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Misery in Morgantown: Hokie Hopes Crushed by WVU

By Grant Mitchell | September 18
Wvu vt
Photo by John McCreary

An Op-Ed by Grant Mitchell

Gone are the days of the Hokies beating their rivals into submission every time asking; gone are the days of the Justin Fuente that revitalized the Memphis Tigers’ offense and transformed them into a legitimate top-25 team; gone are the days of a 10-4, Bowl-winning, debut season at Virginia Tech, during which the Hokies won the Coastal Division.

Tech’s tragedy in Morgantown closed the final page on a chapter that had been writing itself for years, but one that was incomplete and had not been properly cemented until today.

Saturday’s 21-27 loss to the West Virginia Mountaineers manifested itself in a multitude of ways: horrendous decision-making from the coaching staff, an absence of energy from the players, and an egregious lack of preparation from the team as a whole.

First-Quarter Flatline

The Hokies came out with an indescribable aura of arrogance, turning to the ever-present rotation of screen plays, read options, and jet sweeps that have come to define the once-lethal Virginia Tech offense. It did not take long for them to punt the ball over to the Mountaineers, who then scored an 80-yard touchdown on an inside zone that was not picked up by the second-level defenders.

For reference, West Virginia had only averaged 3.2 yards per carry through their first two games, despite outscoring their opponents 90-30. The 80-yard breakaway was their longest play from scrimmage this season and gave them an immediate advantage over the visiting assembly.

It then took the Hokies just over three minutes to record a three-and-out and the Mountaineers to convert a 29-yard pass for six points, bringing the score to 14-0 with 9:11 left in the first quarter.

At this point, the game already seemed out of reach; Virginia Tech was not able to play from behind last season and is even worse off this year without three impact offensive linemen, a risk-taking quarterback, an NFL running back, and the injured James Mitchell. WVU got anything it wanted on a Tech secondary that was unrecognizable from the one that held Heisman candidate Sam Howell and tenth-ranked North Carolina to 10 points in one hour of football.

The Hokies’ lone score of the first half came on a 23-yard pass from Braxton Burmeister to Tayvion Robinson, who made a play on the ball and beat his defender in single coverage. Hokie fans have been pleading for their coaching staff and QB to take chances and let their talent go to work, so this came as a near-shock to onlookers dressed in maroon and orange.

Fans were soon brought back down to earth, however, as John Parker Romo missed a 24-yard field goal to effectively end the half in WVU’s favor, 24-7. This miss also prevented VT from kicking what would have been a game-tying, overtime-forcing field goal late in the fourth quarter.

A Failed Chance at Redemption

Whatever half-time speech Justin Hamilton gave to his defense at halftime worked— WVU scored a total of three points in the second half and was unable to make plays against a unit that was clearly superior in talent but had simply been outworked in the opening stanza.

Burmeister was also given the opportunity to expand the passing game into the intermediate range as the game progressed, to which he had decent success, although he missed a wide-open throw to Tayvion Robinson which would have been the pair’s second hookup of the game. Missed throws like this are a representation of why the Hokies’ offensive ceiling is so low and why they are currently not a true contender against the “big boys” of college football.

As bleak as the prospect of winning seemed, Hamilton’s defense continued to adjust fight on and ultimately gave the offense two massive opportunities to strike back, coming up with a strip-sack and interception via TyJuan Garbutt and Jermaine Waller, both inside the West Virginia half of the field.

Enter: the calamitous play-calling of Brad Cornelsen.

The Problems in Play-Calling

Trailing 14-27 and with a third-and-goal at the WVU five-yard line, Tech’s offensive coordinator dialed up a Tre Turner jet sweep to the near side that was sniffed out for a one-yard loss, leading to a turnover on downs on the next play.

As flattering as a touchdown would have been, the execution is not what was wrong with Cornelsen’s play call; rather, it was the intent and thought process behind it. A fair share of Madden NFL players learn by adolescence that late-developing plays to the sidelines are far more effective if they are taken to the far side of the field, unless every blocker is accounted for near the boundary— which they were not.

Beyond the obvious errors in the schematic of the play, it reflected a serious lack of ambition; a lack of desire to win a rivalry game on the road; an intent to accept mediocrity at the risk of making a mistake or at the benefit of being labeled a "winner." Thus is the crux of the issue.

Cornelsen’s afternoon got even worse after Jermaine Waller’s miracle interception set up the Hokies for a first-and-goal from the Mountaineers’ three-yard line, which became third-and-goal from the four after two failed run plays. Both of the OC’s next two play calls were designed rollouts to the right that had no hope of being converted, and WVU was allowed to escape with a 21-27 victory.

The problem with calling a rollout to either side is, by design, half of the field is immediately taken out of play. Consider that these plays came not only in the red-zone but inside the five-yard line, and Burmeister was given very little to work with; with every step that he took, Tech’s QB was walking himself further and further into a trap that he did not create but was burdened with escaping, which he did not.

Justin Fuente’s Culpability

Justin Fuente was hired as an offensive mastermind that had transformed a mid-major program into one that was winning bowl games and blitzing past its opponents with an impressive offense and dynamism that seemed to be perfect for the post-Frank Beamer era. What Fuente’s teams have produced in recent years has been nothing short of disastrous and highway robbery to a fanbase that had grown accustomed to supporting a perennial top-10 team in America— and the worst part is that he cannot get out of his own way.

The biggest problem with Justin Fuente’s tenure is that he is complicit in the devolution of Tech’s offense in an era that is filled with young and ingenious minds, the responsibility of which falls at the feet of Cornelsen. Fuente’s commitment to his longtime friend is hurting the university and his own chances of remaining in place as the head coach.

If Fuente needs evidence of the “good” that change can bring, look no further than Notre Dame in 2016: the Fighting Irish finished 4-8 and immediately made the decision to replace both its offensive and defensive coordinator, leading to 10-3, 12-1, 11-2, and 10-2 seasons over the next four years. Today is not the first time that change has been called for in Blacksburg, but it will become the day of reckoning if the Hokies are to reverse their fortunes.

Stepping Back

Saturday’s loss was exactly why the 2-0 record and 15th national ranking were flattering to a Virginia Tech program that has developed a pattern of failing to meet expectations; just like the opening week victory over #10 North Carolina was the biggest day of the year for the Hokies, Saturday was that for West Virginia, and the coaches did not have their players ready to compete.

There will not be progress at Virginia Tech until the culture of the football team is reskinned and its past image is restored. This includes implementing an exciting offense that entices high school players to come to Blacksburg rather than upperclassmen to leave in search of better opportunities, refusing to accept mediocrity in any shape or form and addressing the obvious problems internally rather than ignoring them.

The Hokies are now 2-1 and will still be ranked in the top-25, but this is the bottom line: Justin Fuente-led teams have now lost rivalry games to West Virginia and Virginia, in addition to suffering disappointments against Old Dominion and Syracuse, among others. The team is losing its identity one week at a time, and the program is relying almost entirely upon the prestige it garnered during the 2000s and early 2010s. Serious adjustments are needed in Blacksburg.

Virginia Tech will be back in action next Saturday at noon when the Richmond Spiders make a visit to Lane Stadium.