Well, here we are at the mid-point of the 2021 football season, and I get the feeling that most folks are more interested in talking up our chances of making it past the first round for the 2022 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The dismissal of the football results seems a natural reaction given the major flameout that occurred with the football team as it stumbled out of Morgantown with a disappointing loss that everyone knew that the Hokies should have won. So, we really need to reflect on some realities and see the overall picture of what happened, and where we might go and end up by the 12th game of the season. What was and what could have been, and some possible whys and wherefores are in order, before launching into a 2nd half analysis.
First, any sort of optimist in me has to take a back seat to the realist. The first game against North Carolina was a major triumph; of fantasy over reality. Carolina was hugely overrated, and their reputation inflated by a marginally good Quarterback and a coach famous for pumping up the volume. Neither of the “under card” games, Middle Tennessee and Richmond were much of a challenge. The coaching staff chose a “vanilla” game plan for the former and to use the latter as a live scrimmage (much to the chagrin and protestations for the “burn the village to the ground” crowd). The only away game of September was the first truly real vision of what could be the future of the season. West Virginia played a stout game, but in the last minute and four seconds, Tech’s defense had put the team in position to notch a win, and that might have been the high-water mark of the 2021 season. With four clear chances to win the football game, the Hokies failed to cross the goal line with fewer than five yards to gain. That failure made many of us angry, but some of us even more deeply concerned than the immediate impression would suggest. We, of the football analyst crowd, saw highlighted that there was a deeper systemic problem with the offense. In short, it truly does not work.
Week five brought the Fighting Irish to Blacksburg. The defense kept the game in check for more than three quarters. Unfortunately, again, the Offense remained steadfastly opposed to scoring when in close to the goal line in critical situations. The four points left on the field from the failed 1st and goal from the 1-yard line wrote the epitaph for the defense. They ended up spending too much time on the field, and eventually cracked in the last four minutes of the game.
So, the lead up to the Pitt weekend’s fiasco was laid on the field. The Hokies were sporting a starting quarterback with an injury (rumored to be a right shoulder), a backup that the coaching staff had pushed to #3 behind a big “Wild Turkey” capable QB (Connor Blumrick) who was also injured. Braxton Burmeister was “it”. Knox Kadum seems to have faded into oblivion, and the temporary promotion of Tahj Bullock from the scout squad was indicative of a greater problem. This team is burning up quarterbacks at a frightening rate (both game to game and season to season), and it is unsustainable.
The Story of 2017-2021 – The Fuente/Cornelsen Offense Does Not Work
There is no “Quarterback Whisperer” Here
No team in modern college football can survive long without an effective offense. The primary lynchpin, on the field, of any offense is a good quality quarterback. The optimum is a 2 or 3 season run with a player behind center who can execute the offense, and lead the team on the field. That sort of combination of elements needs some sort of positive chemistry, and coaching confidence. The dose of harsh to that mellow for the Hokies is that situation has never developed in the QB room at Virginia Tech in the Fuente era.
We never hear the “he’s our guy, he’s gonna play, he’s gonna be great” lines from Fuente. It’s always a “search mode” equivocation. It’s the vague sort of tepid “he’s learning”, “he needs to”, “he needs to earn the job” sorts of statements that begin to create a kind of itch in the scalp that hasn’t gotten to the fire level but is uncomfortable and distracting. The Quarterback Room over in Jamerson is crumbling, and has been since Jerod Evans quit going to class, thinking that he was “all that”. Well, he wasn’t and flopped to prove it. The problem is that the Hokies have never found anyone better to fit into the style of offense that Cornelsen poorly orchestrates.
The O-Line has Heart but is Half Trained
There isn’t just a quarterback problem, though. The offensive line has a good deal of talent and is well-coached by arguably the best offensive coach on the staff, Vance Vice, BUT there is a glaring hole in the scheme, and that it operates as a passive Read/Option zone-blocking unit. There seems to be little or no attention to power football. That means drive, pull, trap blocking, and engaging blocks under the pads of the defenders at +1 yards beyond the line. True, this sounds like old-fashioned smash-mouth football, but physical talent and quality leadership that this line possesses is being wasted by not spending time to teach how to drive the other guy out of the hole and off the line. That this team runs plays inside the five yard-line that cannot gain even a single yard to punch the ball over the goal line or past the line to gain for a first down is, frankly, unforgivable. This team would greatly benefit from being able to operate most plays from the Power ‘I’ formation with a fullback and halfback (there has been no H-Back since Dalton Keene left) building up a head of steam to hit a hole as fast and as hard as possible. This line is capable of moving people. It’s getting better physically every season, but its scheme limitations and training are hurting it. The Offensive Line is 85% of the running game and 65% of the passing game. Running the ball inside is not efficient between the 25 and the 5; but you had better be able to get it done inside the 5. This offense cannot do that.
There is No Play Calling Flexibility and no Killer Instinct
Time and time again we see, bubble screens, flare passes, and other pitch substitutions behind or at the line of scrimmage. The secret to a “flanker screen” is getting the ball out FAST… I mean within 3 seconds of the snap, and the coverage for that target has to be at least 5 to 10 yards off. In no game in the last three seasons have I seen the play actually work properly. A long slow 30-yard pass for -1 yards is a very low percentage play if you factor in the need to gain a minimum of five schedule yards. Most defenses have this doped out, and the continued use of it as a “base” play is poor design, not poor execution.
When this team runs plays in the intermediate downfield area, under the zone between the seams, and in the 8-to-10-yard flats, it can move the ball. The success there opens the run and allows the occasional field stretcher. The repeated slow rollers at the line of scrimmage will forever be graced with a possibility of gaining that line. This offense needs the flexibility to unpredictably shift target areas across the area under the zone, in positive yardage. The Hokies fail miserably at using their slot receiver (possession receiver) and tight ends in situations where the offense needs 6-12 yards to move the sticks or score six points.
The second point, here, is the total lack of any sort of killer instinct in the play calling. More often than not, a big play for 20-30 yards is followed up by a slowly executed, over-signaled, slow-developing, dud running play into a pile of humanity for meager or no yardage. There just doesn’t seem to be the “rock ‘em back on their heals and go for the throat” mentality. It’s “oooh goodie… we got that one… let’s go back to a halfback ISO to establish possession…” sort of thought pattern. We see this from series to series, as well. The Hokies will charge down the field with intermediate passes, quarterback runs outside… a rare successful unanticipated jet sweep, and then score a 19-yard QB outside option. Only to follow up that series with a return to a 1-yard bubble screen, a halfback ISO, and a panicked low percentage fade pass 30 yards down the sideline. Of course, neither pass has anywhere near the velocity and accuracy to make it an effective play, and the run ends up being a poorly read R/O where the quarterback hands off regardless of the key.
All of these elements came together for the disaster of the Pitt game. It has been repeated for big and close losses since 2017 and will continue until someone burns the Hokie play sheet that contains the six base plays. It is not a winning methodology.
Just What is the Offense Supposed to Be?
A friend and former college athlete mentioned something after the Pitt game that piqued my interest and put an accurate finger on the core problem. She said, “This offense just doesn’t have a personality.” The observation might point to the core of the entire problem. The Virginia Tech Hokie offense hasn’t a clue as to what it is and how it’s going to accomplish what it sets out to do. That’s not some sort of conjecture, folks. That’s four and a half seasons of fact.
Elements of the fan base, including my eldest, bring up the proposition that Justin Fuente was hired because he was some sort of offensive genius and quarterback whisperer. That’s complete nonsense (we won’t use the impolite term; this is family TV). Fuente was hired because he was nearly universally regarded as the best coach available at his level to advance to the Power 5; period. All of the other trappings of offensive genius were based on his TCU stint and Andy Dalton. Gee, where’s Dalton, now? How good was he, actually? AND there is the inconvenient reality that during their time at Memphis Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen never ran TCU’s Big XII “Air Raid”. Justin Fuente’s reputation was built on a 6’ 6” 245 pound running quarterback with limited passing skills (Paxton Lynch) the offense that put Fuente on the map was a pretty standard Bowling Green (Urban Meyer) Read/Option ground attack. I don’t know who added the Run-Pass Option to the read set, but the net result was not a revolution, it was more of an added wrinkle to an essentially “quarterbackless” offense.
Since Fuente’s start, here in late 2015, he has successfully managed to field exactly two quarterbacks capable of running that offense. Jerod Evans (who we’ve already discussed – his second season might have been fun), and Quincy Patterson (who is 6-0 at North Dakota State running their version of the BG R/O). Josh Jackson, Jr. faded, he was too small and slow. Ryan Willis burned out, he was big enough but with ego issues and too injured to run the R/O. Hendon Hooker was a smart modestly skilled QB but smaller than advertised and played hurt too often (he was rudely written off, a move that I will never forgive the staff for doing). Quincy “never developed as a passer”… when the offense doesn’t need a great passer. And now we have Braxton Burmeister, who reminds us of faster version of JJ. He’s too small to actually “run” the full offense; with a popgun arm, and no three-dimensional pass patterns to help him.
This offense just is not and has not operated in any sort of describable “sync” for years.
What’s an Incongruity, This Offense, That’s What?
Let us take a dictionary definition look of the word incongruity:
The noun incongruity’s root word is the adjective incongruous.
in·con·gru·ous | \ (ˌ)in-ˈkäŋ-grə-wəs \
Definition of incongruous
: lacking congruity: such as
a: not harmonious : INCOMPATIBLE incongruous colors
b: not conforming : DISAGREEING conduct incongruous with principle
c: inconsistent within itself an incongruous story
d: lacking propriety : UNSUITABLE incongruous manners
There just isn’t a better stack of descriptions than Meriam Webster presents for the root of incongruity. This offense is not harmonious, not conforming, inconsistent within itself, and lacking any sort of propriety.
Cornelsen and Fuente seem to be looking for an Air Raid Quarterback (gunslinger, 6’ to 6’2” 200-210, quick release, good scrambler, and capable of fitting the ball into tight spaces.) then ramming that quarterback into a Read-Option where the primary play requires the quarterback to keep the ball at least 40% of the time. Logan Thomas might have had 2 better seasons if he’d had Tim Tebow’s offense. Of course, their search for an Air Raid style QB has been fruitless, because what gunslinger is going to roll into Blacksburg to run the ball up the gut ten times a game? Patrick Mahomes went to Texas Tech and made himself famous. If he’d come to Virginia Tech, he’d have made himself a great baseball player after surgery. This staff should offer congratulations and a heartfelt apology to Quincy, who’d be the starter in this offense, if the coaching staff had the courage to admit what this offense is, and quit trying to hammer square pegs into round holes.
This has been five seasons of talent mismatched with offensive style, poor game planning, tactical play-calling, and nearly non-existent in-game / intra-game adjustments. Saving the 2021 season is going to involve scrapping existing game plans, and figuring out how to consistently implement a modified Air Raid (fewer blocking changes) to get the ball downfield primarily through the air on 3-second executions between the seams and in the flats. Without doing that, the prospects of ending up with Tre Turner behind center because everyone else has checked into the M*A*S*H unit is a distinct possibility.
The Mid Season Upshot
There is little probability that this coaching staff has the willingness to accomplish the change. Cornelsen is dogmatically wedded to calling his plays and running his play sheet, no matter what happens on the field. Fuente seems clueless on the sideline. His last presser tells me more than he’d like to hear. He’s lost. He’s a coach with an inflexibility built into his “system” and he’s married to that system without the players or program to support it. He should have learned a valuable lesson from the Ag school that Tech is… you cannot plow a field with a sports car. Fuente keeps hooking a disk harrow to a Miata looking to grow corn as high as an elephant’s eye. The boos emanating from the stadium when Fuente’s name is announced are not mentioned by Jon Laaser and Mike Burnop; but they are there. The wheels are about to fall off the hooptie. This team needs three wins to make a booger bowl and the odds are barely 50/50.