The Hokie Roundtable is back. Stephen Newman and Franklin Heinzmann have joined me once again to go over Virginia Tech’s 45-23 loss to Notre Dame. We’ll talk about what went wrong in the game, if there’s a silver lining that can be drawn and what needs to change moving forward.
Without further ado…
Why did Virginia Tech lose to Notre Dame?
Stephen Newman: The easy answer is the secondary. Regardless of what the box score says (271 passing yards), the Hokies were blowing coverages left and right. In fact, the damage could have been much worse if Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book hadn’t struggled to hit wide-open receivers downfield.
I am here to argue, however, that the game could have turned out much differently if it wasn’t for one play. Notre Dame led 10-3, but the Hokies were driving and were just past midfield. Often criticized for his lack of creativity, Justin Fuente drew up a wide receiver reverse pass for Hezekiah Grimsley, who connected with Sean Savoy for a touchdown—until it wasn’t a touchdown. The refs caught left tackle Christian Darrisaw “blocking” downfield, and the rest was history.
Let’s face it — Virginia Tech had no real chance of beating Notre Dame, even in Lane Stadium, unless they got a little lucky. This trick play would’ve been one step towards stealing the “luck of the Irish,” but it was all for naught, and the game went spiraling from that point on.
Franklin Heinzmann: While at times the offense did struggle, Tech lost for the reason most where worried coming into the game, the young defense.
Last week, I was worried Book was going to pick the defense apart. That didn’t happen to the severity I thought, but the defense still struggled and gave up big plays that should have been stopped. I hate to bring him up again, but Caleb Farley made multiple mistakes on the night, two of which directly resulted in touchdowns.
At the beginning of the second half, pinned deep in their own territory, Notre Dame broke off a 97-yard touchdown run that was aided by Farley over running his gap on the outside and getting behind the ball carrier. Later in the third quarter, Farley came off his man in the flat to go after Book, who was escaping the pocket. That decision resulted in another score.
Beyond defensive mistakes, the offense must finish drives. The offense looked good between the 20’s, but far too many touchdowns were traded for field goals. If Tech can finish just one of those drives from the first half and can go into the locker room with a lead, the second half might have gone differently.
Ricky LaBlue: This is a question with many answers. Here’s what I’ve got.
- A leaky secondary
- First-year starting linebackers
I think that’s a pretty exhaustive list. Virginia Tech’s secondary continues to be a problem and they did little to slow down the Fighting Irish on Saturday night. The Hokies’ young linebackers are causing problems as well, helping Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams rush for 178 yards and three touchdowns. Oh, and Virginia Tech turned the ball over twice.
There were some other reasons that fans might recognize more. Christian Darrisaw’s penalty on the trick play touchdown to Sean Savoy took some air out of the Hokies’ sails. Also, a sequence right before the half turned a breakaway run from Steven Peoples into a frustrating 22-yard field goal from Brian Johnson that cost the Hokies four points.
You can’t make this many mistakes and expect to knock off a legitimate top-10 team with real championship aspirations.
What silver lining can you draw from the loss?
Newman: Very little went well for the Hokies. The passing game was none-existent outside of Damon Hazelton (Ryan Willis threw for 5.9 yards per attempt), the secondary has been discussed, and the defensive line didn’t put much pressure on Book. However, there was one unit that performed better than expected.
The combination of Steven Peoples and Deshawn McClease managed to record 97 yards on 15 carries (6.5 yards per rush). They didn’t run the ball as much as they could have, largely due to game situations, but they were more successful than they typically are—and against high-level competition.
Heinzmann: Ryan Willis continues to impress. Looking past the fumble, which I think was more poor timing than anything, he threw for over 300 yards again with a 60 percent completion percentage. Willis throwing for 300-plus yards in back-to-back games should not be overlooked. The last time a Tech quarterback did that, Logan Thomas torched Boston College (391 yards) and Miami (366 yards) in 2013. This type of success in the passing game elevates the team as a whole.
The chemistry between Willis and his receivers has also been fantastic, it seems they know exactly what the other wants. Specifically, Hazelton and Kumah seems to have a great relationship with Willis. Hazelton was a safety blanket with 12 receptions for 131 yards and Kumah was there to go up and win a ball when it was needed.
LaBlue: The season still isn’t over. Virginia Tech finds themselves in the thick of the ACC Coastal Division race, tied at the top with Miami at 2-0. The Coastal Division is all over the place right now and will be up for grabs deep into November, unlike the Atlantic, which Clemson will wrap up once they defeat NC State on Oct. 20.
Virginia Tech’s season goal is still attainable. Each of the Hokies’ six remaining games are critical. They can’t afford to overlook North Carolina, despite the Tar Heels’ 1-3 record. After that, Tech gets a weekend off and begins a stretch of four home games in five weeks. If Virginia Tech can get out of Chapel Hill with a win, they’ll have a real chance to finish the season strong.
What needs to change moving forward?
Newman: The Hokies don’t have the personnel to win the Coastal—even as weak as the division is. They’ll need to be creative in order to duplicate their recent success. Plays like the one the offensive staff drew up in the first quarter are part of it, but it’s not all about that side of the ball.
On Tuesday, news broke that Devon Hunter and D.J. Crossen are expected to be redshirted. Just like that, Tech’s depth at the whip position is gone. What should the Hokies do to spell Khalil Ladler in the hybrid role?
Here’s what I propose. Reggie Floyd—who is more successful the closer he is to the line of scrimmage—could move up from strong safety, and Divine Deablo could fill in at his spot. Ideally, it would be simpler, but sometimes you have to find a way to put the most talented players on the field, especially when the cupboard is bare otherwise.
So then who plays free safety? They could give Tyree Rodgers another chance, or they could get a little more creative. They have a star athlete who’s struggling on the outside. Why not give Caleb Farley a new lease on life in center field and see what Jovonn Quillen, who opened eyes against Duke, can do at cornerback? Maybe it’s not the long-term answer, but it’s worth a look.
Heinzmann: I want to see more consistency on the defensive side of the ball. I know most of the issues are due to age and lack of experience, but something needs to be done to try and help. Does Tech need to bring more pressure and force quicker throws? Maybe the Hokies need to employ their 30 package more often to get more defensive backs and linebackers on the field. I’m unsure what the answer is but I hope Bud Foster is spending his entire week on it.
On offense, I want to see more of the read option. We saw it a couple times last weekend, but I don’t think it was used enough. Willis is athletic enough to be trusted running and it will just be another wrinkle added to the offense.
LaBlue: Virginia Tech has to find a way to sure up the defensive backfield. I know these guys are young and I know they’re going to take their lumps early on in their careers, but it’s getting out of hand. The Hokies have allowed 24 passing plays of 20 yards or more, tied for 110th in FBS.
Getting Devine Deablo healthy makes a big difference, as I noted on Tuesday. If Justin Fuente can kidnap him, stick him in the Hilton off of Highway 460 and lock the door until Friday, maybe they can finally keep him healthy.
Finding a way to make the secondary halfway decent needs to be the goal of Virginia Tech’s upcoming bye week. They’ve got to take on North Carolina first, and the Tar Heels have plenty of skill players, despite ranking 98th in passing offense this season.