There is some level of realization that just publishing some pictures, as fun as that is, doesn’t get too far in the satisfied about the Wake Forest Game analytical list. As I was editing and framing images, and reviewing the game events through snapshots (that kept getting fuzzier and fuzzier as my arms tired – my new camera is considerably heavier than my older model) I noticed that there was more to say about the game than just commenting on interesting images. The question that kept rolling through my head was; is this the turning point?
Pivots, Big and Small
We all know what the turning point for Virginia Tech football was in the modern era, right? No, you won’t recognize it, since most of you aren’t old enough. The big turn came in the 1980 season and Bill Dooley finally getting a bowl bid with a winning season. Dooley had taken over the team in 1978 as a savior from the Charlie Coffey/Jimmy Sharpe disaster years of 1971-1977. Dooley’s quick turnaround into a program worthy of a Peach Bowl bid in the 1980 season (there weren’t as many bowl games back then, and a winning season didn’t automatically generate a bid). Dooley is famous for the Flying VT, and the name change from the Fighting Gobblers to officially calling the team the Hokies.
Now, most of you will probably point to the Frank Beamer Era, and some game in the mid-1990s – especially the 1995 Sugar Bowl win over Texas, but it was Dooley who completely turned the program over on its nose, renamed it and gave it a new identity. His departure for greener pastures after the 1986 season (and the associated recruiting crisis in other sports) put an NCAA stink on the beginnings of Frank Beamer’s first few seasons, but Dooley had changed the character and expectations of the program.
There are many small inflections and some of them have been less small than others. That 1995 season was a big inflection point (not just the Sugar Bowl win). The 1999 Season was, of course, the major factor in Hokie Nation expectations about post season glory. It has been referred to as simultaneously being the absolute best and worst things that ever happened to the program.
Not all inflection points are good, though. In the Hokies’ case, there has been a steady diminution in its recruiting and retention posture over the past 15 years or so. Regardless of the coach, Tech has had trouble recruiting critical positions and as momentum stalled between the ridiculous 2011 Sugar Bowl highway robbery by the referees, high school recruiting success has fallen below Power 5 standards. Those standards are a required mix of 5-, 4-, and 3-Star graded talent. Talent isn’t a guarantee of success just like lots of money is no guarantee of happiness, but more of it certainly makes things easier.
The negative inflection points just kept coming from 2011 on. There were some really good pickups, and there have certainly been successful program graduates in either coaching or the NFL, but the thinning occurred, nonetheless. So, we arrive in the dead middle of the 2023 Football season, with the fourth head coach in a decade. We’ll count J.C. Price as the interim in that number since his job was actually the most difficult. The current coach has no head coaching experience, and none of his major assistants have experience at their respective levels, either. It’s what we called “taking a flyer” in the olden days. Frank Beamer barely survived the disastrous seasons between 1987 and 1994. There is a realization that 30 years later there is far less patience for rebuilding struggles. We saw that in the collapse of the prior coaching regime as nothing meshed and nearly everything soured to the point of disfunction.
The reason for the big lead in for the Good, Bad, and Ugly is that we all need to have some level of rational perspective and expectations on this particular transition. This period is basically a forced transition point. Rarely does a program fire, at great cost, a head coach who doesn’t have a losing record. The animosity level of 2021 just became so great that nothing was workable. The recruiting process had broken, the stands were beginning to look a bit tattered and empty, and even the COVID season reduced staff was exhausted. Some inflection points are not “arrived at,” they are induced. The 2022 Brent Pry era was just such an event. The 2022 season reflected that situation perfectly. There was just not enough of anything there to do much more than survive and rebuild behind the scenes. It’s not like you can tell everyone to forget the season and come back at some mythical “then” when things are fixed. The season and games must still go on. The truth is that “failure” is the greatest teacher of those with internal fortitude and character.
So, the major question governing this Good, Bad, and Ugly analysis is: Did this program arrive at an “atomic-level” inflection point as the Skipper sounded at the end of the 2023 Wake Forest game? Let’s look at the issues and see if maybe we are looking at the opportunity for a turn.
The Good Stuff
Kyron Drones is finally “The Guy.” In the Pitt game, and to a certain extent in the loss to FSU (in the first half, the second half the Hokies tied the ‘Noles), Drones’ size and speed made him a dangerous factor on the ground which opened up the read/option base play by adding back the QB Blast/Belly and QB Power to the mix. We didn’t see much in the way of passing over those two games, but we did see a marked improvement in the Hokies’ offensive production. This also began to have an effect on the defense as they gained confidence and took more risks. The big turn for Drones was the Wake Forest game. The game on Saturday 14 October 2023, marked his arrival as a true dual threat. Drones was 20 of 29 for 321 yards, 2 Touchdowns in the air, with no interceptions and almost no poor decisions with the ball. In addition, he led the team in rushing (even with the team only netting 141 yards). Drones’s ability to switch to an intermediate passing game, making good throws, and finding open receivers (7 different players caught balls) made the difference in the offensive production. The team is no longer one dimensional.
Fontel Mines should be every Hokie’s favorite Hoo. Look at what he has done for this program now that he wears the Chicago Maroon and Burnt Orange. These names are all in the extremely good column. Stephen Gosnell, transfer from UNC, led the team in receptions with 6 for 75 yards in critical situations. Bhayshul Tuten might have had some struggles running but he proved himself a capable receiver out of the backfield with 4 catches (one nice bubble route went for naught with a fumble, but that’s for a bit later). Then of course there was Jaylin Lane who has an afterburner and is a serious threat on sluggo routes, to break to the goal line with no one able to catch him. Then you can’t miss the Felton, Wright, Benji Gosnell connections that all generated critical yardage in clutch situations. The receiver room for 2023, as we noted in the preseason position previews, is deep. In 2022 we had 2 or 3 capable receivers. In 2023 due to the efforts of the coaching staff and in particular Fontel Mines this team as 11 or 12 capable receivers and more in the pipeline.
The Defense is back. Yes, there is an occasional gash (none for the Wake Forest game, btw), that more experience in the linebacking corps will help fix, and a grinding need for the coaches to find and promote a conveyor of true “mike” linebackers but the defense is making a major turn for the old days of Hokie smashmouth football. Derrick Canteen (1 pick and 2 pass breakups), Jalen Stroman and Dorian Strong all had excellent games. Keonta Jenkins led the team with 12 tackles (6/6) one of which was a sack. The McDonald brothers both played, and both showed up well. Alan Tisdale had 9, and Antwaun Powell-Ryland cleaned house with 4 sacks for 29 total yards, one forced fumble and one recovered fumble. The defensive line inside stuffed up the running lanes and blew up the Wake Forest “slow mesh” RPO. It was a complete performance by the defense, and they only allowed 6 points on two field goals.
The Limited Bad and Ugly Stuff Can Be Fixed
We will take the Bads and Uglies together because there were a few things that the team goofed up on, and some other stuff that really needs to be cleaned up.
The big problem for the game on Saturday; Ball Security. There were two critical fumbles that effected the score. Bhayshul Tuten’s unfortunate fumble after a premium bubble screen went for big yardage was picked up by a stout defensive stop, but it could have resulted in a major momentum change in the direction of the Demon Deacons. It was an unfortunate situation where the hit was a near penalty for an aggressive hit on a defenseless player – and if the pass had been to that point it would have been flagged, but Tuten was running down the sideline and clearly got hit and flipped upside down… if he had hung on to the ball until ground contact, or managed to knock it out of bounds the Hokies would have had the ball and at least 3 points on that promising drive, but the turnover changed all that. That was an unfortunate happenstance.
The second fumble was recovered by Kyron Drones, but the missed exchange on the handoff inside the 10 (not a good play call, either) resulted in a stalled drive and a settling for a -4 instead of a touchdown. Tuten reminds me so much of another great Hokie running back, David Wilson, that the fumble problem needs some work. Wilson never completely solved his, even going to the Giants in the NFL. Though the circumstances were different, the team really needs to help make sure that the missed exchanges, and open field ball security issues get fixed. There is just too much potential for greatness. Don’t let fundamental details like ball security and handoff awareness issues wreck it.
The O-Line is Still Struggling
This is probably going to be a repeated “bad” for the remainder of this season and possibly into the next. It’s not a smack at the individual players who are working hard to improve each week. It’s also not pointing a bloody finger at the coaching because after three different coaches in three years, that stability is just not there, and the offensive line talent conveyor heavily depends on consistency. The game day performances also require both personnel and discipline stability, neither of which the Hokies have managed since Vance Vice hit the bricks and showed up with James Shibest at UNLV.
Fixing the Offensive Line is going to be a portal mining expedition and healing the recruiting and talent development conveyor is going to take a few more seasons. There was a good thing that happened within the O-Line struggles and most of that seems to have been related to getting Drones to move around in the pocket and get outside of tackles more often. The line only gave up one minor sack for 5 yards in the game. Wake Forest might be struggling on offense this season, but its defense is quite capable, and really did a good job of shutting down the Tech running game. So, the Hokie O-Line had a good cookie eaten up by the reality that it just can’t get the run blocking to work, especially inside. They have gotten better with pulls, counters, and off-tackle stuff, but there is just a size and speed issue that will take several years to fix.
The Penalty Situation is Getting Ugly
The issue with penalties on the field for the Hokies wasn’t inattention or procedural it was major infraction call problems. We had to have the, now obligatory, attempts at ejecting players for “targeting.” The NCAA is too politically correct and timid to actually admit that the penalty is more often than not completely unfair, and arbitrarily enforced, and that the imposition of both the ejection and the game punishment are excessive. That will be an issue for a future article, but for now, what it does is set the stage for the referees to be “headhunting” or looking for problems and having internal prejudices against certain teams or players.
It’s an all too human reaction. Players and teams get “known” for being penalized, which attracts more attention to that team’s players’ conduct on the field. That will often result in ticky-tack and non-penalty flags being thrown and assessed. One of Wake Forests offensive drives was almost completely major 15-yard penalties. There were two facemask calls against the Hokies and only one of them was legitimate. Thankfully the targeting calls were waved off because neither was purposeful, and one was actually the fault of the runner not the defender. There is just currently not enough institutional fortitude to open the box and fix the situation. It’s currently blatantly unfair.
Fixing the unfairness is nearly impossible with a restrictive non-public process and under the table punitive responses by officiating crews. There needs to be public accountability on the part of NCAA rated officials and publicly available after-action reports published annually.
All of that means the Hokies are in a sort of “target zone” of extra officiating scrutiny for which they must be critically aware. Successfully fixing continual procedural errors can help the impression that the program is also working to limit personal fouls and other major penalties. We’ll see how the Hokies respond, but the pictures don’t lie.
So, that’s the Good, Bad, and Ugly Take. Again, we ask the question, and give you a chance to chime in.
Did the Hokies fortunes take a turn at the Wake Forest game?
This poll is closed
Woah!! Slow down there! Let’s cool the jets on the tendency to stretch the enthusiasm to overconfidence, please. Tech did some good things but left at least 8 if not more points on the field. Let’s heal up and beat ‘Cuse next Thursday, then talk.
This is just too obvious a turning point. Let’s wait until the end of the season to see what the W/L column says, and if the team manages to pull off a booger bowl bid. Let’s not jinx it. One game at a time please.
We finally have a QB. The running game and passing game has finally revived. The defense is gaining confidence from the better offense. It sure looks like a turning point to me. No point in being obtusely negative. They can win out, you know.
This team is already better than last season. So, it just needs to go 1-0 each game and not worry about New Years. We’ll worry about picking a booger at Scott Stadium at half-time if it comes to that.