It’s the day after a Virginia Tech football game. That usually means we hammer out anywhere between 1,500-2,000 words about the game from the day before. Not today.
What else is left to say after VT’s 24-17 loss to the Marshall Thundering Herd? It was Marshall’s first win over Virginia Tech since 1940. Let’s start with this: Marshall is a good program. There is no denying that, but they shouldn’t be winning games against Virginia Tech. Both things can be, and are, true.
Just when we think the Virginia Tech football program has hit rock bottom, we are smacked in the face with another new low. Saturday was that new low. If the last two weeks weren’t bad enough, at least we could say those losses were against Big Ten teams, even if they are Big 10 bottom feeders.
Here’s a dose of reality: Virginia Tech is a bottom feeder—an ACC bottom feeder. Heck, the Hokies are a Power 5 bottom feeder.
We aren’t going to get into what’s going on in the athletic department with Whit Babcock or John Ballein. In case you wonder why we are referencing Ballein here, do yourself a favor and read this ESPN article from August. We aren’t going to talk incessantly about former coach Justin Fuente — again. Instead, we will focus on the current product and what the current coaching staff can control.
But before we do that, let’s start by saying Fuente gets no pass for how bad things are in Blacksburg currently. His final recruiting classes — or lack thereof — are impacting the on-field product currently. Tech has a severe talent shortage in the trenches on both sides of the ball. While there are promising young players on both lines, there just aren’t enough of them.
Remember last year, when we talked about some of VT’s disappointing losses, we kept referencing the Duke Blue Devils. You know, the basketball school in Durham which hired a defensive-minded coach at the same time the Hokies hired Brent Pry. Mike Elko was reportedly a finalist for the Virginia Tech job but apparently didn’t meet the standards of the current athletic administration. In two years at Duke — AT DUKE — Elko has a record of 12-4.
Was the team Elko inherited that much worse than the one Pry inherited? Talentwise, the two programs were similar, although the Blue Devils did have a talented quarterback in Riley Leonard. Yet, Elko’s impact was immediate. Did you see the Blue Devils committing pre-snap penalties every week, sometimes as many as 10 per game? No, you did not.
Back to Leonard. It’s nice the Devils inherited a talented passer, but he was far from a sure thing when Elko and his staff arrived. Elko, being a coach with a defensive background, made sure he hired an offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach who had plenty of experience.
Elko hired Kevin Johns, who, since 2011, had either been offensive coordinator or co-offensive coordinator at multiple schools, such as Indiana, Western Michigan, Texas Tech and Memphis. He wasn’t a big name, but a coach known for getting the most out of his quarterbacks.
Who does Pry hire? Tyler Bowen. What were Bowen’s qualifications? At the time, Bowen was finishing his first year as a tight ends coach for Urban Meyer’s disastrous lone NFL season with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Bowen played college football at Maryland under Ralph Friedgen and began his coaching career as a grad assistant at his alma mater.
From there, Bowen coached tight ends at Towson (1 year), was a grad assistant at Penn State (1 year), offensive line coach at Fordham for one season, and was offensive coordinator for one season before returning to his alma mater in 2017 as offensive line coach.
In 2018, Bowen returned to Penn State as tight ends coach, and in 2019, he was promoted to interim offensive coordinator when Ricky Rahne left for ODU. In 2020, he was Penn State’s co-offensive coordinator. In 2021, he was with Jacksonville. It sure didn’t seem like James Franklin made a concerted effort to keep Bowen in the same role.
Pry spent years with Bowen, so he apparently believed Bowen had what it took to be a competent offensive coordinator. Maybe he’s right. But Virginia Tech shouldn’t be the training ground for coordinators. More on that later.
Defensive coordinator Chris Marve is also a first-time coordinator. He played for Pry at Vanderbilt. The Marve hire wasn’t as concerning as the Bowen hire because Pry’s specialty was defense, and he could help Marve.
Who could help Bowen? In his first season, Bowen had Brad Glenn as quarterbacks coach. Glenn left in the offseason to become Cincinnati’s new offensive coordinator. Pry’s prized hire was offensive line coach Joe Rudolph. Rudolph left in the spring to take the same position at Notre Dame. You can’t blame them either because they simply left for better opportunities.
How did Pry replace them? He hired Ron Crook as the offensive line coach despite, in Pry’s words, saying there was interest from coaches across the country. Crook spent last season as South Dakota. That’s not to discount Crook’s credibility, as he coached the offensive line at Stanford, West Virginia, Illinois and Cincinnati, among other stops. He’s certainly an accomplished coach.
And who replaced Glenn? That would be Bowen. The explanation was that since Bowen was the offensive coordinator play-caller, it made sense for him to coach quarterbacks since the positions are closely aligned.
This was despite Bowen never coaching quarterbacks before. The most important position on the field is being coached by someone who’d never coached the position — or played the position before.
In assessing the aftermath of Saturday’s loss, I came across this tweet, an excellent piece of information that falls in line with what we are discussing:
*When hired at VT*— Remy Etienne LeBeau (@BFISH804) September 23, 2023
Brad Cornelsen - 1 year FBS experience as Co-OC
Tyler Bowen - No FBS experience as OC
Justin Hamilton - No FBS experience as DC
Chris Marve - No FBS experience as DC
You seeing a pattern here?
*Credit to @noahdyenotdie for pointing this out
That’s stunning. And Bowen wasn’t cheap either.
Virginia Tech fans certainly understood what Pry was facing when he took over last year. There was going to be an extended honeymoon period. And let’s face it, Pry has done so many things right. Unfortunately, he hasn’t done the most important thing — win football games. Pry is 4-11 as Virginia Tech’s head coach.
Pry isn’t on the hot seat, and we aren’t advocating for him to be on the hot seat. But it’s fair to question his hiring process. If he fails at Virginia Tech, it’s probably his only shot as a head coach. If this season continues the way it’s headed, he will need to make some tough decisions in the offseason. It could mean cutting loose some men he likes and respects.
If we look at Virginia Tech’s current coaching staff, who would you say is thriving? Wide receivers coach Fontel Mines comes to mind. He’s doing outstanding work on the recruiting trail. It’s way too soon to grade running backs coach Elijah Brooks, but I loved that hire. I think Pry made shrewd hires for these two positions. Cornerbacks coach Derek Jones is an excellent coach and, along with Rudolph and Mines, were Pry’s best hires.
The rest? The jury is out. That’s not a knock on any of these coaches; it’s a valid assessment.
The issue is there are far too many question marks on a first-time head coach’s staff. Most first-year coaches want to surround themselves with experience, especially in the coordinator roles. Pry is learning on the job as a head coach and could’ve surrounded himself with some experience.
In Saturday’s loss to Marshall, the playcalling was a hot topic. Virginia Tech dominated the Thundering Herd early on with the running game. And while that type of domination wasn’t going to continue, Bowen got away from what was working too soon. That was criminal, with a quarterback making his second career start.
There’s plenty of time for Bowen to turn things around. Virginia Tech has eight games remaining. Yes, the Hokies are battling with injuries, inexperience and a lack of talent at certain positions, but can we honestly say Bowen is catering to his players’ strengths?
Another issue in the loss to Marshall was the startling amount of pre-snap penalties. We mentioned it earlier, but it’s still a problem in the second year of this regime — on both sides of the ball. That’s a lack of discipline, which is a coaching issue. So many times on Saturday, those penalties were killers. They either prolonged a Marshall drive or made it much easier on third down. And with the game on the line late in the fourth quarter on a potential game-tying drive, guard Bob Schick committed a false start.
There is a long way to go this season. Hopefully, the Hokies continue to improve and put some of these issues behind them. But if we are realistic and peak ahead at the schedule, how many more wins do we see?
Fans should continue to support Pry. He deserves it. But at some point, Pry and his staff need to give Hokie Nation — whether it be the fans, alums, donors, etc., something to believe in.
The more Duke wins, the more Hokie fans wonder, “Why not us?”