– Game story: Devils get their due against Virginia Tech
– Notes and a post-game wrap: Kendall Fuller steals Exum’s spotlight
– Aaron McFarling column: Virginia Tech offense to blame in loss
Now, here are five thoughts following the Hokies’ loss to the Blue Devils …
1. The Hokies walked a fine line all season, and it finally caught up to them Saturday.
It’s been said all year: the Hokies have little to no margin of error. And Saturday’s embarrassing 13-10 loss to Duke really played out not too much differently from any other game Tech has played this season, except for the end result. The defense played well. The offense gained yards but couldn’t finish drives. The game was tight. The difference? The offense turned it over four times and the field goal misses finally caught up to the Hokies.
This game was not abnormal, though. It was almost the same as every other game the Hokies have played this year. They’ve weathered red zone woes and field goal misses and, occasionally, multiple turnovers. And if Tech had somehow pulled this one out at the end — which it had multiple chances to do — the post-game would have been more of the “we ain’t pretty but we’ll take it” variety. It was the case against East Carolina. It was the case against Marshall. And to a lesser degree, it was the case against Georgia Tech. (UNC and Pitt, despite not being works of art, felt like the Hokies had more control on the game, despite not being blowouts).
What’s the cliche? Play with fire too many times and you’ll get burned? It was bound to happen. And the razor thin margin of error on which Virginia Tech had been getting by doesn’t hold up when you do things like turn the ball over four times, including once in the end zone. Or have a penalty that negates a touchdown pass. Or can’t capitalize off four turnovers. I’ve written all year that the Hokies aren’t good enough to blow teams out. The defense is good enough to keep them in any game, and if the offense can do just enough, it’s usually a successful formula. They didn’t do just enough Saturday.
2. Logan Thomas had his worst game this year, and the play-calling at moments was curious at best.
There’s no sugar-coating it: Thomas didn’t throw the ball well. After nearly the longest mistake-free potion of his career — 116 straight passes without an interception — the senior reverted to his old form, throwing four interceptions, a couple of which were backbreakers. He sailed one, one of a number of high throws early (shades of last year). He forced another in the end zone on third down, perhaps his most critical error, since it prevented the Hokies from definitely putting points on the board. He had two in the second half, one of which came when the game was on the line. I still have yet to see a replay of the last one when he wanted to go deep. Numerous people have said he had a receiver open deep but rifled a ball short to Demitri Knowles that was batted into the air and picked.
The decision-making was what separated this year’s Thomas from last year’s, and really had been the difference in an offense that statistically hasn’t been any better. When he didn’t have those picks, Virginia Tech won, even with little offense. But, going back to point No. 1, the Hokies can’t afford to make those kind of critical mistakes, not with an offense that isn’t going to score a lot of points in the first place. Thomas’ contributions are still enormous for this offense. He once again shouldered the rushing load, going over 100 yards. And at times — like the 99-yard touchdown drive — he looked like he had the last three games, a confident, capable passer. But it didn’t last. And overall, it was his worst game of the year from a decision-making sense, and for quarterbacks, that’s where it’s all at.
Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler is not blameless here, though. And as Aaron aptly wrote in his column today, his grace period ended with this loss. Tech’s paltry offensive numbers could be overlooked as long as the team was winning. But some questionable play-calls in a loss are certain to be put under a microscope. The Hokies appeared to be running the ball better, even going hurry-up on one drive and gashing Duke up the middle. Then, for some reason, they stopped. So did the drive, stalling out at the goal line when Tech ran J.C. Coleman twice from inside the 5, including on a second-and-goal from the 1, what seems like a perfect time for a power back like Trey Edmunds (who had run four times for 23 yards on the drive). Later, on a fourth-and-1, the Hokies ran a stretch play to Edmunds that Duke was able to run down and stop short of the sticks. It’s easy to cherry pick a few play-calls that don’t work after the fact, but those were a couple at the time didn’t make a whole lot of sense and still don’t in hindsight.
3. The defense is doing all it can do.
Though Tech’s defenders tried to take some of the blame for the result last night, outside of a couple quarterback runs, there wasn’t a whole lot more the Hokies could do defensively. They held Duke to 198 total yards, fewer than any an FBS team has had against them this year. They had four interceptions, repeatedly giving the offense great field position. They didn’t allow a completion in the second half. Duke was 0-for-11 on third downs, the first team not to convert a third down this year and win a game. In fact, the ESPN ticker last night showed this stat: the Blue Devils were the first team in the last 14 years to throw four interceptions and complete less than 30 percent of their passes and still win the game. As receiver Willie Byrn said last night, “What more can the defense do, really?”
It reinforced the fact that Bud Foster has his group ready to play every week. Duke was a challenging offense, one that was averaging 35.7 points and 452.1 yard per game entering Saturday. It’s another notch in the defensive coordinator’s belt, even if the Hokies didn’t win the game. And the effort was more remarkable considering Tech was playing without suspended starting defensive end J.R. Collins and injured cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Brandon Facyson. The secondary included Antone Exum, making his season debut after offseason knee surgery, true freshman Chuck Clark, who made his first start as the nickel back, and Kendall Fuller, who stepped in as the boundary corner and made three interceptions, proving he’s the elite talent everyone thought he could be. It really was a great defensive showing that got lost in the offensive ineptitude.
4. Cody Journell’s struggles finally caught up to the Hokies, although there are really no alternatives.
It’s been said for weeks, even though Journell appeared to get back to his old form with a 4-for-5 kicking performance against Pittsburgh. But Journell’s struggles this year, especially with how close all of the Hokies’ game have been, was bound to catch up to the team eventually. He missed from 45 early, hitting the left upright, and from 40 late, a kick that was pressured and might even have been tipped. Those aren’t necessarily easy kicks — anything from 40-plus gets dicey — but they are certainly within range for someone who last year made those kind of field goals regularly.
That’s not to put the blame entirely on Journell. That’s unfair in a game in which the offense couldn’t move the ball well enough to give him anything other than 40-plus field goals to attempt. But it’s clear that his accuracy will be an issue for the rest of the season, and any time he lines up for a kick, it’s not going to soothe anybody’s nerves. The thing is, the Hokies don’t appear to have many other options. If Ethan Keyserling, who replaced Journell during his one-game suspension and went 0-for-3 against Marshall, is the next in line, it’s not a stocked cupboard at kicker. The quiet transfer of Brooks Abbott over the summer didn’t seem like a major blow at the time, but he would have been a viable option in place of Journell. Right now, Tech will probably just have to ride it out with the senior, struggles and all.
5. The Hokies can talk about the Coastal Division still being within reach, but no game is a gimme at this point.
Six straight wins and what appeared to be an easy remaining schedule had Hokies fans thinking the Coastal Division was definitely in reach (and made some writers make foolhardy predictions that Tech would definitely win the division). A loss to Duke — even an improved one like this year’s version — shows that nothing can be taken for granted with this team. It’s not as though Virginia Tech took Duke lightly. It just didn’t play well. And that could happen in any week for this team.
A game next week at Boston College, where Tech never seems to play well, is a dangerous one. Miami didn’t look great in a win against Wake Forest this week and, at No. 6 in the country, is certainly overrated, but the ‘Canes will present a formidable challenge at Sun Life Stadium in a few weeks. Maryland and Virginia, supposed gimmes given the Terps’ injury woes and the Cavaliers’ general decline, might not be so easy. If you can lose to Duke at home, really, anything is possible. The Hokies’ goal of winning the division remains in front of them — and would be a reality if they could win out, since they only have one conference loss at this point — but Virginia Tech isn’t to the point yet where any game is a guaranteed win.