The Season Ended - Better Than It Started - With Grant Wells at QB
If truth be told, the irony of the 2023 Hokie football season was that the quarterback for Game 1, closed out the season as the signal caller for the final plays of 2023. Only the reality was that it was for completely different reasons. In the first game Grant Wells started and in the final contest, he was the garbage time clock burner. The other odd thing about that is that it’s the way that it should have been at the end.
Maybe this was the biggest lesson of all, and a real sign of some growth and maturity in both the players and coaching staff. They had problems and issues... adjusted... kept at it... and eventually found a way to stitch together a winning season.
Let’s Start with the Good Things
There are quite a few good things that came out of the Military Bowl Game, besides running yardage records and the like. Here are some of them in no particular order:
Learning from Mistakes Not Succumbing to Them
The September 2023 Hokies would have folded up like a cheap lap robe after that disastrous fumble that started their first offensive series. That scoop and score would have rocked the team back on its heals, made the offense super timid, and been the seed for a series of momentum burying defense exhausting three-and-outs. This time Tech came back with a long-sustained drive featuring runs. It only resulted in a field goal, but the point with Tulane and Hokie Nation had been made. The misfortune was not going to push the cautious button. The team stayed aggressive on both sides of the ball, and that ice breaking first 3 points seemed to tell the Green Wave and the fans, “nope, not this time.”
The first half was a back and forth with Tech battling the weather conditions and the wet ball more than the Green Wave, but eventually they ground out a lead to end the half, even with the ball handling miscues.
The Offensive Line Has Continued to Show Improvement
No run game is going to work without decent blocking. The passing game was problematic because of the super wet conditions and slick ball, but running on a turf field is still a doable feat. Even if the turf is wet, the runner knows where he’s going, and the defense has to react. It’s harder to react when the offensive line is finally getting off their positions, sealing the edges and backsides of plays, and getting the upper (and inside) hand with one-on-one blocking situations. There also needs to be a touch of nasty in the mix. Playing in the line isn’t for the passive aggressive “be polite” crowd. It’s an MMA fight with pads and bringing a bit of a bad attitude to the mayhem is actually a good thing. Wednesday, you saw the line get nasty, finally! Not cheating nasty, mind you... the “up to here with your lip so I’m gonna beat you every way from Sunday” sort of nasty. The edges were blocking well and maintaining those blocks until the runner was past.
The pass blocking was passable (pun intended) even if the weather and Tulane’s coverage didn’t cooperate. And then that blocking converted to quality run blocking when Drones pulled it in and took off. That critical coordination between the line and the quarterback finally started to click. They seemed to finally understand what Drones needed to do and how to help him do it. By the end of the game the Tech O-Line was just having its way with Tulane’s Defensive Line and Linebackers. Drones’ 170+ and Tuten’s 130+ yards on the ground were proof.
The Defense was Solid Even with Some Bendy Features
There was little doubt about who was going to win the war of the trenches when it came to the Hokie defense. The Hokie front four dominated the day. Tulane’s star running back Makhi Hughes only managed 88 yards, and most of that was on a few drives that only managed 10 points. All in all, the Tulane offense only put up 13 points for the entire game. There were a couple of close calls, and sometimes the Tech linebackers were playing a bit loose, again, but the reality was that even with a competent backup Kai Horton returning for the bowl, the Green Wave just wasn’t producing much in the way of offense. Yes, the weather had something to do with it, and Tulane had ball handle problems to match up with Tech’s but the reality was that the Hokies’ Defense shut down an 11-2 offense. That’s a feat worth mentioning again.
One More ‘Good’ in Threes and Ones
It’s also time to mention someone we don’t say enough about. John Love has become Mr. Automatic. Every kick, whether PAT or field goal, drove serenely through the driving rain and never came close to either upright. Love was nailing kicks in horrid conditions (kudos to Long Snapper Justin Pollack and holder-punter Peter Moore, too!) Love will be back and so will Peter Moore.
There should also be a shout out to kickoff specialist Kyle Lowe who managed to keep Tulane from returning anything of importance and even managed an accidental onside kick to everyone’s delight.
The vast improvement of Tech’s special teams play for 2023 is now official. Beamer Ball is back in Blacksburg. That’s truly a good thing.
The Bad Things Did Pop Up - or - Out as the Case May be
There are really only two bad things that come to mind when reviewing the game.
The Pigskin was WET and Slippery
The first is probably the most obvious. The team was not prepared for handling not just a wet ball, but a wet ball in a constant rainfall from light drizzle to Noah’s deluge. The added water volume of a constant rain does change the handling conditions of the ball even over just wet ball drills. There is also the uniform factor, as a soaked artificial fiber uniform is not particularly “grabby” and does not help with ball retention even when handled for the wet. Maybe one day they’ll go back to the old twill jerseys for rain conditions, they tended to get clingy when they got wet, not slick. Be that as it may Tech fumbled the ball 5 times and lost it twice, once for a 21-yard scoop and score. Tulane dropped it three times and lost it every time so technically Tech was one up on them for fumbles, but having the ball hit the turf 5 times is not a good thing.
The Offensive Scheme was too Reliant on Raw Talent
The Offense, again, relied on riffing and the reaction in play calling to the need to run was too slow. People think that I am kidding when I hit this gong repeatedly, but as I said in the post season essay on fixing things, the Read/Option offense is dreadfully mediocre. The truth is that nearly every example illustrated in that essay, came true in the Military Bowl. Play calling was often too cute by half. Too much was concentrated AT the line of scrimmage, and whether pass or run the concepts struggled without some seriously talented school-yard execution by Kyron Drones, Bhayshul Tuten, and the Offensive Line.
There is aways the mixed emotion that says “good on them, they played a great game!” but at the same time your football brain asks the question “couldn’t you have schemed this out better?” It was obvious from more than 72 hours before the game that the weather conditions were going to be extremely wet. The passing game was going to be iffy at best, and mostly only successful with intermediate routes that gained yardage at the catch, not after. Deep routes were going to be difficult if not impossible.
The end result looked more like an accident than on purpose. The OC was saved by his offense, I still have doubts that he could have saved it if the shoe was on the other foot. Some game in the near future, a good defense is going to realize that this offense is keyed and governed by Drones’s performance. There needs to be some thought put into making it possible to de-emphasize that when he gets shut down. AND that will happen, it’s guaranteed.
The Ugly Stuff...
The team just wasn’t really prepared for the weather mixed with that awful turf field. We already talked about the fumbles but the pass drops were also annoying because there were two that come to mind that were potentially for big momentum preserving plays. Most of that I attribute to the rain and wet. It’s really oppressive out there in Annapolis on the Severn River off the northern neck of the Chesapeake Bay. The humidity is sticky, even in the cold, and when it rains it comes in buckets. We get hard rain here (the 2017 Duke game comes to mind), but the oppressive humidity just seems to make a huge difference.
So, we’ll chalk the “ugly” up to Mother Nature, and be only slightly sad that we couldn’t get to the game due to work schedules and health issues. Though I have better rain gear for both myself and my camera, the last Military Bowl took the life of my first fancy sports shooting DSLR, and there was a part of me that was glad not to have that happen again. It was an expensive drowning.
Wrapping It All Up
So, we’ll just leave you with this highlight. It was arguably Kyron Drones’s most complete play, with three reads, and a hyper aware throw with his back foot still behind the line of scrimmage to keep the pass legal.
Let’s see more of these Tight End push into the end zone, turn around, and catch the ball plays. It worked twice in the bowl. It’ll work more if you do it more.
Lots to learn and grow from, there was a commitment from a DT Transfer from Oklahoma Kelvin Gilliam coming home to Virginia to play for the Hokies is a sign.