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.
There’s only one question to answer this week: Why?
— Ken Goodrich (@KenGoodrich) September 23, 2018
How much bourbon is required to drown the misery of that awful play?
— Matthew Morrison (@morrisontmatt) September 22, 2018
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…
STATEMENT FROM COACH FUENTE pic.twitter.com/1IgomNSW1R
— Virginia Tech Football (@VT_Football) September 23, 2018
Well this is kinda shocking. Honestly must be more to it than just this. What are we not being told Ricky?
— John (@JohnBvt2) September 23, 2018
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.
Which is worst loss, JMU or ODU?
— Mark Turner (@mytvt3) September 23, 2018
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.
Should I still travel to the Duke game?
— Harris Hawks (@harrishawks202) September 22, 2018
Who starts against Duke Hooker or Willis?
— Mark Fain Jr (@ThaHokieKing82) September 23, 2018
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 one for you.. has Fuentes mentor Gary Patterson lost head scratcher games as big favorites? Did Memphis? I don’t think so
— Doug Wilson (@dcwilson40) September 23, 2018
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.