You’d think that after a massive drubbing by Virginia Tech, that there wouldn’t be much to talk about in two-thirds of this piece. A, it’s what we blocked out for each away game (and some home games) and it’s also a fundamental process “good practice” to look at all major events and see where good things need to be highlighted, and other things need to be addressed, and there are a few issues that the Hokies still have not solved that reared their heads, again.
But First, Le Grand Annoyance
When you think about a road game in Charlottesville, you cannot possibly forget the reality that the UVA fanbase is sort of ambivalent about football. They get all hopped up and in Hokie Nation’s faces about “Not having a Natty.” Well, that’s nice and all. UVA has won a few basketball and baseball goodies. Gee wow, hat tip to them. Tech’s building something with the Women’s team, and the men might be on to something. As to the baseball team, we’ll see if Coach Szefc can keep a team whole and away from the MLB draft long enough to push further into the post season. Tech’s chasing that dream, and has stepped up in quality.
They’ve also won some other stuff all of those are sports that Tech only fields teams in a few. Tech doesn’t participate in Field Hockey, Ice Hockey, Rugby, or Men’s Lacrosse above the club level. I wish that Tech did, but the resources are limited, and there are priorities dished out with those funds. So, no comp there.
Past Glories from decades and generations past seem to go with collegiate athletics no matter how distant, irrelevant, or ephemeral. That goes for all programs and fanbases.
The Good Stuff Always Comes First
Let’s talk about the good that came to the fanbase and program from this one.
Hokie Nation is Feeling Like Something Good is On the Way
So, back to the subject at hand, and that’s football, the final game of the regular season (Not just the season… The regular season!) You have to wonder about how tired the Hoos are about Hokie Nation calling Scott Stadium, Lane Stadium North (or North Annex). It happened again on Saturday. Hokie Nation showed up in Hooville. It would be interesting to see the breakdown but from the scenes of the rush on to the football field after the win, most of the fans in the stands after the half were Hokies. The team seemed to pull that energy from the stands.
The reported attendance for the game was in the 43,000 range, and the Hoo crowd basically abandoned the stadium (as reported by the Richmond Times David Teel) after the Bhayshul Tuten kickoff return for a touchdown. It’s not like if the results were reversed that the Hokies attending wouldn’t have had a similar reaction, no one on the sideline for a 4th quarter loss in Lane Stadium will say that it doesn’t happen here. The good thing was that the Hokie fanbase needed a rescue, and a reason to keep selling out Lane, and showing up to the away games. They got their rescue, and the rescued season and a probable close by bowl game to end a massive turn-around season.
The difference between this 6-6 season and the 6-6 season rescue that got us to the 2019 Military Bowl? That was on the way down, this is looking a whole lot like it’s on the way up.
Rescue Means Understanding the Differences Between Then and Now
The coaching staff made a mistake that it paid for in the first games of the season. Pry and company needed to have one of “those conversations” with Grant Wells, and work with him to begin the process of turning him into a solid coach (if that’s what he wants).
The Bowen version of the Power Spread/Bolling Green Read Option depends heavily on the athleticism, running, and passing on the move skills that Wells just didn’t possess. The appropriate choice for the starting quarterback on Day 1 with ODU was Kyron Drones, regardless of the coaching staff’s quibbles with his inventory of learned skills. His physicality, energy, and connection with the team on the field made him the better choice. The unfortunate circumstance that forced the change was an injury to Wells. That often happens in football. It seems unfair but players are well aware that with limited numbers of games come critical opportunities won or lost on every snap. Wells, to his credit, has taken the events in stride. He got a chance to run the ‘O’ at the end of the game and conducted a scoring drive with the only touchdown scored in the red zone by the Hokies.
The difference in this team between September 2nd and November 25th? Kyron Drones. Even if history is what it was and is, I would love to have seen the results of a Rutgers, Marshall, and Purdue match up with Drones at the helm on September 2nd.
Oh! And Don’t Forget
There are some other difference makers who had amazing seasons in 2023 and look to add more in 2024, yes Kyron Drones was tonic, but without some substantial help from the offense and defense, Drones was never going to get very far by himself.
Bhayshul Tuten has become a superstar Hokie destined for something post collegiate career and notice. He’s got the special combination of speed and strength that is pure nature. It can be honed, refined, and strengthened, but that talent is given from on high. We cannot forget Malachi Thomas who powered his way for the last touchdown of the 2023 season from the 7. The one-two punch of the two of them in season is only going to get better and more difficult to defend.
Da’Wain Lofton, Tucker Holloway, Benji Gosnell, Harrison Saint Germain, Dae’Quan Wright, and Xayvion Turner-Bradshaw are looking like the core level of a solid Wide Receiver/Tight End room. All of them had impact moments in the season and we look to see more of them in the future.
The Defense is getting better, though the Line is going to face some challenges getting a few critical graduating positions filled. Cole Nelson, Antwaun Powell-Ryland, Keyshawn Burgos, Jordan McDonald, C.J. McCray, and Wilfried Pene all played significant numbers of snaps with APR leading the pack and Cole Nelson right behind him (Nelson was Colandrea’s monster under the bed for the UVA game). Coach Price has some depth to work out, and maybe get some big guys in the middle from the portal. But the Defensive Line made steady progress this season, and once it gets the jitters scared away and solves the slow start problem, it looks to be healthy in 2024, too.
The Offensive Line has gotten better since the Drones takeover. It’s still a work in progress and needs to have Coach Crook stick around for a few more seasons. They need to be consistent, and that means having consistent coaching to push that. The Linebackers have a big step up to figure out some things, but they also got better as the season went on.
No one will leave out the defensive backfield’s big returning talents of Dorian Strong (Hoping since he’s an academic senior - but he did walk on Senior Day and could go out for the NFL Draft.), and Mansoor Delane. Jalen Stroman, Mose Phillips, Caleb Woodson at STAR, all got significant playing time and will contribute in 2024.
2023 at 5-3 in the ACC
There is that feeling that you just want to shoot big neeners at the critics who projected the Hokies for finishing near the bottom of the wrecked ACC. While it wasn’t a win, it was a winning season, and a 4th place finish in a game count tie with Georgia Tech (I think the point total from the UVA game put the Hokies over the top of the Jackets) Blowing raspberries and such nonsense might be foolish for many of us, because we were all pretty down after game 4, but even with revival the media found little to talk about concerning Virginia Tech. 55-who cares has altered that conversation, and as the 4th place finisher in the ACC the bowl invitation list gets interesting. We’ll see which one we get, but the Military, Duke’s Mayo, and Sun Bowls have been in the conversation mix.
Waiting to Go Bowling
That was something that we just didn’t have a true belief in at the beginning of October. So here Tech sits waiting for the best bid, 5-3 in the ACC and looking at having put the negative stuff behind them. That’s a truly good thing.
There is Some Bad, Though
Look, it was a 6-6 season that should have been a 9-3 season without the ACC issues. Here are some of the stumbling blocks:
A Self-induced Rough Start and Bumpy Road
The up-down nature of the last 8 games of the season was truly frustrating. One game the program looked ready, and the players looked engaged and fired up. The next game it looked like some other team from another level of football showed up with the same numbers. A critical part of any turn around is consistency, and 2023 marked a bumpy ride along the bottom while nearly everyone tried to find some sort of consistent performance level that produced wins. While it is true that the team that finished the season was better, and the record was much improved, there was a distinct off tang to the progress. Tech played at peer level or down, very well, and seemed to fold its tent against teams that it should never have lost to or should never have been dominated in one or more phases of the game.
The bad showings will be engraved on the brains of many in Hokie Nation. Over the span of the season, the team seemed completely unprepared for the Rutgers and Marshall games. It doesn’t help the total analysis to get into the emotional dynamics and preparation because we weren’t there for pregame warmups to observe body language and facial expressions. Those points are actually critical, and you can really see the level of energy and focus the team is going to bring to the game, at warmups. Without that evidence, there is no telling what the atmosphere was like at game time. The Purdue game was a special bad case with a storm/lightning delay that cancelled the entire pregame routine, to the extended delay that left the team in the locker room for hours. You sort of wish that they had cancelled it and gotten Purdue to come back to Lane Stadium for the first week of December. That would definitely have been a very different contest.
Tech should have had a 4-0 record as October dawned, and that the team wasn’t configured and ready to do that was a disappointingly bad thing. Hopefully the coaching staff approaches some of the preparation work with more structure and focus for 2024. This one should be put in the “Lessons Learned” Appendix of the operating manual and studied in an annual table-top exercise.
The Offense is Still Problematic and Inconsistent
Look, it’s not popular given the last game, but the OC has not routinely brought happy lovely feelings on his ability to call games from many quarters. The offense that he is running is a run-of-the-mill Power Spread variation of the Bowling Green Read-Option. The difference being the insertion of some run-pass option plays and some elements of Air Raid for some downfield -deep- pass patterns. The R/O style of offense generally sacrifices the mid-range passing game for option runs by the quarterback. The problem with it is, and will always be, the key reads between the players must cooperate, and it relies heavily on physical talent of the quarterback. It’s fundamentally a high school situation where the plays are rudimentary, and the ball is snapped to the star athlete of the program, and he makes cool things happen. If that situation is off, the offense is off. If the defense does something unexpected and challenging (hack... cough… Louisville… hack… spit… NC State) the OC had no alternative plan immediately available to counter the moves. Both teams had the physical talent in the secondary to go man to man for coverage. They loaded the box with linemen and linebackers. That allowed them to key on both players in the merge/exchange between Tuten and Drones or Thomas and Drones. The Read-Option breaks down when both “running backs” are hit before they ever reach the line of scrimmage.
No Three Second Intermediate Game, Again
In order to loosen up an attacking defense, the offense must go downfield, fast. That means getting the play off in 3-4 seconds, and have the snaps occur quickly before the defense can get set up and guess what you are doing. In the case of NC State, it was obvious that the OC had a clueless game plan to start the first possession when he called a bubble screen 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage into an attacking defense. Meanwhile the zone was completely empty between the hashes and from 5-10 yards. There were no patterns even run into that area. Add to that, even though Drones throws a beautiful deep ball, the repeated shots beyond 30 yards to low percentage fundamentally covered routes just wasted plays that were desperately needed to keep the team on schedule and move the sticks. Home run balls are nice and all, but it’s more important to move the ball and score points.
Negative 4 in the Red Zone
That point also brings up the final bad for the offense, and that’s poor performance for the team throughout the season in the Red Zone. The OC’s red zone play calling amounted to mostly slow delayed runs up the middle and passes at the line of scrimmage into the boundary. For those who didn’t notice, and we did, the Hokies scored exactly one touchdown from inside of the 20-yard line, and that was a double garbage time grind the clock out drive with Grant Wells at the helm, and Malachi Thomas running. Thomas burst into the end zone dragging people from the 7-yard line, but he was dragging backups. No other touchdown scored by the Hokie offense was scored from the red zone. The Hokies’ first trip there ended in a -4 after three unimaginative body slams into the line and dinky dunk stuff to the short side. If the Hokies want to win more than 6 games next season, they have to fix the leaden red zone play calling.
The Uglies Strike, or Loom, or Ooze Whatever Ugly Things Do
The Officiating was awful. This applied throughout the season, and across conferences. There needs to be a public accounting for officiating. There should be public hearings, detailed reviews with publicly available reports, and a board of the conference members for airing of grievances with officiating crews. There should be nothing secret or confidential.
Suffice it to say, there were some ugly officiating things in the season that just didn’t seem to go away, and it wasn’t necessarily the Hokies’ fault.
Targeting - Is It Also “Being Targeted?”
The problematic officiating dogged the Hokies throughout the entire season, with what seemed to be a special fondness for calling targeting and ejecting players for very arguable calls. The Hokies didn’t lose all of those, but too many times a player was sent to the sideline for really iffy calls. The rule needs to be revisited and officials need to be better educated about its application. What is happening seems to be the human reaction that “these guys make bad hits – watch for it” mentality applies to certain programs. More often than not a target is a) inadvertent, b) the fault of both players because they are both in motion, and c) of no physical consequence. That the NCAA is demanding ejection for only the defender is an unbalanced application of a rule that could ruin a young man’s entire career. A better risk analysis and control needs to be applied to the situation.
The ACC is a Conference in an Ugly Transition
The other Ugly is the entire concept of the non-divisional ACC. There is no true champion in this one because not enough teams played enough teams to claim any sort of championship. At least in a divisional setup every team in the division played every other team or enough that the math worked out. This season the ACC got lucky because FSU just ran away with it, but a couple of ball bounces another way and Louisville was in a jumble up for #2 and wholly dependent on bizarre formulas for entrance into the “ACC Championship”. The addition of three new teams is only going to make the mess worse, not better. The next five years for the ACC are going to be a head scratching re-organization and the fights to change things left largely in smoke filled rooms away from the observation and input from the fan base.
Play the Final Jeopardy theme song. We are waiting until Sunday to hear about the bowl bid. If it’s the Military Bowl, we will probably apply for credentials to cover it. If it’s the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, then probably not, since that’s money that isn’t in the budget. We’ll have to see.