Virginia Tech’s loss to Clemson on Saturday wasn’t all that surprising, but the fact that the defense turned in a noteworthy performance and the chance of upset, as bizarre as it sounds in a 38-17 game, was actually a possibility for a while is what has Hokie Nation bumming today. If you missed my stuff from the game yesterday, you can read it here.
Now for five more thoughts about the game:
1. This one you can blame on the offense, but don’t expect any midseason changes to the staff/scheme.
Cue the, “Oh, you think so, doctor?” comments. Fans have been quick to blame the offense — and solely the offense — for Virginia Tech’s shortcomings this year out of habit, I think. But honestly, this is the first game I think you can squarely pin on the offensive side of the ball. The entire team didn’t show up at Pittsburgh. The Cincinnati game was full of struggles, but the offense actually came through in the end and, if not for a defensive breakdown in the final seconds, the Hokies would have won. And the North Carolina loss was primarily a defensive failure.
Saturday, the offense was … well, offensive. The Hokies had their chances against Clemson and couldn’t capitalize. The final stats will look somewhat OK. Virginia Tech finished with 406 yards, although a glance at the breakdown will show an inconsistent group that only put together four real sustained drives. And while Frank Beamer touted the 406 yards as a sign that Tech’s offense was doing some good things, he needs to understand that 400 yards in this day and age of college football is average at best. (In fact, Louisville, the 60th-ranked offense nationally at the midway point of the FBS, is averaging 405.6 yards per game.)
This will no doubt intensify the complaints about the offensive coaching staff. They existed when the group put up 525 yards and 41 points against Duke, so of course they’ll exist after this. Beamer sidestepped questions about re-examining the offense during the bye week. ”We’ve just got to keep working,” he said. “Things out there today looked good. If you’ve got 400 yards, you’re doing something pretty good.” Those statements are sure to anger a good chunk of the fan base, but it’s what you get from Frank. Frothing at the mouth about wanting an in-season change to the staff is futile. If Beamer makes changes — and considering the direction of the team right now, I’d say it’s a distinct possibility — they’ll come in the offseason. And he won’t publicly hint at anything before then. (Beamer has talked about coming together as a team any time a question is asked about potential changes.) It’s always been his style and I can’t imagine it will change this late in his career.
2. The coaching staff’s assessment that the team “4 or 5 or 6″ plays away from altering the game’s outcome is technically correct, albeit an incomplete thought.
First of all, this could be said about any game. When you’re talking about as many as six plays hitting or not hitting, yeah, that’s going to alter the outcome of some games. But that goes for both teams. I’m sure Clemson has a few plays it would like back Saturday as well. That doesn’t mean the statement is false for the Hokies, though. There were a bunch of close plays that, had they gone a different direction, would have made things different. The fourth-down call early. The Dyrell Roberts pass early in the second half. The two highly questionable calls early in the third quarter, first on the Logan Thomas “sack” and then on the Sammy Watkins “fumble.” Those are big momentum-turning plays that directly led to points being on the board, so yes, those are major factors.
But those plays are so magnified this year because the Hokies aren’t good enough to have a large margin of error. Columnist Aaron McFarling wrote about this some for his column today. I’m sure in past years Virginia Tech has missed on oh-so-close plays. But it didn’t need those close plays to hit all the time to have a chance. A consistent ground game or more reliable pass-catching threats mean you can move the ball consistently and don’t need to those one-shot plays to hit to stay in games. The Dyrell play was a big miss, but it was a first-down play and the Hokies moved the chains anyway, failing to sustain the drive after that. Tech has relied on that big play to spark its offense this year. What’s lacking is the grind-it-out drives that can be just as effective but are harder, because they require consistency from the entire unit for a long period of time. That’s where the Hokies have lacked this year, and that’s a far bigger problem than missing on a few big plays.
3. It looks like Todd McShay was accurate in his assessment of Logan Thomas’ inaccuracy.
When I posted ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay‘s insight on Thomas’ draft stock the other day, it was met with two divergent thoughts: 1) he doesn’t have any clue what he’s talking about and 2) that’s pretty spot on. I think it’s starting to become clear that it’s the latter. And that’s not a knock on Thomas, whose offseason hype, through no fault of his own, got a little too high (perhaps everyone, myself included, should have waited to see how he handled being The Guy in an offense before jumping to conclusions).
Saturday reinforced those thoughts that the ball isn’t as natural as it could be coming out of his hand. Both of his interceptions were on passes that floated on him, a season-long problem. The first almost looked like he was trying to throw it away out of bounds and overshot it. The second, after he stepped up in the pocket, looked like it just had too much oomph on it. (Logan said it slipped out of his hand.) That’s 10 interceptions now this year for Thomas, which matches his total from last year. Considering what he’s being asked to do this year, throwing the ball a ton to try to get the Hokies back in games late, that’s not an entirely surprising stat. And if Tech continues to ask him to play that way, more will inevitably happen.
There are times when Thomas is accurate and times when he’s not. Those are the tantalizing flashes McShay described. But he remains unpolished. And again, that’s probably to be expected for someone who is still relatively new at the position. I continue to get occasional tweets or emails about playing Mark Leal, which, in my opinion, is utterly foolish. Thomas remains the best option at quarterback for the Hokies and will continue to improve over time. He’s just not the top-five-pick caliber player that many had thought in the offseason. At least not yet.
4. This defense feels like it’s capable of shutting someone down.
You have to give the defense a lot of credit for how it played against the Tigers. Chad Morris‘ offenses aren’t typically held to less than 300 yards. It’s happened three times, I believe, in his 34 games as a college coordinator. Bud Foster‘s crew has now done it twice, both in losing efforts. The 38 points the Tigers put up are misleading. Seven came off an interception. Their other four touchdowns came after getting short fields. Clemson’s starting field position on those four drives: the VT 26, its own 48, the VT 47 and the VT 41. You’re not going to hold a bad offense off the scoreboard with short fields like that, let alone a great one (although the Hokies could have done a better job in holding them to field goals instead of touchdowns).
But the elements of what you’d expect from a Foster-coached defense are there. The line got pressure, registering five sacks. The missed tackles were limited. The secondary got another pick, this one on a nifty play by Michael Cole. The only big play over the top I can remember was the touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins over Kyle Fuller. Everything else the Hokies kept in front of them, which was the game plan. And while Andre Elllington ran for 96 yards, Tech held Clemson to 3.0 yards per rush, right about what it had hoped. If you put those elements together on a week-to-week basis, you’re going to have some success and probably not come close to allowing 38 points again. I think this was the toughest offense Tech will face this year and that it has a chance to do some good things against Miami and Florida State in the next few weeks.
5. The Coastal Division is up for grabs, but does that matter to Tech fans?
Miami lost to Florida State, as everyone expected, giving the ‘Canes two conference losses. But Duke beat North Carolina, making the Coastal Division standings look like this:
- Duke 3-1
- Miami 3-2
- North Carolina 2-2 (ineligible)
- Virginia Tech 2-2
- Georgia Tech 2-3
The Blue Devils’ surprising success notwithstanding, that is an ugly group. I still maintain that the division winner will be whoever wins the Miami-Virginia Tech game in a week and a half. I know Duke technically controls its situation, but I can’t see it beating either FSU or Clemson in the next two games, which will bring it back to the pack. If the Hokies get to 5-3 in the division — a distinct possibility with Boston College and Virginia on the schedule late and Miami up next — it should be enough to take the Coastal, even if it comes to a tiebreaker.
The real question is if that matters? Will capturing a watered-down Coastal Division title all that notable? Will playing in an ACC championship game with a 7-5 record be an accomplishment or a joke, like it was when 6-6 UCLA played in the Pac-12 title game last year because USC was ineligible? Sure, there would be an underdog aspect to it that actually might endear this team to the fan base if it could pull it out, but after the string of success the Hokies have had, to get that far with a team as flawed as this year, I can’t imagine it doing much to appease a fan base that sees the program heading in the wrong direction.