Monday Mail: Trying to Make Sense of Something That Doesn’t Make Sense

Oh boy.

When I planned on asking for questions for this week’s Monday Mail, I did not think we’d be talking about one of the worst losses in Virginia Tech history. And make no mistake about it, there aren’t enough negative adjectives to describe what happened on Saturday.

Awful. Appalling. Dreadful. All three apply.

I’ll try to make sense of what happened, which didn’t make sense. We’ll go over the game, the after effects and the outlook on Tech’s road trip to Duke.

Answer One: I’m not sure.

Answer Two: A lot.

Virginia Tech’s inexcusable loss to Old Dominion was full of problems on both sides of the ball. It was a team loss, for sure. The defense shares a little more of the blame though and for good reason.

A backup quarterback for an 0-3 team that lost to Liberty 52-10 to start the season should not throw for 494 yards and four touchdowns, but Blake LaRussa did just that. LaRussa entered the game on the Monarch’s second possession and shredded Virginia Tech’s defense for the rest of the game.

The Hokies’ lack of defensive adjustments surprised me. Tech’s defensive backs struggled in one-on-one coverage for the entire day, yet Bud Foster continued to leave his young defensive backs on islands. LaRussa simply threw the ball up and let his receivers make plays. It was almost as if the Hokies’ stuck with their gameplan against quarterback Steven Williams, instead of changing things to accommodate a new type of passer.

I think it’s fair to say Saturday’s game was Bud Foster’s worst performance as defensive coordinator at Virginia Tech.

Offensively, the Hokies relied on busted coverages and big plays to score. Tech seemed unable to impose their will on the lesser talented Monarchs, despite scoring 35 points. Josh Jackson never found a rhythm through the air, completing just 8-of-16 passes for 151 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Jackson late hurt his ankle in the second half and never returned.

(Update: Virginia Tech announced on Monday that Jackson fractured his left fibula and will have surgery on Tuesday. His timetable to return is unknown.)

Ryan Willis made some nice plays, but even Willis completed just half of his 18 throws. He didn’t provide the spark that some people, including me, thought he might.

Aside from the defensive collapse, Tech’s undisciplined play surprised me the most. The Hokies committed eight penalties for 96 yards, including multiple personal fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. Tech looked frazzled from the start and they never regained their composure.

To sum things up, Virginia Tech lost the game in multiple ways. The defense turned in one of the program’s worst performances in school history, the offense, particularly the offensive line, was bullied by a winless Conference USA team, and the Hokies as a whole played undisciplined football. That’s a recipe for getting beat.

As if things needed to get worse…

I’ll be honest with you, I haven’t heard enough to feel confident about exactly what led to Trevon Hill’s dismissal from the team. I’ve heard some things, but nothing I feel confident in sticking my name to.

But this isn’t surprising. Hill is an extremely emotional player who seemed to be in the dog house to start this season. Hill didn’t see the field for the first two possessions vs. Florida State and got into a Twitter spat with The Athletic’s Andy Bitter about his (accurate and fair) reporting of Mook Reynolds’ dismissal this offseason.

Hill’s absence leaves an enormous void on the Hokies’ defensive line. Tech’s most explosive pass rusher lead the team in both sacks and tackles for loss. That’s not something you replace in a week, even if you are confident in Emmanuel Belmar, TyJuan Garbutt, Nathan Proctor or Zion DeBose.

Justin Fuente is sending his team a message with this decision, just as he did when he dismissed Mook Reynolds. He isn’t going to tolerate players who don’t buy into his culture. The effectiveness of this move will be determined at a later date, once we see how the Hokies handle this. Dismissing your best defensive player after an embarrassing loss might not go over so well. Or, maybe Hill’s departure brings the team closer together around Fuente’s leadership. Time will tell.

I knew I was going to get this question. I think the Old Dominion loss is worse for a few reasons.

The Monarchs were 0-3 entering Saturday’s game, and it wasn’t a good 0-3. Liberty throttled Old Dominion to start the season, and the Monarchs followed that up by losing to Florida International and Charlotte. Not exactly a tough schedule there.

Virginia Tech came into the game with tons of momentum. They handled William and Mary two weeks prior and had two weeks to prepare for this team. Two weeks of preparation, and off weekend, and that’s the performance you put together? It’s truly shocking.

As bad as the James Madison loss was, it wasn’t as shocking as Saturday. Tech was still reeling from their defeat at the hands of Boise State in a nationally relevant showdown, and Tech hadn’t gotten over that loss. This time around, the Hokies had everything going for them. But they laid an egg.

If you’ve got tickets to Virginia Tech’s game vs. Duke, you should definitely go. It’s a beautiful campus and stadium, and the press box is nice too.

That game could very well decide how this season plays out for the Hokies. It’s a bit of a last stand for Tech. Will Virginia Tech get their stuff together, or will they continue to implode and welcome serious questions about the bowl streak?

Duke is a good team. The Blue Devils are ranked 22nd in the AP Top 25 and David Cutcliffe’s team are real contenders for the ACC Coastal title. Given Miami’s struggles and the Hokies’ uncertainty, Duke could make a run despite their injuries. How the Hokies perform on Saturday, on the road, will say a lot about Fuente’s ability to resonate with the team and whether or not these players have what it takes to put together a respectable season.

Ryan Willis is likely to get the start. I don’t see how Josh Jackson plays for the foreseeable future and Willis is the No. 2 option. If Willis struggles, Hendon Hooker could get a look. But with a full week of practice as the starter, I think Willis will hold down the position until Jackson returns.

(Update: With Jackson out for the foreseeable future, Tech announced on Monday that Willis would be the starter vs. Duke.)

Here’s an interesting question. Going by Gary Patterson’s history at TCU, here are some of their biggest “stinker” games.

2000, No. 9 TCU loses 27-24 at. San Jose State

2003, No. 10 TCU loses 40-28 at Southern Miss

2006, No. 17 TCU loses 31-17 vs. BYU

2012, No. 15 TCU loses 37-23 vs. Iowa State

While at Memphis, Fuente’s Tigers only lost one real game that was a bit of an upset, when No. 15 Memphis lost to Navy at home in 2015.

Since arriving in Blacksburg, Fuente’s Hokies have had a few of these games where the team seems absent.

2016, No. 17 Virginia Tech loses 31-17 at Syracuse

2016, No. 18 Virginia Tech loses 30-20 vs. Georgia Tech

2017, No. 17 Virginia Tech loses 28-22 at Georgia Tech

2018, No. 13 Virginia Tech loses 49-35 at Old Dominion

Each of these four losses were particularly stunning, with the Old Dominion defeat taking the cake. So far under Fuente, Virginia Tech has had far too many games where they simply just stink.

Part of that is because Fuente is still establishing a different culture. He’s dismissing players who go against the grain (Reynolds, Hill) and calling out his players when they don’t do what is necessary. Here’s a quote from after Saturday’s game that is truly telling.

“It’s easy to say that after you get embarrassed,” Fuente said. “But we had a couple days in there where I’m trying to remind guys, the staff were trying to remind them that we were preparing like a young football team. I told them, ‘I liked you guys a lot better when everybody told you you were terrible, when everybody told you you didn’t have any chance in that first game and all you did was work your tails off.’

“And then, now we get all feeling good about ourselves and we got brought back down to earth. We got what we deserved.”

Fuente is still working on getting through to some of his players. Even in Year Three, that’s somewhat understandable. But he better to get to them quick, because a lot of that roster is made up of players he recruited. Fuente must take responsibility for those guys and this team.

5 thoughts on “Monday Mail: Trying to Make Sense of Something That Doesn’t Make Sense”

  1. I was at the game . You note on Will is not a fair quote that he did not provide a spark. He move the ball . At least two balls were perfect passes in tight spots and were dropped. I thought he did.
    ODU play a great game and we play a poor one. ODU had a great plan and executed it. We were playing catchup most of the game.
    on personal note the game I feel the game changed very late third quarter, I think, when ODU was 3rd and long ( 12 yard ?) and they throw a pass. The female ref called the pass caught out of bounds………….then came back and changed the play to fair catch, while another ref down the field appear to come in and challenged her to change her call. But she took control and reverse her call . Coach Fuente came over and talked to them and appeared to ask them for a review but they disagreed. so ODU got 3rd and short maded first down, then a 15 yd sportsmanship. next paly long pass caught about bounds at Tech 7 , but it was reviewed and the refs changed call………….. to fair catch ………… why did they review one call but not the other ? the 2 or 3 plays later another Sportsmanship call ; ALL AGAINST TECH .. THEN YOU KNOW the rest of story. would like you opinion on the sportsmanship calls. One appeared to be warranted but not sure.

    1. Trying to read that mish mash was harder than reading Bourbonstreet’s “prose”. It doesn’t have to be perfect but, Damn.

  2. “Fuente must take responsibility for those guys and this team”, you say.

    This seems like a profound, but excruciatingly obvious, backhanded statement, particularly following the Fuente quote, where he clearly takes responsibility.

    1. I didn’t mean the comment to backhanded. It was meant to reinforce that for as much good as Fuente has brought to the program and the team, he’s just as responsible for some of the underwhelming performances we’ve seen over the last two-plus seasons.

  3. I wasn’t able to watch the ODU game live, so I watched a replay knowing what the outcome would be, which probably gave me a little different point of view than if I were watching it live. The turning point in the game for me was the face mask penalty committed by Devon Hunter. ODU was almost certainly going to be stopped on the play if Hunter had just tried to make a tackle since help was quickly arriving on the tackle. If ODU had been forced to punt, Tech would’ve gotten the ball with somewhere around 5 or 6 minutes left in the half. They could’ve taken their time with some running plays (which were successful against ODU) mixed in with some safe passing plays. If Tech had scored at that point, they would’ve been up 21-7, and possibly with little time for ODU to score before the end of the half.

    As it was, the penalty on Hunter gave ODU a first down on the drive allowing them to take time off the clock, even though they didn’t score. Tech, having to drive the length of the field to score with only a few minutes left in the half, executed a poorly thrown pass down field resulting in an interception. A revitalized ODU team then drove down to score a touchdown to tie the game up at the half.

    After the the face mask penalty (which looked particularly egregious during the replay), it seemed like the refs were calling the game ODU’s way the rest of the game. There was at least one pass interference call against Tech where the ball was clearly overthrown and the contact was minimal and looked incidental. The penalty on Houshon Gaines (which was right in front of the ref) certainly should’ve been a no call or offsetting penalties at the most. Both of those penalties extended drives which resulted in touchdowns for ODU. It also seemed like the penalty on Hunter seemed to motivate ODU, as they started executing pass plays that most certainly would’ve resulted in wins in there first 3 games instead of losses. If not for that face mask penalty, Tech probably would’ve won this game going away. Instead, Tech suffered a head scratching loss that may not be forgotten for many years to come.

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