There is a current beginning to flow in a large number of the impatient and short tempered of the Hokie fan base. My personal categories are: Boo Birds, Fire Birds, and Bye-Bye Birds. The Boo Birds are disappointed with everything that becomes difficult or a struggle. The Fire Birds seem to think that if anything goes wrong the first thing to do is fire someone, anyone. The Bye-Bye Birds are the people that just withdraw because “not winning is not fun”, and therefore they lose interest. They are rarely the bulk of the fan base, but they can make enough noise (or silence) to have an effect. It’s mostly negative, but they do have an effect. The reality is that these three groups often have very real issues with a struggling program. In the case of the Fuente Era Hokies there is something afoot in the coaching and team management world that seems to be off kilter. The realists among us all understand the nature of the transition period, but at the moment it would have been almost better to have had this season right off the bat in 2016. This is why, early on, we kept warning folks that the third year of transition is usually difficult, and often disappointing.
There are some issues that really need to be addressed; however. Even if it’s struggling, the program should be much more consistent than it currently is. The players are young and inexperienced, yes, that is totally true; but the staff gives off the vibe that they don’t trust the players, either. A case in point is the irrational attempt at a 55 yard field goal, when we needed 7 points, not 3, and there was a greater probability of picking up the first, than hitting that 3. Besides trust, there was also a strange sort of mania being exhibited. It’s 1st and ten and we need to drive the ball. A low percentage 30+ yard deep route is attempted, fails, and puts the team in must pass situations. Then there is the painful 4th and 4 or 5, and instead of running routes designed to get 6-8 and flooding the zone with multiple layers of receivers we run a low percentage deep route.
That sort of offensive decision making isn’t helpful in shootout situations. The modern offense/defense balance has been altered hard to favor high powered offense. Those sorts of decisions are difficult to understand.
On the defensive side of the ball, we seem to be stuck with base defense after base defense, when in stressed situations that call for some due aggression. We saw attempts to cover out in the ODU game instead of blowing blitz after blitz at their low experienced level quarterback. If a defense cannot cover, then the line and linebackers had better prevent the pass from getting out. There is the waft of inexperience when those big breakaways happen on a 3rd and long when we should get the stop but the players are missing assignments and tackles out on the edges and in the seams. The recent total scheme and technique failure against the triple-option is not even remotely explainable. The one on one techniques were wrong, the coverage was inappropriate once it was determined that the quarterback was not going to throw (and probably not capable of it, either). The “make them beat you with the pass” sort of mentality to stop the QB slant and sweep just never seemed to develop. Those sorts of adjustments on both sides of the ball just don’t look to be occurring. You can add that observation to most of last season as well.
So, what gives? The natural questions are; why is Cornelsen still calling the plays and why has Foster gone to a completely base defense? The subtext here is complex. Are there some misguided set of loyalties and biases that are interfering with effective planning and coaching? The last question is the toughest to consider fairly. Bowl or not, do we beat UVA this season?
There has to be some dawning reality that there is a serious disconnect somewhere in the Hokie leadership. We know that after a relatively disastrous debut season or two, Dabo Swinney started making coaching personnel moves. Now, with the Hokies we might be dealing with a couple of other issues, coaching losses, personnel losses, and experience level of players. That sort of stuff operates for a while, but now most of these players have several games worth of field time. The butterflies should be gone, and the playbooks should be a bit more complete in their possibilities.
There are three obvious setbacks that, given the performance on the field, should have been adjusted for; the loss of JJ, the lack of a real running game again, and the secondary’s difficulty with man coverage. There are just some really odd coaching decisions in play with regard to those conditions that make little complete sense and might need some fresh eyes in places.
I contend that the loss of Josh Jackson was no particular loss. To my old eyes, the big attraction that Jackson had over Ryan Willis was JJ’s on field demeanor. I have said this before; Fuente is a pretty button down kind of guy. He isn’t Mr. Panic... or Mr. High-energy put the game on my shoulders sort of guy. He’s what my father would call a “technician”. JJ was careful, calm, unflappable, willing to throw the ball away and live to play another series. He doesn’t have the physical passing skills but he also didn’t choose to put the ball where he wasn’t sure of the result. That’s Fuente, and evidently Cornelsen. Ryan Willis is everything else but. Though he seems to be unflappable, he’s a different kind. He’s aggressive (and maybe too aggressive at times). He can throw hard, and has the arm and eye enough to get the ball within catching range, most of the time. There have been some questionable placements, and some odd read choices, but for B rated quarterbacks, Willis is, on balance, a B+ where JJ struggled to be a solid B. Either way the offense is actually better under Willis this season than half of last season and the two games in 2018. There is just no evidence that either Fuente or Cornelsen TRUST that. It’s almost like they are resigned to the condition, and are just going to make do and hope that is enough to survive the season in good enough shape (whatever that shape is). That’s a difficult pill for a whole lot of us to take. Make changes, toss out the old ideas and get creative. Willis wants to run, let him run more. Willis is better in the intermediate route game to big receivers. Call those patterns and plays. There is absolutely nothing to lose at this stage of the season.
The same goes to the defense. Bud has had no answers for two games where the defense either got passed to death, or got run over like a chicken on a super highway. In neither case did he make meaningful adjustments to the base scheme. Oddly the answer was the same in both cases. Get to the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage. In the case of the pass... blitz from everywhere and anywhere. Force the ball to come out badly. Make the QB pull it in and run. In the case of the triple-option, that passivity and loose configuration was disaster. Nine men needed to be up in the box and in 100% aggressive mode wasn’t even a concept (or it didn’t seem that way).
On defense, move Belmar to Mike (I don’t care if he barely knows the job; he’s got the physical skills to make up for some of that). His job should be to spy the quarterback and that’s his primary mission in life. Let him line up in any gap that he feels like he can get to the opponent’s QB. This is critical for both Pitt and UVA - both teams are going to kill us with QB runs if this isn’t done. Put Hollifield in as the Backer and leave him there. Put in Vinny Mihota and let him work it out. Make the front line 3 tackles and an end. Run zone passing defenses - think of that Perkins to Zacchaeus connection that will murder us if you don’t. But most of all do something bold and different!
I do think that Fuente is going to have to find two coaches over the break. We need a new Offensive Coordinator. Cornelsen doesn’t have to be dismissed, but he’s better suited for being a QB coach, right now. We also need a new secondary coach. I like Nix, I think that Bud needs to step away from the linebackers and concentrate on developing this defense into something better. Nix can take the linebackers. The truth is that the current coaching configuration didn’t work, this season. That needs to be fixed more than anything else, right now.
The answer to the bowl eligibility issue isn’t completely clear. Georgia Tech is a unique situation with an offense that we obviously cannot handle. The remaining teams that we face are more traditional in their schemes. Right now, if pushed I’d have to say that our bowl streak is in serious jeopardy. That could change there are three games to be played between then and now.
A primary, if not THE primary rule, in determining a plan of action is to clearly define the objective. The situation facing the Hokies requires the characterization of two goals. The first is a short-term goal which is what the team should strive to achieve this season. The second goal is long-term which is what the team should do during the offseason to lay a foundation for success in years to come. To develop a sound strategy influencing factors must be identified and planned around. Hoping is not a valid path to success. Furthermore, particularly in the short-term, VT must realize the military mission planning adage, “the enemy gets a vote.” The Hokies must be flexible in the face of the threat’s actions.
Short-term goals cannot be multi-faceted or complex. There needs to be a specific accomplishment, clearly communicated, for which participating entities can focus effort. Since the GT loss the whirlwind of discussion, including from myself, has centered around the implications of the Hokie’s performance and the program’s bowl streak and consecutive victories against UVA. For me the latter could become part of the equation but, in my opinion, the objective should simply be achieving bowl eligibility. The VPI athletic department and coaching staff should adopt the goal of Virginia Tech earning six victories.
To increase VT’s likelihood of six victories a maximization of opportunity needs to occur. The athletic department must find an opponent to replace the canceled ECU match. Forget the optics and the finances. Guarantee a payout, to a program, that will play the Hokies the weekend of the ACC championship. In the off chance that VT stumbles into the conference championship game the university will more than make up the money lost in the payout. There are plenty of teams that would welcome a couple hundred thousand dollars to travel to Blacksburg and take a likely loss. There are multiple FCS foes that could be willing or maybe an FBS program like Akron that has been unable to find a 12th game after suffering their own game cancelation. The point is the athletic department needs to generate maximum opportunity for six wins. Nothing would do more in generating such opportunity than finding a replacement for ECU.
The Hokies’ remaining slate is fraught with danger. Every team currently scheduled can defeat VT. Pittsburgh and Boston College both have dynamic ground attacks. Miami is struggling with inconsistent QB play but retains the tools to frustrate the struggling VT defense. UVA’s Bryce Perkins is arguably the most dynamic offensive player the Hokies face this season. The defensive staff needs to pick their primary battle, game by game, and focus on that specific fight.
When weighing the currently scheduled threats, I believe BC and Miami represent the greatest opportunity for the Hokies to collect the two wins necessary to earn bowl eligibility. Boston College is largely dependent on the performance of A.J. Dillon. The Hokies defense must sell out to stop him and force the game into the hands of Anthony Brown. Miami finds itself in a similar position as the Hokies. Their star is falling during their head coach’s third season as they scrap with QB inconsistencies and a defense struggling with big-plays.
The two-headed rushing monster of Pitt’s Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall gives me great trepidation. Further compounding that rushing attack is the wild-card of V’Lique Carter. Carter is listed as a DB, but last week, against Duke, carried seven times for 147 yards and two TDs. It is away and the Panther running game is very dynamic. With wins over Duke and Syracuse and a close game against Notre Dame Pittsbrugh’s star is rising and I don’t agree with ESPN’s current FPI listing the Hokies as 60.3% favorites to win. I do not think VT should plan for a Pitt victory.
Virginia is one dimensional in that Bryce Perkins is the Cavalier offense. Barring an unforeseen variable that keeps Perkins off the field VT will struggle to contain the legitimate dual-threat QB. Rivalry games are always a wildcard though and if the Hokies can find a way to limit Perkins they may extend their streak over UVA.
Offensively the Hokies need to commit to Steven Peoples in the running game. In the passing game they absolutely must stop the all-or-nothing mentality. The Hokies are No. 28 when referencing yards per pass but No. 71 in completion percentage. Involve the tight ends more and create an intermediate passing game that can accommodate a third and five with a six-yard pass vice a deep bomb. The defense is struggling, and the offense must put together sustained drives that result in points.
The long-term strategy must include a change at offensive coordinator. Cornelson’s ability to develop QB talent is legitimate, and perhaps he can find a future at VT in that capacity. As many of you have heard on the live Facebook feeds, I simply do not believe Mr. Cornelson has adjusted to the demands of a Power Five offense. The plans are largely simple and fail to adjust. At the half, in all three losses, the Hokies were within one score of their opponent. They were then outscored 35-84.
The optimist in me says the Hokies can defeat all the remaining teams, but optimism is not something to build a plan for success around. The athletic department must schedule a 12th game and the coaching staff must build a plan, game-to-game, to take advantage of the specific opportunities unique to each opponent.
We observe all of that to say this. I would not fire a soul, at this point of the season, but I would do something radical for a staff that seems to operate by some sort of engraved script. Put an offensive assistant up in the booth. Put Cornelsen down on the field with the offense and his quarterback. Forget the scripted first 30 plays. Stop trying to run the ball up the middle on 1st down for 2 or 3 tiny measly yards. Spread it out and open it up. Go for the intermediate game. When running use influence, and the RPO/Read-Option, Willis wants to run, let him. Go back to the 2016 offense. Be bold. Some of the inconsistency is directly related to play calling from the booth. Open the throttle and go...
We put the final question to you.
What do you think happens with the Hokies and UVA?
This poll is closed
Tech figures out a way to win at least 2 games and then rolls out a stellar effort against the Hoos for a win.
Tech never manages to get it together, the offense continues to be inconsistent and the defense flumoxed; no bowl, no Commonwealth Cup.
Tech schedules a cupcake level makeup game and edges into bowl eligibility, after edging UVA in another tight game that is more of a shootout this season.
Tech and UVA go at it hammer and tongs with Tech bowl eligibility on the line for the UVA game and no makeup in the schedule. We drop it on another second half fade.
If you are thinking something else, please tell us in the comments. It’s a tough question this season. It really is.