Well, that happened. It was probably bound to, and given the tone coming from more than a few people I spoke with at work and in my limited social life, expected. We got trounced by a peer. Not only that but David Cutcliffe saw fit to rub salt into the wounds by keeping his starters in, and scoring more points even as the chance for any rational comeback ended. Besides changing my mind about Cutcliffe’s level of class and sportsmanship; nothing else changes in my analysis.
Remember I spoke of the darker side of the 20th anniversary of the National Championship run? Well, this is it; unrealistic expectations. The “game” (meaning the business) of college football has changed immensely since 1999. The amount of money is astounding, and the big cash machines with their Conference Networks, money deals, and the huge attention to the NFL Draft have militated against the relatively amateur nature of the League in 1999. If you all didn’t notice, there were lots of “weird” games this weekend. Clemson nearly lost to Carolina. UVA was completely thrashed by Notre Dame, though the Hoos put up an interesting 1st half. The Irish looked like they just got tired of it, unlimbered the other arm, and then proceeded to pound the Cavaliers into the turf.
So this is the fire and fury that happens when the perfect storm, appears on the horizon as a puffy bank of clouds. Well the clouds aren’t so puffy, and the results are more than alarming; even for those of us willing to give Fuente the six year chance that we thought it was going to take to get the restoration done.
How does this program get off the bottom? Like all things that happen in stressful conditions, it’s going to depend greatly on who is in charge and how they operate. Currently the biggest problem is that the three necessary elements of a successful operation are all not moving in the same direction. Any operation involving human beings involves; planning, staffing, and execution. If any one of those elements is off, the operation begins to run poorly. If all three are out of kilter with each other, the entire enterprise collapses. Right now, all three are in serious trouble.
We have beaten this drum and will continue to beat it until someone sees or hears. Rule Number 1 of all planning – “No plan survives contact with the enemy. – von Moltke”. You can build the most intricate and elegant plan, even if it’s relatively simple (simple and elegant run in parallel for some of us) and still have the frictional elements of human action and random happenstance foul up the plan. Currently, the planning for winning football contests seems locked into a concrete filled bathtub. Regardless of the opponent, or the situation, the game plans always look like they are the same dozen or dozen and a half plays executed in exactly the same way and exactly the same progression. There seems to be no adjustment for frictional elements occurring within the plan. The running joke along the sideline has been; if at first the dive doesn’t work, run the dive again.
The playbook doesn’t look like it’s flexible enough to adjust to conditions on the fly. It certainly doesn’t have any level of sophistication to it. Example: It’s obvious that the desire to not have Ryan Willis injured has caused the removal of his routine execution of the Read/Option. This situation means that defenses don’t need to account for the running QB up the edge of the A gap, so they can concentrate on the running back. This situation also blows up the RPO, since it relies on the QB run as an option. If this is the case, then the Pistol formation and the shotgun snap are too slow for an effective execution of the traditional running game. Runs develop too slowly, and backs lose too much momentum getting through the line. The influence running game also requires the running back to “read” the line, and break away from the pile. That means a certain kind of back who can run with their heads up, make cuts, and accelerate out of them quickly. All of that is much easier from the ‘Power I’ formation.
Another example; is when the formation is a shotgun and all of the routes but one are short of the line to gain and the one is a nearly ridiculous low percentage throw. Plays like this, flanker screens, bubble screens, flair passes, and halfback screens all have their place, but can only be a small percentage. These are all plays that once doped out, and expected by the defense will result in bad things happening.
These are all plays pushed into an inflexible game plan that are executed regardless of appropriateness. There don’t seem to be alternate preparations for follow ups for good plays. We see big gainers repeatedly followed up with slowly executed runs up the middle. There is no “offense” to the offense. Strategically the plans look very reactive in nature. If this coaching staff wants to be successful it must stop allowing the opposition’s defense to dictate the play called.
The play book must be built to be fast, aggressive, and always on the attack. The Plans need to identify the weaknesses in each opponent’s personnel and play style, and attack those weaknesses. Friday, David Cutcliffe completely flipped his offense in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th quarters. He went from run most of the time, to a three dimensional 3-second execution passing scheme that picked on critical matchups. On one series they ran Chamarri Connor 50 yards down the field to break up a low percentage deep throw, and then immediately came back to a 3 second pattern right in front of him when he was winded and still recovering from the sprint. It was great planning adjustment, and eventually by the end of the game, Quentin Harris was either running or passing through and under the zones of exhausted defenders. Cutcliffe attacked all night, and did exactly what he wanted to do. That’s what flexible planning will do for you. Dictate to the opponent, don’t play his game, make him play yours.
Since 2015 this whole endeavor has been snake bitten; especially for the last three seasons. We aren’t going to talk quarterbacks or players playing - that’ll come in the Execution section. We are going to talk about Staff turnover. The first one was Fuente’s loss of his first assistant DC, Galen Scott. Scott looked to be lined up to replace Bud Foster after Foster’s anticipated short tenure on the staff was completed. We know the nature of the parting of Galen Scott and will not revisit it except to say that it had an obvious effect. The temporary nature of the Dixon hire was also interesting, and I will not repeat the rumors regarding that departure. The loss of receivers coach Holoman Wiggins to Alabama had several negative effects, one of which was that he was a very trusted part of the Fuente inner circle, and the shadow cast on the program from that move was obvious.
The out of the blue loss this year was Danielle Bartelstein. She left her Senior Director of Football Operations job for the CFB organization. This happened five days before the beginning of the season; and I am not even close to sure as to how “surprised” things were. The Twitter activity for the few days following, from the team, seems to indicate that she informed no one outside of her bosses what was going on. The organization was heavily invested in her from a PR perspective. It was also a major issue since her job was essentially running the day to day operations of the football team. Five days before the season starts, foop, she’s gone.
The operation hasn’t been completely smooth, since. The head coach really depends on those support staff positions. Coaches don’t have time for organizing events, scheduling hotels, transportation, facilities functions, and even team management. Losing someone that critical so soon before a pivotal season just militates against a smooth operation.
There are a few other staffing issues that Fuente faces, and that’s dealing with the reality that old friends are not necessarily good at what they are doing. There is also an issue that ties directly into planning and execution. It actually is the glue that holds all three elements together. The organization needs to be operationally flexible. This staff is not. In three prior seasons we have seen a tendency to have some sort of ideal mold for the parts of an ideal machine. That machine can never be built because the parts for it aren’t available. The coaching staff; however, continues to try to cram the personnel that it can get, into situations that may or may not actually work. Someone, somewhere on this staff needs to figure out that continuing to hammer square pegs into round holes will destroy the pegs, the holes, the hammer, and the hammerer.
This staff needs to take the personnel that they have, revamp the playbook to fit that personnel, and build flexible game plans that this assembly of human talent can execute.
Without honoring the “Firebirds”, Justin Fuente has his work cut out for him this season and offseason. He has to step up, and find a new Offensive Coordinator. The current situation has gone from problematic in 2017, to impossible in 2018, to completely tragic in 2019. He also needs to figure out how to find a high quality Defensive Coordinator who will build on some foundations, but revamp the defense for larger interior linemen, and a more traditional three linebacker configuration. Increasingly, offenses are running plays under the zone, executed in 3 to 3.5 seconds. Lightly sprung defensive backs are not ideal for covering big guys running 8-12 yard routes between the hashmarks. Both new coaches need to have serious recruiting chops; because the Hokies are going to lose more opportunities as they work this out.
I know, after Friday, the question begged is “WHAT FRICKING EXECUTION?” Friday, this team couldn’t execute a right turn in an empty parking lot. While some of it is on the players, it’s pretty certain that most of it is on the tactical intransigence of the game planning. Very little was working on Friday. Very little is working this season. We can’t win games by turning the ball over. Everyone knows that and the coaches harp on it repeatedly. Fixes don’t seem to stick. Someone needs to figure out why.
The game plan (I know what game plan - run up the middle, run up the middle, try a panic stricken throw?) is also weirdly herky jerky. There is no real rhythm to the offense. There is also no real attempt to use the entire field. A prime example of this is the tragically lame three play series in the 2nd quarter that ended up with Tech’s measly 3 points for the half. The with the ball on the left hash mark, on the 4 yard line, with a right handed QB who can run, and up to five capable receivers, the ball was run twice up the middle into a pile for no gain, and then run again on a slow developing sprint to the short side. There was no effort to make the defense defend the larger section of the field. There was no effort to string out the defense and allow for a run or pass choice by the QB. There wasn’t even an attempt as a play action fake and naked bootleg. The game turned on that play series. If Tech had scored (I don’t consider the FG a score, and as it turned out it was inconsequential.) the game was an entirely different affair.
So, the players are obviously not executing well. The problem is that they have very little, effective, to execute. That’s on the coaching staff and the game planners. That’s something that might be able to get some patching applied to this season; but ultimately that’s going to be for the 2019-2020 off-season. That’s a really sad thing to have to contemplate.
The End and the Beginning
This is the end. Yup, Friday evening ended the 2019 football season. Actually it ended with our loss to Boston College on August 31st. I said, back before that game, that IF Virginia Tech won it, the team will have turned the corner and it could be a really good season. Like many programs, the IF didn’t occur, and so we go to the ELSE condition. This team has not made the turn, and now each game is going to be a “from scratch” battle. The Hokies’ 2019 season is over. The 2020 season begins next week in Coral Gables.