For the second week in a row, a Virginia Tech meltdown saw the team falter down the stretch and blow a double-digit fourth-quarter lead. It was both the defense and offense who could not make the big play as the Hokies again lost by one point.
It seems that instead of finding ways to win, Virginia Tech keeps finding new ways to lose. Why does that continue?
The Virginia Tech Meltdown on Defense
Last week against North Carolina State, the Virginia Tech defense allowed 19 points in the final twenty minutes, losing grip of a 21-3 lead. This week, it was rinse and repeat, as the Hokies squandered a 27-16 lead with twenty minutes to play.
The Virginia Tech defense just cannot make a big stop when the team needs it most. Never mind that the offense is not doing its part. Mediocre offense has been a staple of Virginia Tech football for most of the last thirty years. What is missing this year is a defense that can make a big play. Especially in the fourth quarter, especially when the team is hemorrhaging and needs to stop the bleeding.
Someone needs to step up and make a play. Plain and simple.
Think about it…nursing a five-point lead with about five minutes remaining, defensive tackle Mario Kendricks sacked Georgia Tech quarterback Zach Pyron for a nine-yard loss. On the next play, linebacker Keli Lawson, who earlier caught his own deflection for a pick-six, batted down a pass to make it third and nineteen. Perfect time to make a stop, get the ball back, and maybe run out the clock, right?
Wrong. The Yellow Jackets converted the long third-down on a pass play, basically letting all of the air out of the Hokies’ balloon. You could sense it. The Virginia Tech meltdown was underway. The Jackets were going to score and win. That’s how this season has been going.
In three close losses against Old Dominion, North Carolina State, and now Georgia Tech, a big stop late or a big play earlier in the game could have changed the outcome. Instead, it has been an unfortunate re-occurrence of mishaps and missed opportunities.
In the first quarter on Saturday, Armani Chatman made a great break on a wide receiver screen, and instead of the pick-six, he batted the ball down. Had he just caught it and fell down, the Hokies would have had a golden opportunity to score with the ball inside the 30 going in. Instead, Georgia Tech marched 70 yards downfield for a touchdown. That is a 10-14 point swing.
Later, Dax Hollifield was beaten on a pass to Nate McCollum for a 56-yard touchdown that started the comeback. Why is the Hokies’ middle linebacker covering Georgia Tech’s best wide receiver in man coverage with no help? That is a tough matchup for Hollifield, and kudos to the Jackets for exploiting it. But shame on Tech for putting Hollifield in that situation (which, if you are counting, is the third time this year he has been beaten deep one-on-one for a touchdown. The coaches owe it to him and to the team to avoid putting him in those tough matchups).
In the end, Georgia Tech amassed 463 yards in this game. That is not a number that this defense can afford to yield, especially with an offense that is gaining a little more than half of that.
The Hokies brought back the Lunch Pail this season – they need to play Lunch Pail Defense. There needs to be more pressure on the quarterbacks, more interceptions, and more punishment of freshmen quarterbacks. Lunch Pail Defenses of the past used to salivate when a first year QB came into the game. Now those rookies are leading their teams to double digit comeback victories and Freshmen of the Week honors against the Hokies.
If Head Coach Brent Pry is going to right this ship, his defense needs to play better, especially in the fourth quarter.
The Virginia Tech Meltdown on Offense
Although the play-calling improved this week (more on that later), the result was the same. The offense moved the ball well at times, but they failed to execute when it mattered most. And they made crucial mistakes – again. Even though Virginia Tech only lost by one, the offense did not keep pace. In the end, that unit could only muster 304 yards and two touchdowns against a sub-par Georgia Tech defense.
Because of those mistakes, this unit left a lot of points off the board.
After the first Georgia Tech touchdown, the Hokies drove nicely downfield looking to answer. However, a botched exchange on a read-option resulted in a fumble on the Georgia Tech 24-yard line. That was a loss of at least three points because the Hokies fumbled in field goal range.
Later, with a golden opportunity to put the game away, the Hokies were riding the momentum of their fourth and one stop, pushing the ball deep into Yellow Jacket territory. However, a Keshawn King fumble at the ten-yard line killed the drive. Seven points there pretty much seals the game. Instead, the Jackets responded by going 90 yards for the touchdown – a potential 14-point swing.
That tallies to at least ten points that the offense left off the board. Factor in the blocked extra point and the missed field goal, and the number grows to 14. Add in the Chatman nixed-pick-six (above) and this game could have easily been a blowout. Or at least a victory and not another one-point loss.
Much like the defense, the offense had multiple opportunities to make a game changing play that could have put this game away. Instead, they continued to make mistakes and give their opponents life.
Close games are often decided in the final quarter. That is when champions shine, when the cream rises to the top. But for the Hokies this year, their offense – and defense – have both sunk like a ton of bricks when the game is on the line.
The Hokies’ final five possessions went like this:
- Missed 40-yard field goal, wide left
- Fumble at the 10-yard line going in
- Interception at the Georgia Tech 27-yard line
- Punt with 1:58 remaining after a false start followed by a sack to set up 4th and 21
- Fumble on the Virginia Tech 44-yard line with 0:48 to go and about 25 yards needed for a game winning field goal attempt
The team – both offense and defense – needs to learn how to win. They have to develop that mental fortitude to respond in the moment. They have to overcome adversity and make the big play rather than the big mistake.
This Team Reminds Me of 1992 – But I Think it is Going to be More Like 1987
As this season progresses and the Hokies continue to lose games, I think back to my senior year in Blacksburg – 1992 – and I can’t help but notice the similarities between the football teams.
The Virginia Tech meltdown in ‘92 has an uncanny resemblance to the one in ’22. The ‘92 squad went 2-8-1 and lost so many close games. So far, the 2022 Hokies have lost four of their games by six points or less – and two by a single point. In 1992, the Hokies lost five games by four points or less – and two by a single point. (One additional loss to West Virginia was by nine, which is still a close game). So the ’92 Hokies only lost two games by large margins (19 and 20), and they were to top ten teams (Syracuse and Miami).
The 2022 Hokies are currently on a six-game losing streak and failed to win a game in October. The ’92 Hokies lost five in a row but because of a tie, they were also winless in October. Their last victory was September 19, which was week three. The ’22 Hokies’ last win was September 17, also week three.
The late game collapses are probably the worst parallel to examine – because they hurt in ’92, and they hurt just as much in ’22. In ’92, Tech had fourth quarter leads in five games: four that they lost and one that they tied. In all of those games, the opponents scored in the final minutes to win or tie.
At North Carolina State, the Hokies kicked the go-ahead field goal with 1:21 remaining only to allow the Wolfpack to tie the game as the clock expired. Similarly, in Piscataway, I game I chose to attend because it was close to home, I watched the Hokies give up 20 fourth quarter points, including the game winning touchdown on the final play. The fourth quarter meltdowns between ’92 and ’22 are unfortunately too similar.
Although the outcomes of the games from 2022 can be compared to 1992, the program comparison is not quite the same. That ’92 squad turned it around the next year and won nine games, including the first bowl game of the 27-year bowl streak. As I wrote in a previous article, next season might present even greater challenges and it is difficult to imagine next year’s roster and schedule resulting in eight wins. Also, that 1992 team had seven future NFL players on its roster. The 2022 team might have none.
Looking at where the program is right now, a better comparison is to the 1987 team that went 2-9 in Frank Beamer’s first year as head coach. That team also suffered a six game losing streak, but the comparisons off the field are much more aligned with this year’s program. In ’87, Beamer took over a team that was sanctioned because of issues with previous coach and athletic director Bill Dooley. Beamer had limited scholarships available, so it took him a few years to build his roster.
Look at the team Pry has inherited. It also was a depleted roster, with thirteen of last year’s starters leaving the program after the season, many of whom still had eligibility remaining. Factor in a few others from the two-deep and this was a very young and inexperienced team for Pry to lead. I’ve said it multiple times, but I’ll say it again because it is that profound – think about that roster from the Pinstripe Bowl beatdown…add four transfers and that is the roster the Hokies have now.
And when the seniors leave this year – those key players such as Dax Hollifield, Chamarri Connor, Tyjuan Garbutt, and maybe even Norell Pollard and Kaleb Smith, the guys behind them will be young and green. Hopefully there won’t be more attrition through the portal, because this team cannot afford to lose anyone with experience. In fact, the program needs the opposite – a few incoming transfers who can help immediately.
Pry has a great personality. His vision meshes well with the culture and the history of the program. But it is probably going to take at least a year or two to start seeing results, much like it did in 1987.
The Hokies Showed Improvement in Play-Calling and Punt Returns
Despite the dreary observations above, there was a little glimmer of hope from Saturday’s game. One consistent gripe from Hokie Nation – myself included – has been that the Virginia Tech offense is too vanilla. That changed this week. Although the scoreboard – and the total yards line in the box score – did not necessarily change, the play-calling did.
It was refreshing to see the differences from the start. Virginia Tech utilized more motion and even suggested that they might run a jet sweep! They have to work on that one, though, and avoid snapping the ball into the man in motion – that almost resulted in a fifth turnover.
But the motion was a nice wrinkle, as was the blocking scheme. The Hokies used inside traps to help open holes, and it worked to a degree. Keshawn King, Jalen Holston, and Chance Black combined for 113 yards on the ground – with none of their carries going for a loss. This was a step in the right direction.
The Hokie receivers also seemed to get separation. Several passes hit open receivers in space. And the offense even attempted a half back option! The playbook was definitely opened up in the first half.
Perhaps my favorite series of play calls came after the Hokies stopped the Yellow Jackets on fourth and one on the GT 32 yard-line. Instead of dropping back to pass – and yes, as many wanted, going for the jugular – offensive coordinator Tyler Bowen elected to keep the ball on the ground. This was a great decision.
First of all, a sack there puts Tech behind the chains and puts a field goal attempt at risk. And second, the Hokies had the Yellow Jackets on their heels. An old-school Virginia Tech scoring drive of all runs would have demoralized Georgia Tech even more. The Hokies gained 22 yards on four powerful runs up the middle. The Jackets were on the ropes, and the Hokies were gearing up for the knockout punch. Unfortunately, King fumbled on the ten-yard line on the fifth run from scrimmage, but the approach to that drive was exactly what it should have been in that moment.
The problems were mostly in execution this week, not play calling. For that, the coaches – especially Bowen – deserve some credit.
Another area of improvement – VAST improvement – was evident in the Hokies’ punt returns. As I wrote in my article last week, coming into this game, Virginia Tech was ranked third to last among FBS schools with an average punt return of 1.29 yards. As my friend Bob said after reading that, “Sheesh, you can just fall forward and average more than that!”
Special Teams coach Stu Holt took note, as his punt return looked markedly different this week, including a 90-yard punt return for a touchdown. Watching the previous games, it was difficult to identify Virginia Tech’s strategy on the punt return. Was it to pressure the kicker and maybe block one? Or was it to set up a return?
With the exception of the blocked kick at Pittsburgh (which was aided by a bad snap), neither was working. The Hokies’ rush on the punter was somewhat lackadaisical, with no one really gunning for the block. And that took those guys out of the return, for they were five to eight yards behind the line of scrimmage as the punter kicked the ball.
This left the return man isolated, and thus, he had to resort to calling for a fair catch. With no blocking, it would be a suicide mission to catch a punt – especially in traffic – and try to evade three, four, or even five defenders in his face. The result? A fair catch on almost every punt and a return average of less than two yards.
The change in the return game was noticeable on Virginia Tech’s first return. No one rushed the punter and the defenders instead peeled off the line of scrimmage, trying to stick on one man. Connor Blumrick was also moved off the line and back as a second return man. However, it was clear that Blumrick was there to block and Tucker Holloway was the return man.
On the 90-yard punt return, Blumrick was the key. One Georgia Tech defender got through the initial line and was gunning for Holloway. Blumrick stepped in his way, Holloway evaded him easily, and the rest of the blockers were already doing their job. Holloway was off to the races.
Kudos to Coach Holt for making these changes. They resulted in one touchdown and a record breaking performance by a freshman. Holloway’s 188 yards in punt returns are the new Virginia Tech record for a single game. Even without the 90 yarder, Holloway still averaged over 16-yards per return, which would put him in the top three NATIONALLY if that was his season average.
So even though the Hokies choked this one away – again – there were some changes that should spring hope eternal in the Hokies’ breasts. Even if they are mere flickers of light, they are positive changes!
Virginia Tech travels a few hours down Tobacco Road to take on the resurgent Duke Blue Devils at noon on Saturday. Yes, another noon game not on the networks (this week is ESPN+), but what can Tech fans expect with a 2-7 record?
Duke is scoring in bunches, averaging 34.8 points per game, which has them tied for 29th in the nation. That is worrisome to Tech fans, as the Hokies are only averaging 20.2 points per game.
However, Duke has not been a picture of consistency. Four games ago, they lost to Georgia Tech 23-20 in overtime. They followed that with a shootout loss to North Carolina, 38-35. With the help of eight turnovers, they dismantled Miami 45-21 in Coral Gables. And last week they hung on to defeat a bad Boston College team 38-31 in Chestnut Hill.
It will be tough to keep Duke out of the end zone. Virginia Tech will need more help from defense and special teams if they expect to win this game. That, and maybe a game like the one Duke played at Georgia Tech. Otherwise, the Hokies will be looking at an eight-game losing streak followed by a trip to Lynchburg to face a nationally ranked one-loss Liberty team that beat BYU and Arkansas. It is not likely, but Tech badly needs this win.
True freshman Tucker Holloway played in his third game of the year last weekend. In doing so, he set the program record for most punt return yardage in a single game. Should he keep playing and burn his redshirt?
On the one hand, he only returns punts, and the Hokies’ bowl hopes are officially over, so is that a productive use of a true freshman? However, as he showed last week, he can be a difference-maker, and he is the only punt returner so far to show the ability to return the ball after catching it. But is that because of the changes Tech made on the return? And if the redshirt is burned, should he get playing time at wide receiver as well? It is not an easy decision.
The Hokies scored on offense, defense, and special teams – and still lost. That is the first time it happened to Tech since a 1998 loss to Syracuse at the Carrier Dome. In that game, the Hokies lost 26-28, but the offense only accounted for ten points (sound familiar?). In addition to a punt blocked in the end zone, the defense had a 76-yard scoop and score by current Highland Springs coach Loren Johnson. He also had a 98-yard blocked PAT return for two points. Johnson’s son Braylon is a Virginia Tech 2023 commit. Let’s hope that he and PJ Prioleau, both VT legacies, can produce excitement like their fathers did!
In my “Hot Takes” article a few weeks ago, I suggested that the Hokies should go into the transfer portal to sign Logan Brown, the former Wisconsin tackle who was suspended from his team.
Well, that is no longer an option, and Brown has committed to the Kansas Jayhawks. While this is not good news for the Hokies since Brown is no longer available, it does show that anything can happen down the line. The Jayhawks have not won more than three games since 2009, yet here they are at six wins and signing a former five-star lineman from Wisconsin. Hopefully the Hokies can turn things around soon and entice a few high quality transfers and recruits to come to Blacksburg!
— Logan Brown (@loganbrown53) October 30, 2022
I know this is a football site, but did you see the Hokies first basketball game? Maybe I’m just looking for excitement since the football season is not producing any…but wow. I like what I see! Yes, it is only Delaware State. And Justyn Mutts did not play. But Grant Basile is stud. 30 points in his Hokie debut! He can shoot the three, he can drive, he can post up. There is depth inside. Sean Pedulla looks comfortable at the point and he can shoot as well. This team has more versatility than last year’s ACC Tournament championship team, and they play a different style. They attack the basket. I am excited for this basketball season!
Virginia Tech has now held the Commonwealth Cup for 696 consecutive days!
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