A Breath of Rationality: Some Reactions from a Tough Loss
Hey there, Hokies.
Let’s start this off with some deep breaths, shall we?
Breathe in...now breathe out.
Breathe in...now breathe out.
Let the anger and desire to see grown men lose their jobs leave your body.
Breathe in...now breathe out.
Feels better, right?
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s go through some rational reactions to this emotional whirlwind of a loss the Hokies just endured to the Tar Heels.
Let me make one thing clear: these reactions are both positive and negative. This is not going to be a ridiculously positive spin piece to make the Hokies look as good as possible at all times.
At the same time, this is not going to be a barrage of criticism demanding an overhaul for the entire program.
As stated earlier, these are meant to be rational reactions. Rationally, this program deserves both praise and criticism for its performance on Saturday, so that is what you will see in this piece.
Without further ado, here are my reactions 48 hours after the game.
First and foremost, the team’s resilience was special to see.
This Hokie football team, both players and coaches, deserve a huge pat on the back for fighting through the whole game.
The Hokies faced huge deficits twice, including 21-0 and 42-17. Both times, the team fought back and came within one possession of tying or taking the lead.
Yes, it is bad they were in those positions in the first place. Don’t worry, we will get into that.
I just felt it was important to first highlight how this team did not stop fighting, and that is a testament to both the upperclassman players’ leadership and the gritty attitude put in place by the coaching staff.
That said, the team was not adequately prepared for the game.
As much credit as the coaching staff deserves for pushing the team to keep fighting, there also must be some criticism for how vastly unprepared the team was when they took the field.
The first quarter clearly set the tone for the rest of the day, as the Hokies found themselves down 21-0 less than 11 minutes into the game.
When a team faces a deficit that large that early, it shows a clear lack of proper preparation by its coaching staff. Ultimately, the gameplan drawn up by Justin Fuente and his staff was not what it needed to be.
There have been numerous voices (on Twitter mainly) blaming either the offense or defense for the early deficit, but the reality is this: neither side was ready to play when the game started.
Just as UNC effortlessly marched down the field on their first three possessions, showing a horrendous mismatch for the Hokie defense, the Hokie offense only managed six plays for 13 yards in that time.
The first quarter was the absolute worst-case scenario for the Hokies, and the blame for that lies with both the offensive and defensive staffs.
The offense did a great job of adjusting; the defense did not.
Though the team collectively was not adequately prepared, offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen and the rest of the offensive staff deserve credit for how they adjusted to UNC’s defensive gameplan.
And I’m not just talking about the second half when Hendon Hooker came in at QB. The Hokies scored twice in the second quarter while Braxton Burmeister was still in the game.
Burmeister clearly did not have his best stuff, especially as a passer. But Cornelsen found a way to draw out some positive production with Burmeister in the game.
Cornelsen opted to focus on allowing Burmeister to use his legs, implementing more QB runs which spaced UNC’s defense out and gave Tre Turner, Khalil Herbert and Raheem Blackshear more opportunities to make plays.
Then, once the decision was made to switch to Hooker at halftime, Cornelsen opened up the playbook and made the offense unstoppable.
The Hokies scored on all but one possession in the second half and finished with 45 points along with 499 yards. All in all, that is an offensive performance to write home about.
Meanwhile, the defensive staff did not do enough to adjust to UNC’s offensive attack.
UNC continued to have their way with the Hokie defense all day, and it turned out to be one of the worst defensive performances for the Hokies since the pre-Bud Foster era.
UNC amassed 56 points, 656 yards and 31 first downs, all with zero turnovers. They scored a touchdown in every quarter, including at least two in all but one of them.
In Justin Hamilton’s first game as the defensive coordinator, he was dealt a paper-thin defensive two-deep and was seemingly powerless to stop one of the best offenses in the country.
Whatever Hamilton did to try and adjust and improve the defense never worked, and a spectacular offensive performance by the Hokies was overshadowed because of it.
Hendon Hooker is clearly QB1 going forward.
I think this one goes without saying.
As well as Cornelsen adjusted in the second quarter with Burmeister out there, the offense collectively flowed much better with Hooker at the helm.
In that second half, Hooker put together 165 yards of offense and three touchdowns. While he was doing that, space was created for Herbert to put together another spectacular performance and the Hokies finally achieve the balanced offensive attack Fuente and Cornelsen have been striving towards.
The team’s energy seemed to improve with Hooker on the field, and the offense was able to do much more as the UNC defense looked just as powerless as the Hokies’.
Perhaps there is worthy criticism for Hooker not being on the field the entire game. I personally could see either side of that argument.
But at the end of the day, Fuente decided not to throw Hooker in for his first start since December against a top-10 opponent when Burmeister had led the team to a 2-0 start.
Would I have made that same decision? Probably not. But I’m also not a coach, and it is not crazy to think Fuente made the best decision at the time.
Though I still believe Burmeister is a talented player, it is time to move forward with Hooker at QB. The team is clearly at its best with him on the field.
At this stage, Hendon Hooker should be on the field every play, so long as he is healthy. End of story.
The defensive problems go beyond the temporary lack of depth.
It’s the story we have heard all season. COVID-19 protocols have wiped through the Hokie defense, especially the secondary.
That point has been hammered by both the media and Fuente himself, and rightly so.
Not having guys like Divine Deablo and Keonta Jenkins out there hurt, as the less talented and experienced guys who took their place were exploited.
I might even go so far as to say the Hokies win the game with Deablo out there.
That said, as depleted as they were at the safety positions, Virginia Tech’s defense looked vastly outmatched all around. Unfortunately, this includes many guys who were the rightful starters.
The Hokies’ front seven found a great deal of success in its first two games, as both NC State and Duke tried to overpower the Hokies with subpar offensive lines.
UNC, on the other hand, used their elite speed to easily move past the Hokie front seven. The front seven is not the fastest in the conference by any means, and that weakness was exploited.
Despite starting DT DaShawn Crawford being out, the Hokies still had listed starters Justus Reed, Emmanuel Belmar and Jarrod Hewitt on the field.
Those three players combined for two tackles, one QB hurry and zero sacks. Reed did not even appear on the stat sheet.
UNC found a way to exploit the Hokie defense in a way I don’t think they can fix with the current personnel. The Hokies will need to find a way to overcome this issue going forward.
It likely will not be a problem in most of the team’s remaining games, but speedy offenses like Miami, Louisville and Clemson could create some problems for the Hokies, regardless of how many starters are playing.
No one deserves to get fired.
It is a very low-hanging fruit response to a frustrating loss for fans to call for coaches to be fired.
But at the end of the day, this was one game.
I have gone through and given the coaching staff both the praise and criticism I think it deserves, yet I am not ready to say that anyone on the staff needs to go. That includes the head coach, coordinators and all the support staff.
Justin Fuente deserves credit for putting together a team that does not give up when its back is against the wall. Brad Cornelsen deserves credit for turning a dormant offense early into a nearly unstoppable one. Even Justin Hamilton deserves grace for having to coach his first game as DC against one of the best offenses in America without three of his starters and numerous other contributors.
If you think any of those three men deserve to be fired after watching that game, please return to the top of this article and go through our little breathing exercise once again.
Every Hokie (including me) owes Brian Johnson an apology.
Early on last season, kicker Brian Johnson was one of the most highly criticized players on the roster.
After a subpar 2018, Johnson started 2019 7-for-12 on field goals, including missing two in the 6OT thriller against UNC.
Since that game Johnson hasn’t missed a kick. He has made his last 17 field goals and 34 extra points. That means his last 51 kicks have gone through the uprights.
As kickers are often the most highly scrutinized position, many fans, including myself, were anything but patient as Johnson struggled.
Despite all the criticism we gave him, Johnson proved to everyone he was simply in a slump, and is a guy the Hokies can count on to make any kick between an extra point and a 55-yarder.
Not to mention, he executed the most perfect onside kick I have ever seen, showing perfect touch as he ran next to the ball for 11 yards before falling on it.
Johnson is clearly one of the best kickers in the ACC, and we all owe him a huge apology.
Bring on BC!
Now, we must look forward.
The Hokies will host Boston College this Saturday night. This could be a great opportunity for Virginia Tech to recover as they face a team that is playing well.
The Hokies will need to show more of the resilience they showed against UNC and get back on track to being a contender in the ACC.