Doing the hard things. That’s what they warned me about when I took this job. I still have to produce content, even if I am feeling like I have little or no energy to put it together. It’s there, it’s real, and there’s a bunch of it; but the energy is not completely there to do the writing and publishing work. Well, I was raised in an environment where excuses don’t fly very far, and if you’ve signed on to do a job, you do it to the absolute best of your ability. The excruciatingly painful loss to Liberty on Saturday will just have to be put into perspective and the grades are still due out.
The Situation and Consistency
The current situation with this horrid “throw away” season is that the Hokies are sort of stuck at 4 wins and 3 losses. Last week’s loss is particularly galling to Hokie Nation because of the perception that Liberty is a 2nd rate program to whom we should have never lost a game. That perception is off, Hugh Freeze is an SEC Coach. He’s hired SEC level assistants, and he’s found an SEC level quarterback to run his team on the field. Liberty is by no means an SEC team, but it certainly is not the cupcake team that perceptions seem to be dictating. There is a rhetorical question, though. If a head coach would make a difference with the Hokies, why can’t that be true with Liberty?
So, let’s start with the grades and the whys and wherefores. We’ll take it from the best to the worst because I’d rather deal with the good stuff, anyway.
Quarterback – Passing: A / Running: A+
Regardless of the outcome of the game, Hendon Hooker picked an entire football team up, and put it on his shoulders to nearly win this thing. We’ll deal with the play calling later, but for now, with what Hooker was given to work with, He came one goof by someone else away from pulling out a win. If I had a camera their would have been a photograph on this article, it would have been of Hendon Hooker standing in the Red Zone behind the offensive line, looking at the signals… with a huge chunk of Worsham Field stuck into the top right of his facemask. Hooker put on a performance for the season in this one.
Offensive Line – Pass Blocking: A / Run Blocking B+
There is nothing more to say about the effort put on the field, especially in the 2nd half. Hooker was not sacked, he was pressured a few times, but he had time to find his receivers and make quality throws on most of the plays that called for passes. They were brilliant in the last two scoring drives. The run blocking was solid, and Hooker’s 150+ yard game with no yardage losses was absolutely solid. The lack of variety in the running plays due to both the play calling, and the loss of Khalil Herbert on the first play of the game, is the only thing that drops the grade a bit. The running plays on the opening drive of the 2nd half were snuffed, and that 3 and out hurt. Overall, however, the Offensive line is still solid and performing well.
Running Backs – Running: C+ / Utility Duties: B
It’s hard to fault a running back corps when the lead back goes down, and then the plays go away from them. When they did get the opportunities, Raheem Blackshear and Jalen Holsten just never managed to get rolling – the traffic went to Hooker. They did do very well in their Blocking and Receiving duties. Blackshear nabbed 4 passes for 30 yards in critical situations.
Receivers – A
Take a look at this receiving list, and tell me that you don’t understand why I gave this unit an A. They were outstanding, and in particular the 4th quarter charge. There is just no room to complain about the effort from the receiving effort. Tre Turner lead the way with significant clutch catches, and Tayvion Robinson also made some nice grabs in traffic (we’ll talk about Special Teams later).
Virginia Tech Receivers for Liberty
All in all, the Offense performed well, and a football team that scores 35 points, including one 2-point conversion, should normally win a football game. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case in the 2020 COVID Season. Most programs’ defenses are struggling, making normally defensive minded conferences look like everyone is the BIG XII. Tech’s defense seems to be struggling the most.
There is no fooling anyone, and no making grand excuses. There were some redeeming factors in the defensive effort. There were 3 forced fumbles, and 2 recoveries, both of which stopped drives deep into Tech territory. There in lies the problem, again. The defense is not managing natural stops, it’s needing to generate turnovers to get the ball moving in the other direction.
Defensive Line – Passing: C - / Rushing: D-
It wasn’t a complete failure, but wow was it close. The Defensive line is not succeeding into corralling mobile quarterbacks, at all. Frankly, neither could Liberty’s but we aren’t them. Even one or two more natural stops would have contributed greatly to the effort, but the Defensive line could neither plug up the holes, nor get to the passer before he found someone somewhere or ran off with it. There were three sacks but the TFL count dwindled from there. In particular the backside of the formation was routinely open and Malik Willis could have walked for 1st downs if he had chosen. There is no sugar coating the situation, the Defensive line is struggling hard. They are giving massive effort, but it’s just not effective effort.
Linebackers – Passing: D / Running: F
The Linebackers were hit by the injury bug, and that created some problems. Rayshard Ashby, who is already struggling this season, was in and out of the game with something going on. Dax Hollifield was filling in pretty ably but Dax isn’t a cover guy, and not fast enough to assign to spy someone as quick as Willis. There is something going on when there are 13 different players recording tackles and your Safeties are netting 20 between the two of them and none were for losses. Only Amare Barno pulled off 8 total tackles from inside the box. That means you're losing contain and having to chase plays down after critical yards have been made. The ‘F’ grade might seem a bit harsh, but you have to go with what happened on the field, and there was no effective blitz, and runs were not terminating with any consistency, under schedule yards (4). On a technique level, the Linebackers were too deep, and even then, not getting off of blocks.
Defensive Backs – Passing: F / Running: D
We shouldn’t really need to grade the DBs on the run, but we have to in this situation, they led the team in tackles. That’s a serious problem. We are finally seeing Jermaine Waller on the field, but he’s obviously rusty. The DB’s are infinitely better with him able to man up on a critical receiver, but with Armani Chatman on the field only sparingly, the lack of 2 cover corners with good footspeed is killing the secondary. Tech has been essentially playing a 1 corner, 4 Safety defenses for most of the season. It’s not working out well. The practice and personnel situation are not helping the defense for most programs, but I’d be really nice to see some adjustments and successful step ups occur.
Special Teams: Kicking: B+ / Punting: A /Returns: D-
We won’t even talk about the kick block team that actually executed, and well… I am not going to chew on that bitter pill. But the basics were solid enough. Brian Johnson did miss a 50 yarder; it was long enough but hooked to the left. Maybe if he had been on the right hash mark… The kickoffs were largely well covered or touchbacks, and the punts were few (2) and LONG (51 avg). the disappointment came in the return game when Tayvion made another error and muffed another punt, that ultimately resulted in a game flipping touchdown. I doubt that we’ll see him back there much for the remainder of the season, even Braxton Burmeister went out to do return work. Football fundamentals are what they are, and Shibest and Fuente will just have to figure out another situation.
Offensive Play Calling: D (F for non-pressure game control situations)
Some people just don’t get it, and their pet perceptions and self-reinforced habits are bailed out by sheer effort on the field. The reality remains that Brad Cornelsen is incapable of putting an effective game plan together. His plans are inflexible, and often unimaginative. He doesn’t adjust his play calling well, and given the reality that his base offense seems to only have 4 to 6 basic plays, he’s getting doped out by even struggling defenses during critical non-pressure situations. Sure, he’s got the team throwing on two-minute drills, and taking chances when the team is playing from behind, but his game management planning is horrid. We talked about the Boundary Bias, which is crippling his options and making defensive coordinators’ lives much simpler. But the opening drive of the 2nd half is a case in point. That possession had to be a touchdown, with a moderately decent drive behind it. He chose to dump 2 really predictable running plays that took too long to develop and ended up going only far enough to tease at a 1st down. He then put his QB in a high-pressure situation with a rather pedestrian route package on a must pass. The result was a thumping punt from Oscar Bradburn, not the touchdown that Tech needed to keep the advantage and momentum.
Defensive Play Calling: D
What else is there to say? The defense wasn’t doing much but skittering back and forth between gap coverage sets on the D-Line none of which were working very well, and playing too deep and too far off. There weren’t enough blitzes called to make Willis even itch a little, and the pass coverage was just too far off and “prevent” oriented. The Defense did benefit from two Flames lost fumbles, but that’s a poor way to conduct a drive stop. It’s a thin reed to hang on to as the other guy keeps chopping 4-7 yards at a time off the field and drives the ball down your throat into the end zone. This staff is still really new, unpracticed, and they haven’t even been given the opportunity to develop much of anything. It’s living off of a fading crumpled up lunch pail, and needs a serious looking after. Justin Hamilton may be “the guy” in a few years, but not now. We needed an older, wiser, more experienced DC on the field for those few seasons.
A Personal Appeal: I am not issuing any more grades for this article. I think Hokie Nation is telling Justin Fuente how it feels about his performance over the past few games (some over his tenure). Currently, the feelings are raw, and bumping into territories where fan bases should not go. It’s prudent to remember the struggles of the early Beamer era and the abuses heaped upon him and his family. It was embarrassing as a Hokie, and certainly painful for the Beamers. Let’s not do that to the Fuentes.
Finally, this is not an easy season. It’s probably the toughest mess that this team and fanbase has encountered in decades. This team has rarely been whole in either personnel or coaching staff. Frankly, I have written it off as anything significant because so much is continually missing. If this is happening after a normal recruiting season, Spring, Summer, and football schedule then we can talk. Right now, nearly nothing is normal, and it’s just not worth the negative energy.