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Virginia Tech Hokies Belk Bowl Good, Bad, and Ugly

No game that contentious should blow past without a thorough examination of what was good, bad, and then flat ugly about the effort. Tech filled out all three categories. Let’s take a look at the issues at hand in preparation for the massive changes coming in 2020.

NCAA Football: Belk Bowl-Virginia Tech vs Kentucky
McClease was good... really good...
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we’ve all had a little bit of time to cool off and think about the effort and results in the Belk Bowl, the first question to ask is “has the disappointment ablated any?”

There are going to be more than a few; “absolutely not’s”. In general, though it’s pretty obvious that most of Hokie Nation is sort of tired of football and glad the season is over. They are generally predisposed to have accepted the proposition that 2019 was a sort of “recovery” year, and anything over a .500 record is more than we expected before and early in the season.

The firebirds will never be content, so addressing their “issues” seems fairly pointless; other than to say that it’s not happening. And then add who, “better”, out there is going to perform your demanded miracle? Name the price. Name the period of time that you are going to be accepting of this cheap miracle. When you have something, maybe we’ll listen. There are always Fan Posts, and if it’s not profane or abusive will even give you a link to the main page.

The Event Horizon

So, let us set the stage for the Belk Bumble... I mean Bowl. The slightly over one month break did not help the Hokies, at all. Since when has the team ever been helped much with a bye week? Well, now a bye four weeks and a few days... After that we find out that there have been decisions taken on the personnel side of things that have some serious implications. Both of the Hokie starting Cornerbacks (who were going to be critical to dealing with limited coverage duties) were sidelined. Jermaine Waller was spotted over the holidays in a walking boot, and Caleb Farley is now headed to surgery for something going on related to the back spasms he developed in the latter stages of the season. That left Armani Chatman to lead the pass defense. Armani is a wonderful talent and will end up being a great contributor, but he’s not experienced enough to be the main shutdown Cornerback. So the defense started the game crippled, and ended it that way, too. (We will discuss how this sort of loss can cause serious problems with other parts of a particular squad, later in the year.)

There was another move that seemed sort of odd, and not completely well explained. Zachariah Hoyt was started at Center, and the Bryan Hudson didn’t start, nor played a tremendous amount. Both starting linemen on the right side and middle were mostly absent from the game lineup. There was some sort of discussion on the whys and wherefores from the coaching staff, but nothing there was particularly convincing. In general, the Hokie Offensive line was not the issue in the game. The Hokies scored more than enough points given the size and experience difference, to win a normal game.

The pregame “extra-curricular” activity was an unforgivable situation that should have resulted in Kentucky’s QB being benched by his own coach. It’s a poor reflection on sportsmanship that he wasn’t. That’s all that I have to say about that situation. So the event lead up to the game was just not very good.

The Good Stuff

It’s surprising that Tech seemed to come out of the chute with any amount of risk. However, the first “drive” really was more of a 30 yard penalty assisted trip to field goal range. Good on Brian Johnson for kicking a career (and NFL quality with those kinds of kicks) 54 yard field goal to open the scoring. Other than that, the first drive began to make me more than nervous about the team’s execution. Everything was out of sync.

So let’s talk about the good things that we saw, before we hit the problems. The above listed improved accuracy of Brian Johnson and his increasing leg strength is a positive. Joey Slye never really solved his accuracy issues (thankfully for his NFL career he seems to have done that). Having a reliable kicker for close games is really a positive roster position that we haven’t had in a while.

The Offensive line, even the backups, has come a long way. Their run blocking on the edges was much better, and their pass protection against a dangerous rush setup was more than adequate. Hendon Hooker stayed on his feet most of the game, there was only one sack recorded for Kentucky’s defense. The Hokies managed a solid effort in the running game averaging 6.6 yards per carry and a total of 219 yards on the ground. Of course it wasn’t simple dives and slants that got the job done. Tech made the yards on counters, quick read options, and jet sweeps.

Hendon Hooker is the Quarterback. If anyone had any doubts, Hooker tossed 2 touchdown strikes went 12 for 22, and had no interceptions. The distance was a modest 110 yards, but there were no mistakes, and given the need he seems quite capable of putting the offense on his shoulders. At this point in the team’s development, someone is going to need to find out something to do with Quincy Patterson to get him on the field and get him the ball, because unless Hooker runs into some sort of disaster no one is going to be able to unseat him from his starting role.

The running back situation is looking healthy for the next several seasons. Deshawn McClease has one more season with the Hokies, and if he keeps up the effort that he put on the field for the last few games he’s going to have an impact year. Keyshawn King is right behind him, only with 3 more seasons ahead of him. The list of recruits who have signed gives us the best pipeline of running backs that we’ve had in quite a while.

Now for the Bad Stuff

The defensive line is too small. Jerrod Hewitt played his rear-end off (5 solo tackles and 1 assist). He was inside, outside and everywhere. Unfortunately it seemed to be a solo act inside. Dashawn Crawford just had real difficulty making any sort of impact in the game. Maybe it was the incident in warmups, and maybe it was the off time but he was shoved around, had difficulty getting untangled from blocks, and was really not tracking the ball effectively. He ended up with 2 assists in the tackle column. The Defensive Ends were nearly invisible. Eli Adams and Emmanuel Belmar accounted for 4 tackles of which 2 were assists. Kentucky’s O Line is an SEC group. It’s big, and they block for running and Tech’s Defensive Line just got shoved around on the outside.

The Linebackers struggled. Though Rayshard Ashby and Alan Tisdale dominated the tackling with 8 solo tackles and 6 assists each the fact was that the tackles were in plus territory for Kentucky. The remainder of the defense is a chart of the wrong people getting tackles after the opponent gained too much. Dax Hollifield will have to figure out how to get control over his game. He struggled to maintain position, lost contain several times, and looked really frustrated. The defensive line’s inability to contain Lynn Bowden meant that the Linebackers were going to need to get to him early and wrap up the tackles. That just didn’t happen enough.

The Defensive Backs (Safeties and Cornerbacks) played hard, but the without having the best Corners on the field, Armani Chatman did the best that he could. The Kentucky passing game was nothing to write home about, but it did execute the final pass play that completely surprised the defensive backs and left Chatman’s island before he could get past the palm tree. Overall he did a good job, but his inexperience meant some run coverage packages just weren’t there. The issue was the injury impact of Caleb Farley’s back spasms and an unknown leg issue with Jermaine Waller will always haunt the memories of this game.

The Wide receivers were suffering from a combination of rusty timing, and early board hands. The chance to go up 7-0 in the 1st quarter was lost on dropped passes. The receiving did improve by the 2nd and 3rd quarters, but then was made fairly irrelevant by inscrutable play calling in the 4th. I will put in a great word for Messrs. James Mitchell and Dalton Keene (big TD Squeeze). Mitchell led the receptions chart with 3 for 36 yards. All in all though, there were 7 receivers who made at least a catch or two. The problem is that the wideouts really didn’t play a huge role in volume or distance. Tech never managed to get a rhythmic flow going on offense, even though they managed 30 points.

We’ll put one other thing in the ‘bad’ column. The officiating was actually really bad. It’s not like we didn’t benefit from calls, because we did. The problem is that as the game wore on, and the situation became more emotional and difficult the officials lost track of what was going on with the game play, and the fumble Alan Tisdale forced at the end of the game on the last drive, was never recognized. Not only was there the confusion between the officials; they never resolved it with an obvious replay. What should have been a fumble was waved off with a nonexistent whistle and any consideration of Tech calling a timeout to get them to fix their error was waved off by the official. That’s bad. It’s unfortunate, and it won’t be solved anytime soon because it keeps happening.

The Ugly is an Ogre that is not an Onion

At some point, someone on the coaching staff …. Cough… cough… harrumph… cough… is going to swallow their “I am the god tyrant” attitude, and admit that the Offensive game planning and play calling is inconsistent, often ineffective, and lacks the required flexibility to take advantage of the talent at hand. We were, again, treated to bold play calling to get to a certain point on the field, or a score to get the lead, then followed up by unimaginative, timid attempts that smack of a coach who only sees execution as the problem, not what’s being executed. It’s a self-evident condition. When Cornelsen is behind, he’s bold. When he has so much as a one point lead, he calls plays “not to lose”. The Virginia Tech offense is, as it currently is operated, UGLY. If these tendencies aren’t corrected in the off-season; next season’s effort, no matter how much better the players are, will be much the same as 2019.

The Virginia Tech offensive effort by the players was sterling. The understanding of what sort of game plan and play calling was necessary to grab a W was pure lead. It is simple; Virginia Tech knew that the defense was going to be pushed around and Lynn Bowden was going to be nearly impossible to stop. The Defensive tactic then needed to be to slow him down and make it take a long time for him to score. Since the Offense has had absolutely no luck all season playing “Prevent” by running conservative inside plays to burn clock and slowly score points, the answer was to go out and score points as fast and as often as possible. That meant there was no excuse for failing to go for the first down on 4th and 2 inside the Kentucky 5. That play alone meant the real difference in the football game. In reality there is a direct link between those timid choices and ineffective play calling set up both 3rd down and short in the red zone situations.

Both of those situations required the boldness of going for the 1st down and/or touchdown and not settling for the field goals. Until this coaching staff can take those kinds of decisions, this team will continue to lose close games. Tech should have won this game; but then we should have won both the Notre Dame and UVA games, too. All were the exact same scenario. If it’s fool me once, shame on you, and fool me twice, shame on me... what’s fool me a third time?

We’ll have a podcast up, early next week, to go over this. It’s going to be a free-for-all that will include Joshua and Jawhar. We hope to get it recorded either Saturday or Sunday. More analysis to come, I assure you.

Basketball awaits. Tech travels to Hooville January 4th. The Hoos are beatable this season, time to take both games.