That was not a finish that many Hokies fans were hoping for last night. If you’d like to revisit it, here’s our coverage from Virginia Tech’s last-minute 28-22 loss to Florida State.
Now that it’s had some time to settle in, here are five thoughts about the game, and judging from the tenor of comments in the previous post, they’re less harsh than what a lot of people are thinking.
1. I see a lot of criticism of the offensive play-calling and quarterback Logan Thomas in particular, and I just don’t get it.
I get that Thomas threw two interceptions that weren’t pretty. I get that the play-calling near the goal line at the very end could have been more imaginative. I get that there’s a general sense of frustration that’s been building with the staff over the years that triggers a visceral, negative reaction anytime something doesn’t go particularly well with the offense. But I don’t think this game compares to previous ones this year in which the offense didn’t pull its weight.
Scoring 12 points and committing critical errors against Miami is a bad offensive night. Scoring 22 (or 20 if you take away the safety) and committing a few errors against a defense the caliber of Florida State is nothing to hang your head about. The Hokies had 385 yards on FSU. Only Clemson has had more this year (and not by too much). The Hokies scored 22 points. Again, only Clemson scored more. Thomas threw for 298 yards. Nobody has done that against FSU this year. Remember, the ‘Noles were ranked first in the league and in the top-six nationally in every major defensive statistical category. Nothing was going to be easy, and I’d say the Hokies exceeded the admittedly meager goals that many had set for them coming in.
Now. could the play-calling have been more innovative near the end by the goal line, when a touchdown would have put Tech in a much more favorable situation? Yes. But it’s a tough scenario. Three straight runs there probably wasn’t what the fans wanted to see, but it was a situation where Tech was trying to burn the clock and get in the end zone at the same time. Passing there and risking an incompletion would have just given FSU more time on the clock coming the other way. (Running also forced them to burn at least one of their three timeouts.) As for the third-down call, a Thomas run on a read play up the middle had worked well for a touchdown earlier in the half. Is it a safe call? Yes. A little predictable? Yes. But it has been one of the Hokies’ better plays all year. I don’t see the problem with going to a play the team runs well. There’s only a handful to choose from this season.
As for Thomas, I thought it was a gritty performance. He shook off that early pick and was pretty sharp for much of the night. A couple drops or less-than-stellar efforts on catchable passes by his receivers didn’t help. But he had a good rapport with Corey Fuller, making some really nice throws in tight spots. People will fixate on the interceptions, especially the last one, but that came with 27 seconds left, when FSU knew Tech had to pass to have a chance. You try to make a play in that situation and live with the consequences. I can’t fault Thomas for that.
This is not to say that Virginia Tech still doesn’t have offensive issues or that nothing will be done about it in the offseason. But lumping this performance in with the eggs the Hokies laid at Pittsburgh, Clemson and Miami is unfair.
2. Corey Fuller is by far Virginia Tech’s best wide receiver.
Marcus Davis still has the better numbers this year, but anyone who has watched this team knows that Fuller is the more effective receiver. Thursday night crystallized that. Fuller was the team’s go-to receiver all night and finished with seven catches for 124 yards and a touchdown. But what was most impressive was his ability to come up in big spots. All three of his catches on Tech’s first touchdown drive came on third down, the first, a 33-yarder, jumpstarting what had been a stagnant offense (all three were spot-on throws by Thomas, incidentally, including the 4-yard fade pattern for the touchdown).
Contrast that with Davis and Dyrell Roberts, the team’s other two senior receivers. Davis had a big 54-yard catch early but largely disappeared after that, only popping up in less-than-flattering moments later on. His fumble after a play that would have been negated by a penalty anyway led to a touchdown that gave FSU a 20-10 lead. He had an earlier drop that I remember and couldn’t haul in a well-thrown deep ball from Thomas up the sideline in the fourth quarter that hit his hands. A catch would have put Tech in a scoring opportunity. Roberts had one catch for 11 yards on the final drive, but he didn’t put too much effort going up for a slightly overthrown ball from Thomas near the end zone in the second quarter. It looked like it might have been within reach. It’s clear after watching the game that Thomas has the most confidence in Fuller to make a play when the ball goes his way– a comfort that you could see with Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale last year. Considering the outcomes he’s had throwing to each of his receivers, it’s no secret why.
3. For most of the night, that was the Tech defense of old.
The stats have been mentioned before, but they bear repeating, just to give you a sense of the kind of night Virginia Tech had. Florida State finished with negative 15 rushing yards, its lowest total since at least 1973. The Hokies sacked EJ Manuel five times. They had 10 tackles for a loss. They held FSU to 3-for-14 on third-down conversions. They held Manuel to a 59 percent completion percentage, 11 percent lower than his season ACC-leading mark. The Seminoles averaged 4.6 yards per play, 3.1 yards less than their season average coming in. Overall, it was the kind of ball-hawking, aggressive defense that Virginia Tech fans have grown accustomed to over the years. And it was all the more impressive considering FSU’s offensive success coming in. The ‘Noles led the league, averaging 524.6 yards and 44.8 points a game. They finished with a season-low 311 yards and their second-lowest total with 28 points.
Tech had a number of defensive standouts. Senior Alonzo Tweedy made the most of his first starting opportunity this year, making six tackles and adding another speed threat to a pass rush that hounded Manuel all night. The Hopkins brothers, Derrick and Antoine, got the start together at the tackle spots and combined for six tackles and 2.5 tackles for a loss. End James Gayle had two TFLs and a sack. Linebacker Jack Tyler led the way with eight tackles, getting a big safety near the end that helped the Hokies nearly pull the game out. All in all, Virginia Tech’s front seven played one of its best games in a long time, especially considering the opponent.
4. The two-minute defense is an issue.
The loss had a familiar sting for the Hokies. Two of Florida State’s touchdowns came in two-minute situations, the last being a six-play, 68-yard drive that ended with a 39-yard touchdown by Rashad Greene. The Cincinnati loss came on a last-second touchdown pass of the same length. This one came on a breakdown in the secondary. The Hokies didn’t communicate with each other on the correct coverage, at least according to cornerback Antone Exum. That seemed to be an issue for some of the night. Detrick Bonner got beat deep for a big play early when it looked he was still talking out what coverage to be in when the ball was snapped. I can imagine having freshman Desmond Frye in the game on the final drive because of Michael Cole‘s scary injury didn’t help the communication. This isn’t a one-time deal. I’m sure Virginia Tech fans who have followed the program longer than I can name a couple games that got away from the Hokies at the end. I will say, although the type of play was different, this ending had a similar type of feeling to the touchdown toss that Matt Ryan made to that same end zone to help Boston College eek out a win in 2007.
And like that game, in which a pretty good quarterback made a nice play in big spot, I think a lot of credit needs to go to Manuel. He made some clutch throws after being planted into the ground repeatedly throughout the night. Most quarterbacks would be gun-shy after that, but he was poised and put passes on the money on the final drive. He threw for 326 yards, 144 of which came on the touchdown drive just before the half and the one at the end of the game. Greene had touchdown catches to finish both of them, beating Kyle Fuller off the line for the first and finding a soft spot in the coverage — with a little help from a pick by the tight end — to get open for the game-winner. They were big-time plays in both situations. And while Tech can’t be happy with the way it defended either one of those plays, Greene did a solid job of getting open to make them happen.
5. From the fight the Hokies put up, it seems like this team at least has what it takes to win these last two games.
After an uninspired effort at Miami, I openly wondered if Virginia Tech had mailed it in for the season. After watching the Hokies’ effort against Florida State, I would say that’s not the case. They played hard. They played to the end. They played well for stretches. But they just came up short against a very good team. If the Hokies had lived up to their preseason billing, this kind of loss against a quality opponent wouldn’t have been too far-fetched. It doesn’t make sense, then, the notion that a struggling Virginia Tech team played FSU this close and it’s somehow indicative of everything that’s wrong with the program. It’s a third straight loss to a league foe — the first time that’s happened since the Hokies were in the Big East in 2002 –but it bore little resemblance to the defeats at Clemson and Miami. You didn’t feel like Tech deserved to win either of those games. That wasn’t the case Thursday night.
The rest of the season is laid out pretty plainly for the Hokies. Win the next two or they’ll be sitting at home in the postseason. What’s left is not a Murderer’s Row of opponents. Boston College figures to be playing its last home game under Frank Spaziani. Who know how the Eagles will react to that. Virginia, depending on how it does the next two weeks, might be playing for its own postseason life. That’d be odd stakes if both Tech and UVa were 5-6 heading into the matchup this year. It’d be big for the winner, but obviously not the greatest of accomplishments only to be going to a third-tier bowl. If Virginia Tech plays like it did Thursday night, I think it’ll win both of those games. Of course, that’s been the challenge of this season — finding a consistent level of play. Who knows if the Hokies team that showed up last night will do so the final two weeks?