Virginia Tech continued its downward spiral of a season Thursday night with a 30-12 loss at Miami. The Hokies are looking at some must-win games just to be bowl eligible, something I don’t think anybody would have predicted before the season.
Now that I’ve landed in Greensboro, here are five thoughts about last night’s game.
1. Despite his struggles, it’d be foolish to go any other route but with Logan Thomas as quarterback.
Thomas put up some decent numbers at Miami, including a career-high 124 rushing yards, thanks to a 73-yard touchdown run up the gut, and 199 passing yards, but I don’t think anyone could make the argument that he was sharp. He completed only 19 of 37 passes, missing open receivers. His first-quarter interception in the red zone on a pass to fullback Joey Phillips was a terrible read and badly underthrown. He underthrew a wide open Demitri Knowles on a pass near the sideline in the third quarter that would have been a big gain. His biggest miss might have come on the fourth-and-one in the fourth quarter, when he overthrew Phillips out of the backfield after a play-action fake. (Play-calling critics have plenty to rant and rave about from this game, but that play was drawn up about as well as you could do it). On top of that, he fumbled at the goal line in the third quarter when Tech was close to trimming a 20-12 deficit.
That said, he’s still the Hokies’ best option at quarterback. He made a few plays Thursday and had to shoulder the load for a running game that still is off a tick, carrying it a career-high 22 times and taking a pounding at the end of several runs. He’s a gamer, and his up-and-down play this year notwithstanding, that’s something the coaches recognize and the team respects. Running back Tony Gregory said as much afterward, saying everyone still has Thomas’ back. And if Thomas is going to return for 2013, like he says he will, Tech will need to have him in a good frame of mind to lead this team. There’s a reason he was named the first junior captain in Frank Beamer’s tenure (although not showing up for post-game interviews was a decidedly un-captain-like move).
I got a couple tweets sent my direction and a blog comment or two in the second half and after the game to this effect – why not give Mark Leal a chance? The backup quarterback always seems to be the most popular player on the team, but there’s not any evidence that Leal, who has only played in garbage time, would be better for this offense. ESPN’s Todd McShay said it correctly – Thomas has all the potential in the world; you just hope he can put it all together. Those moments have been fleeting this year, but he’s still Tech’s best offensive weapon by far.
2. Nobody knows quite how the running back rotation is going to work, and that might include the coaching staff.
We had heard all week that the running back rotation would be pared down. Or, at the very least, we heard that the Hokies had already done that, shifting the load to J.C. Coleman and Gregory while having Michael Holmes take a backseat. Thursday’s rushing split didn’t follow that logic at all. Gregory had 10 carries for 50 yards. Holmes, surprisingly, got eight carries for 27 yards. And Coleman, who didn’t get a carry until the second quarter, had five carries for 23 yards. Beamer had a lengthy, meandering explanation for the split afterward that basically amounted to Coleman not getting as much work because of game situations. He also said the team wanted to get Holmes going. That seems to be a reverse course from the last two weeks.
Coleman is still only 2½ weeks removed from a 186-yard day against Duke. Six touches against Miami (he had one reception that went for two yards) doesn’t seem like nearly enough for someone who has displayed a game-breaking ability. Gregory showed a nice burst on his runs, and a 5-yard average is nothing to scoff at. Holmes had a nice run or two but still didn’t display much of anything that showed why the coaching staff is insistent on getting him a good share of the work.
The point might be moot. The rotation might be because none of the backs is quite talented enough – or, at the very least, ready at this point of their career – to be a featured tailback. Then again, Virginia Tech has crafted solid seasons out of running backs who wouldn’t be NFL stars before (Branden Ore, Cedric Humes, etc.). It’s probably just as much, if not more, a function of the blocking, which has been lacking all year. Whatever the underlying reason, I don’t think you’ll see the Hokies come up with a solution by the end of this year.
3. The defense is capable of shutting teams down in stretches, but not for a prolonged time.
The third quarter seemed like vintage Virginia Tech defense. Miami had three yards. The Hokies pressured ‘Canes quarterback Stephen Morris. They allowed no points and forced five straight punts at one point. But those stretches have been few and far between this season. I realize the offense and special teams put the defense in a bind on those first two touchdowns, but they didn’t put up much of a fight to keep the Hurricanes out of the end zone (the touchdown pass to Mike James out of the backfield looked like a replay of ones the Hokies gave up at Pittsburgh and at Clemson). Miami seemed to have receivers running free in the secondary for most of the first half and fourth quarter. And despite a recent resurgence, Tech’s defensive line produced no sacks (the stat sheet also said no hurries, but that can’t be accurate, given the pressure Morris was under for a while there).
Something seems missing from this defense, and it probably comes back to disruption. The Hokies didn’t force a turnover Thursday. But it’s more than that. Part of Virginia Tech’s defensive success over the year has been creating turnovers and, in many cases, directly turning those into points. But they haven’t had a defensive touchdown since the 2010 ACC championship game against Florida State. That’s 24 straight games. With a team that has a razor-thin margin between winning and losing, not having those kind of game-changing plays has had a major effect. The 1999 team had six defensive touchdowns. As recently as 2008, the Hokies have five defensive touchdowns. But in the last four years, they’ve had three total. That’s a drastic change.
4. Special teams are a problem that can’t be overlooked.
I’ve been writing for a while that Virginia Tech’s special teams have actually been improved this year, what with Kyshoen Jarrett and Knowles supplying threats in the return game, Cody Journell being pretty consistent in the kicking game and A.J. Hughes being a major upgrade at punter in terms of average. And it’s true that individually, some players have put up some good numbers.
But in a larger sense, there have far too many big special teams mistakes (and really, there are no other kind on special teams) that have turned the tide of games. Hughes dropped a snap against Georgia Tech. The Hokies gave up a kick return for a touchdown against North Carolina. Christian Reeves inadvertently touched a short punt to turn it over at Clemson. And last night, Hughes bobbled a snap that led to a blocked punt, the kick coverage team gave up an 81-yard return to Duke Johnson and Journell missed a long field goal and an extra point.
Beamer insists the issues are execution-related. And he has a point. Simply catching the snap and staying in your lane are execution problems. But coaching has to have something to do with that. Tech reps special teams as often as it ever has, yet these problems keep popping up on a weekly basis and have for a while (roughing the kicker penalties in last year’s ACC title game and Sugar Bowl proved costly, and Danny Coale’s ill-advised fake punt attempt will not soon be forgotten). Beamer made his reputation on being a special teams guru, but that part of the Hokies’ game has lagged for years now. If “Beamer Ball” wasn’t already long-expired concept, last night might have cemented it as one.
5. This isn’t something that looks like it’s going to get fixed this year and there’s a legitimate chance the Hokies’ bowl streak could end.
Despite the insistence by Beamer that this team is close, it’s hard to buy that argument. The Hokies have now lost four games by double digits – Pittsburgh by 18, North Carolina by 14, Clemson by 21 and Miami by 18. Those are not outcomes where four or five plays make all the difference. Going back to last year, Virginia Tech is 2-7 in its last nine games against teams from Bowl Championship Series conferences. The Hokies’ seven-game losing streak away from Lane Stadium is the longest streak since the a nine-game skid in 1987-88. And it doesn’t figure to get any better next Thursday, when Florida State, the ACC’s best team , comes to Blacksburg. Virginia Tech managed one touchdown against the league’s worst defense. What will it accomplish against the league’s best?
The greater concern now is merely making a bowl game. I’ve long thought Boston College and Virginia would be games Tech would have an easy time winning. I don’t have that belief now. This isn’t a team that’s proven it can win on the road, so even beating a Boston College team whose coach might be on his way out is no guarantee. Virginia has obviously not been good this year, but if ever there was a reason to be motivated for the finale of a regrettable season, wouldn’t it be to end your state rival’s nearly two-decade long bowl streak?
Tech fans who haven’t had to deal with this situation in 20 years are understandably upset right now. It will be interesting to see if the coaching shakeup so many have clamored for all these years finally happens now that Tech has almost no shot of winning the Coastal Division and could be sitting at home for the holidays, an unthinkable outcome at the start of the year. Beamer has preached togetherness after the losses, something completely in character for the long-time coach. He said both coaches and players are to blame for the team’s situation and both coaches and players will have to be the ones to pull the Hokies out of it. But what he does after the season might be a different story. At age 66, he has only a few coaching years remaining. If he thinks it’s necessary, will he be willing this close to retirement to make a major overhaul to the coaching staff? A change is not cure-all. Many such decisions have backfired on coaches across the country. But it will be interesting to see if Beamer chooses to go that route, especially now that Tech’s record confirms something is amiss.