Alright, time to get over the woozies and pain from Saturday and go over some of the performances for the weekend. We saw Bryan’s Five Things article, and his observations are really hard to argue with. So, it’s time to dig deeper and look at each individual unit performance and what might need to be done to address the issues that bubbled up this weekend. Losses are tough to take and given the “never lose” or be ruined nature of FBS college play, leaning something is important for long term program health. We’ll take this by unit in no particular order.
Defense in General – C+ Running Game/B+ Passing Game – Aggregate score: B
While many Hokies are looking at the ‘L’ and concentrating on spreading that around the unit’s teams are more complex than just assigning one grade of ‘F’ to a losing effort. One day this season will, again, address the need for real conferences and playoffs to help ablate the problem of the ‘must win every game’ situation, the reality is that evaluation criteria is the current perception of Division 1 FBS. The defense held a relatively high-powered, talented offense to 23 points. It made adjustments at the half, and basically shutdown Wake’s balanced attack in the 3rd and 4th quarters. There were some issues and some serious personnel discipline problems, but the Defense played an above average game and held the score to a beatable total.
Defensive Line – C- Running Game/B+ Passing-Pass Rush
The defensive line struggled with the run in the 1st half, and the long drive that ate up more than half the 2nd quarter that contained three 4th down and short conversions is testimony as to how difficult it was for the Hokies to stop the Demon Deacons on the ground. There was one break away run in the game, but their running attack chopped us up on a schedule-plus (Beal-Smith averaged 9.9 yards an attempt for the game) that burned both clock and field. Tech was much better in the 2nd half, but the run stops were still problematic. The D-Line part of the passing game is getting to the quarterback and pressuring him into sacks at the best, and hurried inaccurate throws at the worst. Wake’s Hartman has good receivers and an underrated arm. The Defensive line did a good job of pressuring him, though the unfair targeting call on Jerrod Hewitt seemed to cause them to pull up and not go full tilt to finish near the end of their rushes.
Linebackers – B- Run, B Pass
Look, when the opposition is basing their offense off of schedule 4 to 5-yard runs, the linebackers are making tackles where they normally make tackles. Ideally the run is stopped at or slightly behind the line of scrimmage. There were few true break-away runs, and Wake’s passing game was held in check (Though as Bryan observed, when you are burning tons of clock running 5+ yards at a clip, why pass?)
Secondary – B effort for mop up and pass coverage.
The secondary ended up doing a relatively decent job keeping everything in front of them, and not allowing quick strike long passes, or break away runs to get to the house, but the effort was a big hampered by the normal issues that happen when you must defend a balanced offense. Loading the box without a heavy-duty pass rush is risky, and trying to cover mid field when the offense is chopping you up 4 to 5 yards a run on the ground ends up being more of an exercise in chasing the tide with a broom. Stopping ball carriers in the secondary means that you’ve let the other team into the secondary. It’s a mixed bag evaluation.
Now for the tough part of this piece. The question for this game is simple enough. “Where was the offense?” Let’s look at the top three stipulations that had to have been on the board if there was any sort of game planning going on in the Coaches’ Room.
- Wake Forest’s defense was good, but not excellent. Its defensive line was its weakness and its secondary only par. It could be run against, and passing was possible.
- Wake was likely to key on Khalil Herbert. Their players would be amped up to stop 21, and they would load the box to keep him from being a significant part of the game.
- Their Defensive coordinator was going to notice Tech’s lack of an intermediate passing attack.
So, in none of those cases, did the Hokie Offense do much to respond to the probable realities (that Bryan and I discussed in the previews) of what Wake Forest was going to try to do to our offense.
Offense – In General: Run Game – B- / Passing Game – F - Aggregate Score: D-
No one is going to rationally make excuses for the offensive performance in a game that left 19 points on the field (3 stalled drives for field goals, and 1 completely missed Touchdown drive due to an interception). Any 2 of the stalled drives for -4 points would have netted a win. Tech’s ‘Red Zone Efficiency’ either went to its collective head and mesmerized it, or Brad Cornelsen lost the other two pages of his playbook. Take your pick as to what the reason was, the Hokies could not finish drives on Saturday. It was shades of 2017 and 2018 on offense. In general, the Hokies ended up with a disastrous combination of poor game planning, nonexistent offensive adjustments, and poor execution on the field. No Offense registering a D- as an aggregate score is going to win a football game.
Running Backs: B+
Hendon Hooker’s best performance was as a running back. He actually gained 111 yards on 17 attempts but a couple of sacks dropped his net to 98 yards. That was a respectable day on the ground. Khalil Herbert was actually running well. He gained 66 yards on 14 attempts with only a 2-yard loss. That’s 4.6 yards a carry. Raheem Blackshear actually gained 48 yards on 11 attempts, but his net was 34 because of a few plays that developed too slowly thus allowing Wake Forest’s swarming defense to catch up. The 43-attempt total is a pathetic level, and one of those was Oscar Bradburn’s wonderful punt fake for 14 yards and a critical first down. Any coaching approach worth its salt is going to work harder to get its principal offensive weapons united with the ball behind some blocking. Hendon Hooker’s passing problems were another matter, but his legs were fine. The 7-point differential in the game, the obvious fact that fast developing and countering runs were working were more than enough reasons to stuck with the run game. They should have just been smarter about calling better plays, given the Wake Forest defensive configuration and over aggressiveness.
When the ball was remotely close to being catchable, the receiver corps was doing its job quite effectively. Tre Turner and James Mitchell led the pack, with 5 and 3 receptions each. Mitchell had a touchdown cold, but the ball was thrown to the wrong location and spoiled the try. The total ended up being a respectable yardage effort of 223, but there were other issues that will be wrapping up the offense section.
Offensive Line: Pass Blocking - B / Run Blocking – B-: Aggregate: B-
The Offensive Line had its struggles, and allowed three sacks, but our defensive managed three as well. There were at least 2 of those sacks that were coverage sacks due to inadequate route packages being assigned to the play. The run blocking was a bit on the shaky side, sometimes; but as the game wore on the Hokie Offensive line was beginning to control the line of scrimmage and the deployment of a smarter run game might have made a difference, especially in the 3rd and 4th quarters.
Quarterback: Run – A / Pass – F
When do you ever see me throw a flag? It’s especially painful when it’s on a quarterback that a really, really like. Hendon Hooker’s run game was excellent. He actually ran for over 100 yards, and perhaps if that reality, combined with the obvious issues that he was having throwing the ball, should have resulted in more of a running situation with a simpler faster developing play selection. We’ll talk about this in the coaching section, but for now, Hendon Hooker just seemed to have his “bad” day. Most people get them, and the pressures on players to be perfect to eventually pile up on them. From an observational front, Hooker’s passes were often sailing high, and his target area selection was nearly indifferent. Two of his interceptions were what I call “dead” picks. These are when the pass is thrown to absolutely nobody wearing the correct jersey. The tipped pick was mostly Hendon’s fault, too because it was thrown too high for Kaleb Smith to grab cleanly or knock down. Tipped balls in the secondary are always disasters in the making. I did notice some serious footwork issues, along with some fundamental throwing motion problems that would cause balls to sail high or off target. Hendon’s feet never seemed to settle under him, and he rarely rocked forward and rotated his hips into his throws. It didn’t help that once the problems began to show. There didn’t seem to be much help for him in play calling (simplifying reads, picking up the pace of the passing game, and switching out to more effective runs). Hooker was struggling and there just didn’t look like there was much in the way of up close and personal help coming from his coaches.
Special Teams: Punts - A / Field Goals - C+ / Kickoffs - A-: Aggregate B+/A-
There wasn’t much to complain about except for Brian Johnson’s two missed Field Goals, but frankly they were long ones, and any alignment or timing issues could cause those attempts to fail. I’d have liked to have seen them hit, they’d have gotten us to within a point, but they weren’t the difference in the game. Oscar Bradburn’s day punting was good, and his fake was flawless. The kickoffs have become routine and the coverage was good when there wasn’t a touchback. There were no fumbles on the receiving teams, and no big headaches were caused. There was one completely weird penalty called on the onside kick near the end of the game. Catch interference is not possible since the ball hit the ground and bounced up, it is a “live” ball and there are no “fair” catches. The terrible officiating crew just made that rule up.
Coaching: Defense - B- / Offense - F
Let’s start with the good and hopeful. Though the defense was almost ineffective on the ground in the first half (no one is going to excuse that long drive), it never managed to give up. The coaching staff dealt with the issues, made some internal adjustments, and kept the team from losing its nerve once Hewitt was ejected. (The targeting call was terrible, Hewitt was leading the tackle with his arms, not his head, and the contact was incidental. It was a hard-clean hit, and Hartman was back in a play later. The targeting rule is poor, it’s application arbitrary, and its punishments ridiculous.) Hewitt’s over-reaction was equally bad, though, and that should be remedied in practice. That could have had a bad effect on any team, but the Hokies rallied, held the Demon Deacons to 3 points, and made serious adjustments at the half. That’s to the credit of the coaching staff. The poor officiating can combine with ill feelings and make for a total team breakdown. The Hokie Defensive coaches turned a struggling defense around and did a little “Bud Fostering” in the locker room to turn things around in the second half. Tech held Wake to 6 points and managed to keep the game within reach. The big mistake that they made was in not recognizing that the clock was more important than the points in the 2nd quarter. That’s sort of understandable, we aren’t in the BIG XII and “no-defense shootouts” are uncommon for our coaches. I would have looked at the clock and after their first 4th down conversion put in a prevent and allowed Wake to score which would have allowed us plenty of time on the clock to score back. Sometimes tactical retreat is the better part of a winning final strategy, ask George Washington, he’ll tell you.
This is one of the most difficult subjects to address because these gripes have been going on since 2016, and the perceived better offense that was supposed to come with the new regime coupled with the actual performance on the field.
‘The expectations far exceeded the unfolding results’ seems to be the operative phrase of evaluation. For all of the good and excellent things that Justin Fuente has managed to accomplish since his tenure, implementing an effective, CONSISTENT offense has not been high on that particular list. In 2016 and 2017 it was the slow creeping start syndrome. In 2018 disaster struck hard with massive losses to the roster, and locker room strife that drove the roster down to mostly inexperienced underclassmen. That pain was added to by having a serious problem at fielding a quarterback.
The 2019 season seemed to give us some hope of recovery. Hendon Hooker fit into the role of QB. The offensive line began to gel and perform better with each game. We were just lacking some higher-level running back talent and we were going to be gold. Then 2020 threw a curveball into the mix. The lack of Spring practice created a coaching mush on the defensive side of the ball, but the various groundings, isolations, and lack of full practices also dragged the quarterbacking situation back into the mud. Tech has three capable quarterbacks with three totally different styles of play. All three have played, all three have won, and between Burmeister and Hooker there has been one loss each. There were undisclosed health issues leading to Hooker’s extended stay on the bench (several commentators have hinted around the edges that things were more than COVID related), and frankly a part of Saturday’s misfire in the passing game is very probably the result of the extended period that he was not practicing.
All of that said, it still does not excuse the offensive coaching staff’s complete failure to do the following:
- Recognize the problem with their starting quarterback within the first few plays that went south.
- Pitch the initial game plan and adjust the play calling to account for Wake Forest’s defensive performance in the game.
- Help their starting quarterback – and presumably the starter for the remainder of the season – both with play calling and some one on one interpersonal sideline attention.
With the first error, the correction was obvious. Hooker was running well, but his first few passes were badly off the mark, and he seemed unsettled. So, you fix that by going with a faster developing run game that allowed Khalil Herbert better cutback running opportunities. This would also help with controlling the over pursuing defenders. The passing game should have been shortened to quick reads underneath the zone, and effective screen passes to both Herbert and Blackshear (this staff absolutely must get Blackshear out in space with room to run.)
The second point refers to the warfare Dicta of Field Marshall von Moltke – no plan survives contact with the enemy. There are always ways to deal with an opponent keying heavily on one player, and loading the box. We mentioned some already, but running a few dead head dive-plays or slow developing runs around the edge into heavy traffic on the boundary side of the field are not the ways to mix it up and get an over pursuing defense to allow a runner behind them. These are basic football concepts that don’t seem to register in this OC’s booth. We ran one RPO that bit, and then abandoned anything more between +5 and +12 of the line of scrimmage. Wake never had to cover under the zone. One play on 3rd down and 8 went deep, instead of flooding the patterns under the zone and allowing a struggling Hendon Hooker a quick read and easy throw. The team needed to move the sticks and get four more chances to move the ball, not go for broke. The Gobble Country Playbook will be addressing this in a near future article. For now, suffice it to say that the Offensive coaching staff received a big fat ‘F’ for the game. They made no significant adjustments, and gave their struggling quarterback no help. That’s a shame… PERIOD…
The Wake Forest mess is in the books. We’ll be talking about the fall out for a while. Louisville is going to be a challenge because it has a start running back who is difficult to stop, and finally got off its back last weekend. The Hokies better fix what broke Saturday, or Halloween is going to be way more trick than treat.