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By Grant Mitchell | October 23
Shrader cuse
Hannah Pajewski

An Op-Ed by Grant Mitchell

It always comes in threes.

As if Virginia Tech fans and players had not been demoralized enough over the course of the past few years, Saturday’s 41-36 loss to the Syracuse Orange showed that, in fact, the program still has not hit the floor.

The team is now 3-4 on the season and losers of three-straight, staring down the barrel of a five-game closing schedule that features four road trips and a close-out game against the Virginia Cavaliers.

A Lone Bright Spot

Rallying behind the opportunity to dawn a set of throwback uniforms and reincarnate a program that had made a living off of dominating college football, the Hokies came out with a clear plan of reestablishing their identity as a running team with an imposing offensive line that played its best game of the year as a unit.

True freshman Malachi Thomas got the surprise nod as the featured back, having only recording 11 carries across five games prior as Justine Fuente decided to shift away from his usual rotation of backs that had only produced 431 yards. Thomas rewarded his coach’s trust, capping off the afternoon with 151 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries.

The offense also set a season-high for points, largely due to the efforts of their new freshman bell cow, while an opening-drive hookup between Braxton Burmeister and Drake Deiulliis and two field goals from John Parker Romo accounted for the rest of the offensive output.

Everything was not peaches and cream in Blacksburg, however— for while the offense enjoyed its best outing of the campaign, the defense produced its worst performance of the year by a country mile.

A Turn for the Worse

Starting cornerback Jermaine Waller did not appear after the first quarter as a lingering foot injury became too much for the junior to overcome. This absence stole the swagger from a defense that had played with pride and aggression and ultimately came back to haunt the entire team in the biggest moment of the game— more on that later.

What became very evident during the Hokies’ failed attempts to contain the Orange’s offense was that there is a serious lack of speed in the middle of the field, which is hurt even more by defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton’s 4-2-5 style that leaves space in the pockets between the line and secondary; if running back Sean Tucker was not storming into the second level on designed runs, quarterback Garret Shrader was tucking and running into vacancies begging to be exploited.

One area that VT’s defensive maestro has excelled in is making adjustments, most notably by holding West Virginia to three second-half points and giving the offense a chance to make a last-minute comeback that ultimately was not to be. Today, though, as VT’s offense continued to rev high, the young, up-and-coming disciple of Bud Foster was a J.A.G.— just another guy.

Shrader frequently found success breaking contain— also a fault of the exterior linemen— and bolting up the sidelines on pass plays as Hamilton failed to set up a spy; as the game drew on and spies were introduced, the Orange’s QB was still able to use his athleticism to move the chains and ultimately keep his squad hanging in the balance.

Despite the renaissance of a typically dormant Syracuse offense, the Hokies should have wrapped the game up when Malachi Thomas stormed into the endzone for his third score of the day on a 47-yard breakaway, putting his team up by nine points and leaving just over five-and-a-half minutes on the clock.

From then on, Shrader would throw for 79 yards and two touchdowns to improbably win his side the game.

Fittingly, Syracuse’s final drive of the game was a perfect encapsulation of the Hokies’ season. After having the Orange pinned on their 30-yard line and facing a third-and-10, Shrader notched consecutive six-yard runs to keep the drive alive, only to connect on a 45-yard go route over the head of Dorian Strong to effectively end the game two plays later. Tech has not been able to come out on the correct side of situational plays for most of the season, and they were once again hung out to dry.

Braxton Burmeister then moved the offense 39 yards in two plays, but a final-second heave to the end zone would only harmlessly fall to the turf as the unassuming visitors scored their most points in conference play this season and knocked off Virginia Tech.

Jackson cuse
Hannah Pajewski

Where it Falls Apart

Up until this point in the season, Justin Hamilton has been viewed as the bright spot on a coaching staff that has missed the expectations of fans to such an extreme level that chants of “Fire Fuente” broke out during last week’s game against the Pittsburgh Panthers, calls that returned once again after a shambolic ending to Saturday’s contest. But Hamilton, for all of his plaudits, was outsmarted on the sidelines as Shrader dismantled his defense, first by leg, and later, by arm.

Syracuse finished the game with 550 yards of total offense, gaining 314 on the ground and 236 through the air.

There was a time in the Hokies men’s basketball season last year that a defeat to Syracuse looked like a bad loss, even with their incredible prestige on the hardwood. To give up so many points and ultimately fall to them in a football match is a different beast entirely, and one that probably would not have even been in the consciousness of Hokie fans— until Saturday, that is.

Hindsight may be 20/20, but it is safe to say that VT would have won this game if they could have properly plugged the gaps on defense. This criticism extends to the linebackers and members of the secondary, as both executed poorly in decisive moments.

Braxton Burmeister also put up relatively pedestrian numbers, finishing 10/20 for 177 passing yards and a touchdown, tacking on 14 yards on the ground. The second-year member of Tech’s roster is either dealing with a shoulder injury that is more significant than previously detailed, lacking confidence, or just continuing to show that he has not convinced his coaches or teammates that he can step up and elevate their play in dire moments throughout an entire season.

Individual performances aside, though, the ugliest picture from the weekend affair came from a somber Justin Fuente, who spent the majority of his post-game press conference staring at the lectern rather than acknowledging the faces of the media members in front of him.

Although he said that he was “not going down that road” when asked if he felt that he and his coaching staff were running out of time, the Hokies’ head coach could not hide the aura of exhaustion and despair that hung over him like a storm cloud. Fuente left his media session in silence, not even extending a “thanks” or “mhm” as he had in his most recent postgame appearances.

It feels like the man in charge can see the walls closing in on him; it feels like the floor may be lower than even the most petulant pessimists could have described; it feels like the Hokies credibility has been confiscated.

If the panic button had not already been hit, it got a solid pounding just after the final whistle; but realistically, that button had already been received it’s fair share. The Hokies are now in uncharted waters.

It always comes in threes.