’ Wreck.
The 2016 contest featured old Beamer Era players on both sides of the ball with Jerod Evans at quarterback. What transpired was a Tech toss deferral (never a good idea against an option team) a quick offensive burst courtesy of some flat footed defensive non-steps, and then a final stiffening for a GT 3 points; that was answered by Virginia Tech’s repeated first half offensive goose-eggs. By the half, Georgia Tech’s 17-0 lead was too great a distance to make up. That game Georgia Tech dropped an entire 34 yards passing on us. They put 30 points up just by running their option and burning up clock. The Hokies eventually put up 20 points, but never controlled the game, and allowed Georgia Tech to put 13 more up in the 4th quarter as the defense just ran out of gas. Game one was marked by a perplexing lack of offense and attitude (which looked very similar to the Syracuse non-effective effort, BTW).
The 2017 game, on Georgia Tech’s turf, was an almost polar opposite. The Hokie Offense was moving the ball and even threatened to win the game on a final drive. (Cam Phillips was not the best receiver choice for that pattern, Eric Kumah would have been the better choice to go up and fight for the ball.) The Hokie defense had 14 points of serious technique malfunctions. Instead of grinding away Georgia Tech had difficulty moving the ball on the ground. The Hokie Defensive line had the Jackets pretty bottled up on the ground. So Paul Johnson sprung is nasty surprise, having his QB, Marshall, toss a long bomb “Ambush” seam pass that didn’t quite work. Well, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me, fool me three times and – no one has the response for that one that isn’t profane. Each time the Safety cheated up past the point of no return to provide extra coverage for the run, the sweep was faked and the ball sailed down the hash-marks for serious pain. On both of those plays the opportunities for sacking the QB where there but the surprise was so great the defenders sort of froze. Of course with the Safety on the back edge of the box and the receiver 10 yards behind him, it was all over if the pass was completed. GT did so two out of three times. The Offense, after being beaten up pretty badly the week before at Miami (with JJ’s suspected shoulder injury really hampering throws), just didn’t have enough left in the tank to score enough points to make up for the 14 points of defensive DUH.
One would hope that we go into tomorrow night with a well, that was then, this is now sort of attitude. The critical players on the defense are Vinny Mihota and Ricky Walker. Both of them have played Georgia Tech in both of those contests. They understand the cut blocking (actually chop blocking, but we’ll fight about that sort of stuff at another time) and the importance of blocking up the middle stopping the dive and the 2nd option on the slant. They also know that to hold the Georgia Tech running machine down the first and second levels of the defense must get 2 to 3 yards of penetration. The rest of the defense will have to cover the ambush, and limit the sweeps and pitches to minimum yardage.
What really needs to work is the Virginia Tech Offense. There are indications that the #LPD will probably have enough to stop the Georgia Tech Offense enough to keep the game in some sort of winnable condition. The critical factor will be the Ryan Willis led offense. Willis and Cornelsen will have to solve that odd sort of non-trust that we are detecting from the coaching staff. Willis has a very different personality than Jackson. From what we have seen, he has a very different emotional level from his head coach. Fuente is nearly unflappable, short of the occasional post victory tackle hug on Bud, Fuente is “Joe Cool”. There have been a couple of Willis choices in games that have been rumored (more actually) to garner more than a stiff rebuke from the Head Coach. Even if they might have worked, Willis is taking more risks than it seems Fuente is willing to accept. (A personal aside: I get to seeing why JJ has been so attractive to Fuente. JJ wasn’t much of a risk taker. Willis seems to be a bit more of a Gunslinger. I don’t think that Fuente is the gunslinger quarterback type of coach.) Whatever the formula the three of them have to work out, they need to get to something that works for the team. Willis is the guy for the remainder of the season, and Fuente needs to trust him.
Which brings me to the biggest issue that must happen or we are going to suffer something annoying and disappointing on Thursday night. The problem (or whatever euphemism you please) begins in the booth. For two press conferences that I have seen him, Damon Hazelton made his offensive coaches nuts. He “gaffed” (meaning accidentally told the truth) when he talked about how he was prepped to go into a game looking for “tight man coverage” and the opposing defense dropped into some form of mixed zone coverage. This seems like something relatively trivial, and it is to a player adjusting on the field. It is not trivial to the guy with the playbook and game plan up in the booth, out of communication with his players. There are pages and pages of plays designed to defeat zone coverage, especially when the team is blessed with big receivers willing to go up for the ball, shifty slots who can find creases in the seams, and big fast tight ends who can really catch and run. It seems to me that if you are confronted with a zone when you were expecting man, you’d toss the man pattern book away, and start calling zone defeating plays. If it starts working and the defense adjusts then you pull the first book out of the bottom of the priority list. Man coverage means a loaded box and a difficult time running the ball so you go deep, run edge stuff. Zone coverage means that you can run misdirection, counters, and play action with 3 second routes and high percentage pass plays under the zone in positive yardage.
That takes a good deal of flexibility because those are two completely different play book sets with two totally different game plans. We saw a repeated inability to adjust the offense, on the fly, throughout 2017. The Clemson game was not the only example, but it was the prime example admitted to by Justin Fuente. While it was head scratching; it was vaguely understandable. The 2017 season was saddled with a redshirt freshman QB and a big disappointment in losing your star starting QB. That event made the long term offensive plans go back to elementary school. The rest of it is all “rumor” that the Fuente/Cornelsen offense is tightly scripted for the first N – number of plays with only variations within concept trees allowed. If that is true, it explains why the completely different defenses have flummoxed the Hokie offense for two seasons. It also tells a great deal about some of the trust level with Willis. Jackson stuck to the script, and tossed the ball away when things looked bad (and by the end of 2017 Jackson was seeing stink everywhere). Willis is more willing to try to “fit something in” or “rescue a drive” by rolling the dice. Sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses. In neither case does it look like he pleases his coaches very much. Fuente just doesn’t take chances. That’s a problem. That sort of cautious attitude works when you have a 3 deep of 4 and 5 stars everywhere. It doesn’t win many big football games when you are playing mostly freshmen and sophomores.
Thursday night against Georgia Tech is all about risk management. Does the Virginia Tech coaching staff have the confidence enough to be daring? They might be pleasantly surprised. Right now, this cautious stuff is more self-inflicted mediocrity.
Virginia Tech can win this contest. Right now, Georgia Tech is 3-4 and 1-3 in the ACC. They have everything to play for, and I fully expect that Paul Johnson will be chop blocking, ambushing, going for it on 4th and anything less than 4 for the entire game. It’s the way that he rolls, and it’s the shape that he’s usually in when they face us.
The Hokies, on the other hand, are in a must win situation for every single game remaining on the schedule. Maybe Fuente needs to take a note from Paul Johnson and throw a bit of caution to the wind. The Hokies need to dominate on offense, drive the ball and score touchdowns. To do that we just can’t be predictable.