Last Thursday night, we saw a great display of old school Virginia Tech football. Ball control, defense, and pick six.
The problem for Hokie fans is that they were not the ones playing that style of football.
West Virginia played much like Virginia Tech did in its heyday, beating the Hokies 33-10 on national TV Thursday night. The Mountaineers (2-2, 0-1 Big 12) just wore down Virginia Tech (2-2, 1-0 ACC), outscoring the Hokies 17-0 in the fourth quarter to run away with the game.
During most of Frank Beamer’s remarkable run as coach, Virginia Tech often played their signature brand of football. They relied on a ball control offense with a strong running game, a suffocating defense, and non-offensive touchdowns .
The Mountaineers did exactly that to the Hokies on Thursday night.
West Virginia used a balanced offensive attack to control the clock. They possessed the ball for almost 39 minutes to just over 21 for the Hokies. WVU gained 218 yards on the ground and 203 in the air. They then added a pick-six in the fourth quarter to put the exclamation mark on the win.
On the other side of the ball, the Mountaineers held the Hokies to 35 total yards rushing and 228 total yards overall. Much like Virginia Tech games of the late 90’s into the late 2000’s, one team dominated everywhere except the scoreboard until breaking it open in the final period. This one was close through three quarters despite WVU’s statistical dominance. But their methodical attack and control of the line of scrimmage helped West Virginia to win going away.
The Jekyll and Hyde of the Hokies Defense
On the one hand, Virginia Tech’s defense played well enough to give them a chance to win. Through three quarters, they held the high-powered West Virginia offense in check and even forced a potentially momentum shifting fumble. Three times WVU entered the red zone and three times the Hokies forced field goals. The only touchdown was the result of a perfectly executed two-minute offense to strike at the end of the half. Still, at the end of three quarters, the Mountaineers only led 16-10.
However, the Hokies D could not generate pressure on West Virginia quarterback JT Daniels all night, only sacking him once. Nor could they control the point of attack, as many WVU runs were one secondary tackle from breaking a big gain.
The defense also shot itself in the foot repeatedly. Eight times penalties on the Hokies’ defense resulted in a Mountaineer first down, with several of those occurring on key drives.
On West Virginia’s second possession, a great punt by Peter Moore pinned the Mountaineers at their own two-yard line. Instead of taking advantage of the field position and crowd noise, the Hokies committed four penalties on that drive. This allowed West Virginia to be on the field for just over seven minutes, run 14 plays, and kick a field goal.
Then, on the game-sealing touchdown drive that started in the third quarter, Tech twice had the chance to end the drive but squandered the opportunity on penalties. On fourth and the length of a football from the Tech 35, the crowd noise was its loudest of the night. West Virginia was flagged for a false start, but they still decided to go for it on fourth and six. Daniels was forced out of the pocket and threw incomplete, but senior co-captain Dax Hollifield hit him high for a roughing the passer call and an automatic first down.
A few plays later, Tyjuan Garbutt registered the Hokies’ lone sack of the night, helping to put WVU in a third and 14 from the Tech 28. Daniels’ pass again fell incomplete, but senior co-captain Norell Pollard was flagged for illegal hands to the face and another automatic first down ensued. Two plays later, WVU punched it in for six, and the game was essentially over.
The Offense was an Achilles Heel
The game started well enough for the Virginia Tech offense. After trading punts, West Virginia went up 3-0. Tech answered promptly, with a 77-yard scoring drive that ended with a beautiful touchdown catch by Kaleb Smith. Tech quarterback Grant Wells placed the ball on Smith’s outside shoulder, and the senior receiver spun around to make a tough catch for the score.
After the Tech defense forced a fumble on the ensuing Mountaineer possession, the Tech offense rolled 47 yards downfield, looking as if they would add more points to the scoreboard. However, a third and one run up the middle went for no gain. On fourth and one, Head Coach Brent Pry decided to go for it, and a Wells QB draw was stuffed at the line of scrimmage. Tech turned it over on downs.
Although West Virginia would not score for two more possessions, that failed fourth down conversion seemed to be the beginning of the end for the Tech offense.
Prior to that ill-fated fourth down play, Grant Wells completed eight of thirteen passes. He would complete only eight more the rest of the game. He missed open receivers and he often locked on his first target. This probably prompted the pick six in the fourth quarter, as freshman defensive back Jacolby Spells jumped the route perfectly and ran 27 yards untouched into the end zone. It was not a good day for Wells, to say the least.
The Line is Struggling – to Put it Nicely
The Hokies only rushed for 35 yards in this contest. That includes a net of ten yards on the final offensive drive of the game, when this contest was already decided. So Tech really only ran for 25 yards in this one. Ooof.
And getting back to that failed fourth down conversion, this was not the first time that the Hokies had a fourth and one, only to run up the middle for no gain. It also happened against Old Dominion and Wofford (a G5 team and an FCS team). There have been a few third and ones that have also seen runs up the middle for no gain. Former Tech Head Coach Frank Beamer believed that his team should be tough enough to run for one yard, so he believed in running the ball up the middle in those situations. However, with Tech’s utter lack of push at the point of attack and poor running performance so far, it might be time for some play action, misdirection, or outside runs in these short yardage situations.
Speaking of runs up the middle, the Tech tailbacks only carried the ball eleven times in this game. And all eleven of those were runs up the middle. Those eleven runs up the middle netted 21 yards for the Hokies. Again, perhaps it is time to try to run to the edge or to move the linebackers from side to side.
The line is struggling. As Chris Coleman pointed out in a recent Tech Sideline podcast, Tech has a PFF run blocking grade of 46, good for 63rd out of 65 FBS teams. Maybe it is the new scheme. Or new technique. Maybe it is communication. These players all performed better last year. And Joe Rudolph is a great teacher who has produced great linemen at Wisconsin. It is very concerning for Hokie fans that the line is so problematic. Just look at this play from Thursday night…
— Deablo fan account (@DeferredWalkOn) September 27, 2022
Too Much Laundry on the Field – From the Defense!
As poorly as the offense played, Tech still had its chances through three quarters. However, penalties again contributed to the loss in a big way, as the Hokies committed 15 of them on the night for 132 penalty yards. That’s the second most penalty yards EVER for a Virginia Tech football team.
In their two losses, Virginia Tech has been flagged 30 times for 248 yards. Nationally, they rank 129th out of 131 FBS teams with ten penalties per game. (only Syracuse and Houston have more – yet Syracuse is 4-0!). Tech’s 40 penalties for 323 yards ranks 125th nationally for penalty yards per game.
If the Hokies want to win games, they simply have to play – and coach – with more discipline. The penalties have to decrease. It is bad enough that the Hokies cannot run the ball effectively. Compounding their problems are the penalties, either putting them behind the chains or giving their opponents free yardage. These mistakes are a mountain that even Enoch cannot move.
Is There a Silver Lining?
It is difficult for any Tech fan to walk away from this game and look at the bright side. Other than Kaleb Smith, who really only shined for one half, the only player performances to emphasize were on special teams. Punter Peter Moore again had a good game, and kicker William Ross remained perfect on the year.
The only silver lining that one can see is that the ACC Coastal is, as usual, just an absolute mess. Other than Pittsburgh, and maybe even Duke, no team on this side of the conference has been consistent. Virginia Tech currently stands in first place in the division at 1-0, and they head to Chapel Hill this week to take on a conference rival who is not playing good defense. Heck, they might not be playing any defense!
Maybe the UNC defense is the medicine that Tech’s offense needs right now. But then again, maybe the Tech offense is the medicine that the UNC defense needs. Either way, both are struggling.
Can Tech’s Defense Slow Down the UNC Offense?
North Carolina is scoring in bunches, but as we saw Thursday night, Virginia Tech’s defense can keep the Hokies in games. UNC’s defense is abysmal though, giving up 495 yards and 39.5 points per game. This is an opportunity for Virginia Tech’s offense to bounce back.
UNC’s offense is a different story though, as they are averaging 502 yards per game, good for 16th in the country. They are scoring 46.5 points per game, which ranks eighth nationally. And freshman quarterback Drake Maye is off to a great start. Through four games, Maye has thrown for 1231 yards with 16 touchdowns and only one interception. Maye and this offense can move the ball and score!
Conversely, Virginia Tech is allowing only 256 yards per game. This is good for tenth in the nation and half of what UNC gains per game. The Hokies are allowing only 17.5 points per game. This is tied for 26th overall and about a third of what the Tar Heels score per game.
This can be a fun one. UNC’s high-powered offense versus Tech’s stingy defense, who probably will have a chip on their shoulder after last week’s performance. When the Hokies have the ball, it will be their lackluster offense versus the Tar Heels’ invisible defense. Throw in the plethora of penalties (UNC’s 7.5 per game and VT’s 10 per game) and over a turnover per game (UNC lost the ball five times to VT’s six on the year) and who knows what outcome to expect?
Tune in to the ACC Network at 3:30 this Saturday. The Coastal division may be up in the air, but this should be an entertaining – and wet – game to watch!
The Hokies won seven of their last ten trips to Chapel Hill. However, in their last trip in 2020, the Covid-depleted Hokie D gave up 21 straight points to start the game and lost 54-45. The Hokies cannot afford to let UNC start like that again.
Remnants of Hurricane Ian are expected to be in town for the game Saturday. Some may remember the last time the Hokies played at Chapel Hill in a hurricane. It was Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and they beat Mitch Trubisky’s Tar Heels 34-3.
The Hokies also beat Texas A&M at home during Hurricane Isabel in 2003. Hopefully, their luck in Hurricane games and the wet field will help offset the playmakers on that high-powered UNC offense!
As I mentioned in my West Virginia preview, it is paramount for the Hokies to establish the run and sustain drives. They will need to keep the UNC offense off the field and shorten the game by keeping the clock moving. They must run the ball effectively and bring the play clock under ten seconds on every play. The Hokies have done neither consistently this year. If they change that this week, their defense – and the weather – could keep them in the game.
Although the Hokies played their worst game statistically Thursday, it is not time to claim the sky is falling. Let’s invoke the words of Frank Beamer, as so eloquently pointed out on the Sons of Saturday podcast, “It’s never as good as it seems, and it’s never as bad as it seems.” Let’s hope it gets better this weekend though!
West Virginia keeps the Black Diamond Trophy indefinitely, as these two teams are not scheduled to play each other in the next ten years.
West Virginia guard Doug Nester made his first trip to Lane Stadium since transferring after his second year at Tech. The Hokies flipped Nester from Ohio State and he played right away. However, after only two years, he surprisingly entered the transfer portal and decided to play in his home state. Some fans may disagree with this, but with all that went on during the Fuente era, it is difficult to criticize any player who chose to leave Virginia Tech during that time. Even though Nester plays for Tech’s hated rival, we have to respect his decision and commend him for playing a great game. His PFF grade was over 80 for run blocking, which means he dominated. Kudos to you, Doug Nester.
Speaking of Nester, it must have been an emotional return to Lane Stadium. It was heartwarming to see him talking to the Tech players with whom he shared so much time in his first two years. Players like Nick Gallo and Silas Dzansi were there to hug Nester immediately after the game, reminding us that this is, after all, just a game, and there is so much more to the experience than wins and losses.
Now back to the football part. Did you hear that the U is back? Hahahahahahahahahaha!
Virginia Tech has now held the Commonwealth Cup for 656 consecutive days!
To read more of my articles on Virginia Tech football, click here.
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