It’s roughly 1/3rd of the way through the weird 2020 season, and it’s that time where we take a bit of stock, and look at the Hokies and where we think things are going. This has been a rough season so we are going to go back and look at each of the challenges, first. Then we’ll take a look at the issues that have cropped up, and then close it with the good things that we’ve seen that the team needs to continue to build upon.
The Challenges Weren’t All Field Related
The 2-ton elephant in the parlor of the 2020 season has been the COVID epidemic and the methods implemented by the state and local governments for dealing with it. (We aren’t here to debate them, just understand that college football had to deal with them.) The COVID Response caused several difficulties with the normal pace of conducting a football program:
- The Spring Season was cancelled. This is a critical month and a half of practices and scrimmages that help to mold the upperclassmen of a team into better players. It’s a period of structured conditioning, play development, and practice that provides the foundation for the Fall season. Every program suffered from the lack of a Spring Season.
- The regular seasons were scrapped and rebuilt to include only conference games and one other game from an instate program, if it was operating. There were no warm-up games and no heavy hitting non-conference game to show prowess. In Tech’s case we lost the B1G match-up with Penn State. We also gained more ACC exposure that could make differences at the end of the season.
- The ACC divisions were eliminated and the “playoff” won’t actually be a championship game between division winners. With Notre Dame activating (at least temporarily – should be permanent) its football program within the conference, the entire equation of how the ACC works has been altered. This is more the basketball and non-revenue sport model than football. It wasn’t an unreasonable approach, but it does make a huge difference in the playoff potential.
- The frustrating traps and tripwires of contact tracing and testing are constant and chronic specters for each team. Tech’s ready roster and coaching staff started the season adversely affected by quarantines, and the UNC game was the height with nearly the entire starting and backup secondary left in Blacksburg. Winning that game without the starting secondary was not likely to happen, and it was a miracle that the Hokie Offense managed to get us into a shootout.
- The biggest problem remains that because of the reactions and strict restrictions related to the pandemic, Lane Stadium’s raucous atmosphere, earthquake entrances, and 12th man noise distractions aren’t there for 2020.
The Personnel Issues will Remain but the Leaders are There
Every year, a college football team has to re-sort who and what it is. With almost no exceptions each year, each team is different. This means each group of players is going to develop different individual and group personalities that will grow and change over the season. The Hokies started off 2020 with major on field personnel changes some of which have yet to be completely settled:
- New coaches and formations on the defensive side of the ball. This situation wasn’t helped by a lack of a Spring practice, where those issues are worked, and sorted. The added problem of Farley’s skip of the season meant that young players a year from ready, with no Spring to learn, were going to be thrust into the heat of the fire, immediately.
- The Offense had potential, but the bubbling pot of the quarterback situation was not completely solved until Hendon Hooker was finally cleared to play and had enough time to get his legs up underneath him. Braxton Burmeister and Quincy Patterson both did manful jobs in filling in for Hendon, but as was evidenced by the Boston College game (and the 2nd half of the UNC game, btw) this is Hendon Hooker’s offense and he runs it best.
- Hokies finally have a pair of feature running backs in first, Khalil Herbert – who is fantastic, and Raheem Blackshear who is right there behind Herbert. This is definitely Herbert’s season, though. To say that he’s been magic, is an understatement. If he keeps hitting 100+ yard games, he’s going to set serious records – even without that final regular season game 12.
- Most importantly, a quiet revolution in the program has now become a loud event stream. The Virginia Tech Hokies have a 2-deep All-star Offensive Line. It is difficult to find any weakness in the squad across five positions two roster positions back. Silas Dzansi played Right Tackle in the BC effort for absent Luke Tenuta and no one noticed. There was no drop off in quality of play. They aren’t the famed Hogs, but they have come up with a name for themselves - #ViceSquad after their coach Vance Vice.
Play calling, Game Planning, and In-game Adjustments
The only discernible weakness in the offense, this season seems to be the functionally inconsistent Game Planning and Play calling from the Hokie Offensive Coaching staff. The prime example of which is the near certainty that a big play, either on the ground or in the air, will immediately be followed up by a completely unimaginative dive play.
- The Boundary Side Bias of the play concepts is also having a problematic effect. Once opposing defenses sniff out that a team is running 9 out of 10 plays to the boundary side of the field, they adjust to shave off coverage on the field side. It might be a bit more helpful to make defenses cover the entire field instead of a small corner of it, especially as the Offense reaches the red zone.
- Most of the generalized Game plans haven’t been awful, but there have been a few hitches that made more than a few fans scratch their heads in wonder. The first two games seemed to be too interested in passing, when running outside and countering was working so well, that throws were almost not needed. This doesn’t include the tendency to run those death trap dives that managed to stall momentum on 1st and 10. The issue seems to be a lack of imagination or willingness to pitch a game plan when it isn’t working.
- Which goes to in game adjustments and the super tanker turn slowness of the changes. There is also an annoying tendency to continue to ruin pacing by adjusting to the defense when at the line of scrimmage. This causes all sorts of issues. A) It destroys any pacing that can be established (then huddle up and call a play concept). Implement the Belichick Dicta – Make the defense adjust to you by attacking its weaknesses. Don’t play the other guy’s game. B) It stops momentum when the defense is rocked back on its heels. C) It affords more opportunities for the Offensive players to make procedural mistakes, false starts, and formation errors. Either go fast or don’t.
The Final Skinny on the First 3rd
After the first four games are in the bank, the Virginia Tech Hokies find themselves in a position that they haven’t for a very long time. They have scored at least 40 points in three games and 38 in the Duke game. The Offense is averaging 312 yards on the ground per game, and scored 15 total running touchdowns. Add to that, the Offense hasn’t turned the ball over much. 2 lost fumbles and an assorted pick or two. The Defense is still in need of a bit of work. It wouldn’t hurt to have the entire coaching staff available for more than one game, but the player personnel COVID hits have been the hardest to take. That the Hokies have a solid 3-1 record after four games missing 20 players a game, is actually really special. The next three games are going to be challenges, each for their own issues and we will be reviewing them one at a time.
Right now, though, the Hokies are in a much better position than when we started. Now if we could just get some of Hokie Nation back in the stands, and start jumping for our team.