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Gobbler Country Playbook: There’s Nothing Left in the Tank

Let’s look at what happens when there is just nothing left in the tank, and it’s early in the season. There is a familiar ring to this one, and we are going to talk about it a bit. It’s important for setting the stage and expectations for 2019.

This is an axiom based on observation of reality; Football is entertainment. Yes, it is a lot of things like organizational skill, organizational planning, personnel, facilities, transportation, equipment, event management, etc. The list is huge, but ultimately the entire pile of complicated stuff ends up in the intended feat of providing entertainment to an audience.

This means that the ultimate support mechanism for a football program is the willingness for the fan base to part with money to pay for the entertainment presented. There are several ‘revenue streams’ for this remuneration; kitsch (licensed products), boob tube (Television advertising dollars), Gate (stadium attendance), and booster club donations (behind the scenes and above board). There are other forms of revenue in the way of grants and other types of scholarships, but the items sited are the bulk of the revenues generated.

If the team isn’t playing well, it begins to lose audience. The loss of audience causes a loss of revenue at each segment of the income stream. Of course we have also discussed, many times, about the condition of a program and the stark second reality of college football; it takes money to win. Though not completely universal, (there have been low revenue teams that have bubbled up to the heights) it’s a pretty solid rule. So, how does this fall into the title premise, and the Playbook series?

Winning = Money = more Winning = more and more Money

That’s why.

Here’s the problem. How fast does that program death spiral accelerate to the point where any chance at reversal gets pointless? Let’s take the following example to heart, and go over what sorts of tactical and strategic actions might have made a difference, and might still make a difference.

You open the season away in your conference against a traditionally strong football team. Your team looks fresh, the defense is pumped and the opponent is overconfident. They fall off the rails and your strategic vision and reorganization of the playbook around your new offensive style looks like a total winner. Even though your offense was once predicated on a running Quarterback, you’ve shuffled the playbook and the play structure to complement his soft arm and slower feet. He’s careful, and patient, and seems to have the confidence of the offense. He’s also got you as a major fan. You win that game going away. It’s not a total blow out, but it is a defining moment.

The second game is against an old instate rival from the past. They aren’t in your league, but they are often tough, and certainly a good game to sustain the momentum of the heady opener. The formula for game one worked even better for game two. It was a classic blowout. BUT, something was odd. The Defense seemed to struggle a bit more than you expected. The opponent that you expected to keep to one score ended up with three and might have given up more if it wasn’t for the Offense being so effective.

Then the grumbling starts. The offseason losses of personnel and issues are really coming home to roost. The next game is going to be against a rival team that has traditionally given you fits, but this season they are struggling and that might give you an additional opportunity to figure out what’s bothering the defense, and maybe push the offense a bit harder. That door slams shut in a really program angering cancellation. A storm that closes the opponent’s campus causes them to prematurely cancel your game which is at home. The weather is variably rainy and moderately windy, but the conditions are playable. Not only does the opponent claim that they can’t travel to your stadium, but then they hop on transportation to head for nicer environs to practice. This leaves your program out in the cold, missing a critical game, and holding the bag for an accidental bye week. Bye weeks are nice in late October, but they are momentum killers in September. Everyone knows that. The opponent’s perceived double dealing on the whole thing, and their unilateral decision really sours the administrative part of the deal, too.

You are faced with a team in which small cabals of pre-transition players are beginning to show signs of dissatisfaction with their roles, the style of coaching, and even the other players on the team. No one is saying much, the HC keeps things buttoned up tight; but you are really beginning to wonder if the already strained Defense is showing some serious cracks, and some other soft spots. The Offense is still in good shape, but now it’s stalled on a ‘bye’ that it really didn’t need. The next game is projected to be a “cupcake”. A good portion of your team is heading to a part of the state that they grew up, and played their prep football.

Unbeknownst to most fans out there, you make a bit of a tactical error on the game prep side. Instead of getting the team on the busses in close proximity to the game, you head out a bit early. It allows them to visit friends, old neighbors, and fans. What you didn’t count on is it pulled the pin on a behavioral grenade in the defense. When game day comes, the offense comes out firing on all cylinders. Everything you call is working.

The problem is that the opponent’s offense doesn’t look like the one that your DC planned for. Their Quarterback looks like a carbon copy of Doug Flutie complete with beach ball passes; that are unfortunately connecting with ruthless accuracy. The defensive line can’t get to him, can’t contain him before he throws up another deadly balloon, and certainly isn’t getting any consistent pressure. The opponent can’t run, but Flutie Junior is killing you upstairs. You shuffle through your game plan trying to make something happen to burn clock on offense, but you have to keep pace with the opponent because this is looking more like a Big 12 scoring fest, and not a normal ACC game.

You’re frazzled, harried, and a bit nervous. It looks like your team could lose this game.

You Know this Story

Yes, this is the 2018 Virginia Tech Hokies. We are talking about tactics on the Offensive side of the ball, not defense so what happened? Notice I stopped the scenario just before JJ’s 2018 ending (and Virginia Tech career ending broken leg). Frankly that was of minimal impact in the actual game. Objectively a balanced team that scores 35 points should never lose a football game, period, end of story. Well, it’s not the end of the story because somewhere between the cancellation of the ECU football game, and the end of the first possession at ODU, the Hokie Defense fundamentally collapsed. We’ll talk about that in a future article, but for now, the tactical (and some strategic) realities of that collapse wrote the book for the remainder of the 2018 season.

Where’d Things Go Off the Rails?

The 2018 season will go down as a total team failure. Yes, failure. If it were a new business venture, the money people would have pulled support for 2018 before it even started. We’ve been through the ‘what happened’ litany several times but we need to go over it again for clarity:

  1. Personnel losses due to Eligibility exhaustion or surrender. The defense lost 2 critical Defensive Linemen, a star Linebacker to the draft, another star Linebacker to graduation, a star Safety to the draft, the number one Cornerback to graduation. If that weren’t enough they had behavioral issues that totally eviscerated what was left. A Strong Safety gets dismissed, afoul of the law, and a star dual threat Safety/Corner flunks out. Before the third game of the season, the Hokie Defense just didn’t exist. There were two or three quality starters in the mix. Young and inexperienced were inadequate descriptions; even combined was nowhere near the mark. The 2018 Hokie defense was a cobbled together high school defense. Reggie Walker, Reggie Floyd, and Divine Deablo (who was still battling injuries) are wonderful players and great team guys, but three experienced players do not a solid team make.
  2. Injuries. You will note that I didn’t mention other defensive linemen. We lost two more during the season, and one who just never recovered his form. We all know the Trevon Hill saga, and the dismissal after the ODU game – the controversy of which I contend preceded the team’s arrival in Norfolk, and only got worse. That was bad enough but then the team eventually lost Houshun Gaines to injury. Vinnie Mihota just never recovered his prior seasons’ form, the injuries and corrective surgery just presented too much of a barrier. The freshmen and sophomores were game, worked hard, and learned. That’s about all that could be expected because that’s what freshmen and sophomores are supposed to do. They just don’t do it on the playing field during live games. More about JJ’s break in a second, because that had a different effect.
  3. The coaching fandangle might or might not have contributed; but Galen Scott wasn’t a trivial presence in the locker room, and in the team rooms. His loss as a coach and under the circumstances presented in public had to have a negative effect on the related squads. It was ugly and I suspect very painful for both the coaching staff and the players.
  4. Coaching failures to adjust to changes in circumstance. Well not all coaches are guilty, here. Bud Foster had nothing to adjust with. He just had to learn to live with the fact that he was in total teacher mode. Nothing for the defense was going to be consistent or easy. For Bud, it was pretty cut and dried. The defense was going to struggle. The problem was that the offense just never really solidified behind the play concept change and different skill set of Ryan Willis. That failure to adjust wasn’t particularly new, either. Several games in 2016 and 2017 presented offensive adjustment challenges that were not met; Clemson, 2018 Notre Dame, BC, Pitt, and Miami where all winnable games at the half.

The Real Failure of 2018 was the Offensive Failure to Adjust to Reality

Each game the opponent did something different, a QB change, a play grouping change… something. Each time Tech would come out confused. Even ODU subbing in their backup Quarterback completely flummoxed the defense. But, the offense just never seemed to catch on that it was in a shootout and couldn’t waste plays. For whatever reason, Brad Cornelsen kept calling play groupings that created too little schedule yards, and only realized that he needed to turn up the pace when it became evident that ODU had flipped the scoring to their favor.

Realize that Cornelsen had spent the better part of the 2017 season, and the 2018 off season adjusting to Josh Jackson’s physical limitations. There would be some radical playbook and game plan differences between 2017 and 2018. What the substitution of Ryan Willis for JJ did not demonstrate was a willingness, or ability (not sure which), to put the JJ playbook on the shelf, and start with something else. There was also something that really gave pause. The game plans and tactical choices in the actual contests did not seem to take the defense’s struggles and weaknesses into account. That also wasn’t combined with what the offense was capable of sustaining. We didn’t have a power run game. This is a sad fact for nearly a decade, now.

So in the 2nd and 3rd quarters, why would the OC choose to try to burn up clock by running plays that kept putting the offense in third down and long yardage must pass situations? Why did the offense continually call slow developing running plays in the Red Zone that left double digits worth of points on the field? (I wish I knew.. it was really frustrating...)

What Hurt the Most?

Scripted bullheadedness doomed the Hokie offense in 2018. Tech would come out firing, drive the ball hard and score early. The follow on drives, instead of continuing to operate quickly, and pass the ball to gain yardage, would begin to bog down, and punt after ineffective short series. Of course then, behind and in a full panic, Tech would go into catch up mode where Ryan Willis and his corps of big strong receivers went out and saved a few games. Willis even proved that he could catch defenses flat-footed and put yards on the board with his feet.

In theory, this score first, control the clock, strategy works pretty well when your defense is good. You also must have a running game that can get first downs without putting the ball in the air. Tech had neither of those things in 2018. Right up until the Military Bowl, the Virginia Tech 2018 offense repeated that pattern. It eventually caught up with them on the final play of the game when there was no flag thrown for an obvious defensive pass interference penalty on Cincinnati, and the comeback luck ran dry in the chilly Annapolis rain.

The upshot of the entire episode is that the current line of Virginia Tech offensive strategy and tactics are too tracked, and inflexible. It never felt like Cornelsen trusted Ryan Willis enough to allow Willis to do what he does best; gun slinging. Yup, Willis reminds me of a young Brett Favre. He has a strong arm, confidence out the wazoo, and is willing to lay it all on the line without reserve to win the game. JJ was Chad Pennington – careful, cautious, with a broad knowledge of the game and a popgun arm.

The Most Obvious (and Missed) Solution

Ultimately the Hokies needed to ditch the 2017 and 2018 playbooks and go back to Jerod Evans’s setup for 2016. It just would have been a different season. The plays, game plans, and films all existed; the move could have been done. Would it have been seamless? No, but it would have been much better than the end result of not adjusting.

And that’s what I mean by “Nothing Left in the Tank”. It’s what happens when a coaching staff runs completely out of what it thinks are rational options, and just sits on what it is doing whether or not it works for the situation at hand. That’s a losing proposition, and a fundamental surrender. The team knows it, the fans know it, and the program eventually suffers because of it. The money begins to dry up. The fans lose interest. The talent doesn’t show up. Recruiting wanes and the program heads into mid-major limbo.

The reality of 2019 is that we face much of the same situation as 2018. Even our personnel hasn’t changed all that much. It couldn’t… with all of those true freshmen and sophomores playing in redshirt junior and senior positions.

Will this offensive coaching staff learn to make critical tactical adjustments? It hasn’t shown the ability to do it in three prior seasons. I fear it may be running out of time to learn to do so.

Next up, Defensive Tactics… and no I don’t have a title, yet. Roster reviews will be starting at the end of July.

GO HOKIES!!!!