It's not the "what" it's the "how".
That was my takeaway on Saturday afternoon, as #15 Virginia Tech fell to the West Virginia Mountaineers in Morgantown by a final score of 27-21.
This was not the worst loss of the Justin Fuente era at Virginia Tech - not even close, actually - but it certainly could be one of the most demoralizing.
To the players' credit, there was no quit in them on Saturday. Despite everything that went against them throughout the course of the contest, the players kept their nose to the grindstone and kept chipping away when the going got tough. Despite how poorly the Hokies played as a team for parts of four quarters, they still had the ball in their hands with two minutes to play with a chance to win the football game.
Was there an element of turnover luck attached to the Jermaine Waller interception, as Mountaineers' quarterback Jarret Doege airmailed a perfectly called screen pass on 3rd-and-10 late?
But the relentless heart and the willingness of the Virginia Tech players to move on to the next play when things didn't go well put the Hokies in position to win the football game despite four quarters of inconsistent play.
In fact, the inconsistent play, especially on offense, defined Virginia Tech on Saturday - err actually, in six years under Justin Fuente.
The Hokies were consistently inconsistent.
This loss was emblematic of other Virginia Tech losses in the past under this coaching staff. The Hokies had points in the game where they played extremely poorly, points where they played well, and points where they simply just looked like a mediocre football team.
The defense - the one unit that's been largely consistent through two games - did their best to sink the ship early in the contest, giving up big plays on two consecutive possessions to put the Hokies into a 14-0 hole a mere six minutes into the first quarter. The defense made adjustments at halftime, and to Justin Hamilton's credit, was much better in the second half, only allowing three West Virginia points which kept the Hokies in the contest.
The offense, which has been a beacon of inconsistency all season long, continued in those ways on Saturday. There were a few drives that were good - such as Tech's third drive of the game, an 11-play, 75-yard drive that ended in a 23-yard touchdown strike from quarterback Braxton Burmeister to wide receiver Tayvion Robinson, or Tech's seven-play, 47-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter that ended with another Burmeister touchdown pass to running back Jalen Holston, which pulled the Hokies within six points of West Virginia with just over three minutes to play.
However, there was also plenty of bad - highlighted by Virginia Tech's situational play calling and execution in the red zone. Virginia Tech took 12 offensive snaps on Saturday from West Virginia's 10-yard-line or closer. Those plays went for a net of six yards and a total of zero points.
Justin Fuente described the red zone execution as "pretty shoddy and inconsistent."
I'll take it a step further: It was inexplicable, and inexcusable, even for an offensive coaching staff that has let down the Virginia Tech fan base and its own players, quite frankly, on more than one occasion in the past five years.
Running jet sweep action with Tre Turner to the short-side of the field against an overloaded West Virginia front on third-and-goal, down six with time waning, defies logic.
Following that play up with a quarterback bootleg, which cuts off half of the field in an already tightly-bunched area of the field on fourth-and-goal, was even worse.
For college football fans, regardless of the program, criticizing an offensive coordinator tends to be low-hanging fruit. Far too often, fans pile on their program's offensive coordinator based on whether or not the play was a success, not whether or not it was a good play call regardless of execution.
For Virginia Tech fans on Saturday, the criticism of Brad Cornelsen's play calling, especially down in the red zone with the game on the line, was justifiable. A short-side jet sweep and a QB bootleg with no room to operate and no safety valve available for the quarterback if the play gets blown up, is the wrong call on back-to-back plays, and the result for Virginia Tech was deserved given the short-sightedness of the offensive coaching staff.
When evaluating Brad Cornelsen specifically, it's important to be fair and take a big-picture look at his tenure as Virginia Tech's offensive coordinator.
Cornelsen has engineered three of Virginia Tech's top four offenses in terms of overall production over the last 25 years. Only Virginia Tech's 1999 campaign with Michael Vick (451.8 yards per game) tops the 2016 (444.4 yards per game), 2020 (440.7 yards per game), and 2018 (428.7 yards per game) offensive seasons for the Hokies.
These marks are impressive, but with Cornelsen, that's not where the real problems reside.
The counting stats for the Virginia Tech offense, will in most cases, look very good under the leadership of Cornelsen. In general, his offensive scheme works, and quite frequently, delivers results. It's hard to argue that he's not a significant upgrade from Tech's past two offensive coordinators under Frank Beamer in Bryan Stinespring and Scot Loeffler.
However, Cornelsen's situational play calling, especially in short yardage situations with the game on the line, has been suspect at best, and has come back to bite Virginia Tech in far too many games over the last five-plus seasons.
To put it simply, Virginia Tech's personnel, due to recruiting and defections to the transfer portal, is not good enough to overcome poor play calling in crucial situations of close games. Because of this, I believe that the Hokies have a defined ceiling on offense when it comes to Cornelsen as an offensive coordinator.
He is no doubt capable of coaching an offense that could win seven, eight, or even nine games. He's done it before, and quite honestly with the current state of the ACC, has a pretty good chance to do it once again in 2021 - there's a lot of football left.
However, fan expectations of this program are extremely high, including a need for the Hokies to get back to being a 10-win program and a true conference championship challenger to Clemson in the ACC.
Given how Virginia Tech recruits, and the caliber of athlete that the program is able to bring in on a consistent basis, the Hokies have no choice but to be a better situational football team than most others in the ACC. The only way that Virginia Tech can truly challenge Clemson in its current state as a program is to use situational prowess to overcome the talent gap that the Tigers currently hold over most other programs in the ACC.
With Cornelsen as the offensive coordinator, I simply do not see a way that the Hokies can become that type of situational football program on the offensive side of the ball.
When Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock elected to keep Justin Fuente last December, he was asked what kind of program he wanted Virginia Tech to be?
"We must move from a challenger brand to a champion brand."
As the Hokies move forward throughout the rest of 2021, Justin Fuente must look in the mirror and decide for himself what kind of program he wants this to be, and ask the tough question of whether or not his right-hand man at offensive coordinator can get the Hokies from a challenger to a champion.
Whether or not Fuente finds the answer to that question, and soon, could determine the ultimate outcome of his tenure in Blacksburg.