Sometimes You Dig Your Own Grave
On November 22nd, 2020, less than 24 hours after Virginia Tech's debilitating 47-14 loss at Heinz Field to the Pittsburgh Panthers, I penned an article for this website titled "It's Over".
At the time, I wrote the following:
Regardless of whether or not Justin Fuente is the coach of the Hokies past December is moot.
The writing is on the wall. This is a bad marriage between Justin Fuente and Virginia Tech, and the only thing keeping the family together is the money.
The coaching staff can't recruit - in-state or otherwise. They can't relate to elite high school players on the recruiting trail, they've burned bridges with several high school coaches in-state whose kids wanted to come to Blacksburg under Frank Beamer, and they've failed to establish a prominent secondary pipeline outside of Virginia to supplement the in-state losses.
Tech had the worst recruiting class in the Power Five in 2020, and is destined to finish with a class towards the bottom of the ACC in 2021.
On the field, Fuente authored the program's worst season since 1992 in 2018 (6-7), lost a large portion of the fan base with a poor start in 2019 and a loss to in-state foe Virginia (8-5), and hit rock bottom on Saturday with the 47-14 loss to Pittsburgh (4-5, with at least one more loss to come).
However, the biggest charge against Fuente isn't the issues on the recruiting trail, or even what has taken place on the field. Instead, it's what underlies it - an unwillingness to adapt.
While many agreed with my sentiment a little less than a year ago, some disagreed, with criticism that included the notion that I was too overly harsh regarding the football program's performance in unprecedented circumstances during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic football season.
Maybe that's true - maybe I was a little too harsh considering how difficult last year was across college football, playing a season in the middle of the COVID pandemic.
Even so, the last sentence of the excerpt that I highlighted above - the part regarding Justin Fuente and his staff's unwillingness to adapt - couldn't be more correct as we sit here a year later, with Virginia Tech 3-3 overall and 1-1 in the ACC following the 28-7 home thrashing at the hands of Pittsburgh this past Saturday in Blacksburg.
While I thought that the 47-14 road loss in a pandemic was rock bottom, I was wrong.
THIS was rock bottom on Saturday.
Virginia Tech's offense accounted for 224 total yards, the lowest output in six-plus years under Justin Fuente. Quarterback Braxton Burmeister finished the contest 11-for-32 for 134 yards, with one touchdown and one interception in his worst game as a Virginia Tech Hokie.
Tech had a mere 90 yards rushing, led by true freshman Malachi Thomas' six carries for 33 yards.
The defense was quite good in spite of the offense, which has been a common theme for most of the season. Pittsburgh's Heisman Trophy-contending senior quarterback Kenny Pickett was held to just 203 yards through the air with two touchdowns, a far cry from his season averages of 246.2 yards per game and 3.8 touchdown passes per contest.
In addition, Virginia Tech held Pittsburgh's offense under 40 points for the first time this season.
It was all for naught.
Anyone watching the game on Saturday knew that two Pittsburgh touchdowns were likely enough to defeat the Hokies.
Virginia Tech's first half drive chart included six punts, a turnover on downs, and a Braxton Burmeister interception. In total, the eight true offensive drives in the first half (excluding the ninth drive that was a kneel down prior to half) consisted of 32 plays for 71 yards - an average of just 2.21 yards per play.
No wonder it was 21-0 at halftime.
The second half, of course, wasn't much better, and Tech ultimately lost by a 28-7 final score.
My prevailing big picture thought immediately following the game?
Sometimes you dig your own grave.
Unfortunately for Virginia Tech, this applies to a litany of situations that have taken place during the Justin Fuente tenure.
At ACC Kickoff back in July, Justin Fuente said the following:
"I feel better about us throwing the ball now since I've been here. That doesn't mean we're going to throw the ball 60 times a game. I feel better about it. With the exception of in 2016, I knew there were two guys we could just chuck it up there, and they were going to catch it more times than not with Bucky (Hodges) and Isaiah (Ford)."
After Saturday's meltdown, Virginia Tech now ranks 106th nationally out of 130 FBS programs in passing offense.
Of course, it doesn't stop there.
The Hokies also rank 111th in scoring offense, 116th in offensive yards per play, 92nd in rushing offense, and 120th in total offense...once again, out of 130 FBS programs.
Anyone who heard that Justin Fuente quote from the ACC Kickoff back in July knew that he was selling a false bill of goods.
Naturally, some of it is gamesmanship, as the running joke among media members is that every coach "feels great" about their team with the media until the season kicks off. It is only then that we find out whether narratives around a given program are true.
In the case of Virginia Tech, the national media was right to be skeptical of what this offense would be in 2021.
All-ACC running back Khalil Herbert and All-ACC offensive tackle Christian Darrisaw departed to the NFL. In addition, Virginia Tech lost two former four-star offensive linemen in Doug Nester (West Virginia) and Bryan Hudson (Louisville) to the transfer portal.
And last, but certainly not least, Virginia Tech chose an oft-injured and mediocre passing quarterback Braxton Burmeister over two former four-star recruits, Hendon Hooker and Quincy Patterson, who are now starting at Tennessee and North Dakota State, respectively, and are having far more successful seasons at the position that Fuente's choice in Burmeister.
Sometimes you dig your own grave.
But this doesn't end with the head coach or the current Virginia Tech coaching staff as a whole. This extends to the administration as well.
For all of the good that athletic director Whit Babcock has done since arriving at Virginia Tech, his decision to hang on with the current football staff last December, which was destined for failure in 2021 due to poor roster management, looms large.
Babcock infamously stuck his neck out for Fuente in his December 15th press conference, the setting in which he publicly announced his decision to keep Justin Fuente. In part, Babcock stated the following:
"Most people do not understand when you reboot the program and tear it all the way to the ground, some fans simply want someone to pay for their pain. I know it hurts when we lose. There may be a better way to go about expressing it. That's the easy way out...hey, the mob is mad, let's change coaches and have a honeymoon, and no one really knows much for three years.
Not here. Not this year.
I don't believe that's right. That's not how we are going to do it just because it's easier and pacifies some of the vocal opinions and social media mob. Upheaval is a dangerous strategy if you miss. I know we have the right coach. If you change and miss, it can get into a spiral that you don't want. We believe we have the right guy and that's what we are going to move forward with.
We have not given this staff a fair shake in my opinion, especially on the defensive side of the ball. We are not going to throw the baby out of the bathwater."
We're halfway through year six of the Justin Fuente regime, and this staff has been given more than enough time to build the program into what it once was. This staff has been given a fair shake, regardless of what Whit Babcock said just 10 months ago.
Justin Fuente won 19 games in his first two seasons at Virginia Tech, which included a Coastal Division title in year one and a trip to the ACC Championship game.
Since the start of year three, the 2018 football season, the results have taken a nose dive to unacceptable levels.
Here are some of the statistics.
The Hokies are 15-19 against Power Five competition since the start of 2018. This mark includes a 14-point loss to Old Dominion, a last second coaching debacle-turned-loss against Liberty, a 45-10 loss to Duke in 2019 which was the program's worst loss at home in 46 years, and a 2019 loss to Virginia in Charlottesville that snapped a 15-game winning streak for the Hokies against their in-state rival.
In addition, Virginia Tech's 6-7 record in the 2018 season was the program's first losing record since 1992. While the Hokies bounced back with eight wins in 2019, Tech finished 2020 with a 5-6 record for the second losing season in the past three years for Virginia Tech football. For context, Virginia Tech hasn't had two losing seasons in a three year span since going 5-6 in 1991 and 2-8-1 in 1992.
In spite of these damning statistics, Whit Babcock elected to keep Fuente for at least the 2021 season, in order to ensure that Fuente and his staff were given a "fair shake".
A win against Pittsburgh would have given Virginia Tech a commanding two-game lead in the Coastal Division race in the most wide-open ACC in recent memory.
Now, following Saturday's meltdown, the Hokies no longer control their own destiny in the ACC, but that of course, is not the main concern.
Sure, Virginia Tech is not yet eliminated from the Coastal Division race, but anyone watching the game on Saturday without maroon-and-orange-colored glasses can see that Virginia Tech is much closer to the bottom of the ACC Coastal than the top - and they're surely nowhere near the upper-echelon of teams in the conference as a whole.
In year six, the fan base deserves better.
However, even if Whit Babcock decides to make a change at head coach, one has to wonder whether or not it's too late.
As the calendar turns to the third week in October, LSU and Southern California, two of the most prestigious head coaching jobs in college football, are already open for 2022, with more openings surely to come.
Those two jobs in particular, without even considering the other possibilities at season's end, could make Whit Babcock's pursuit of potential top targets even more difficult to obtain in this upcoming cycle compared to the last.
Did Babcock make his job more difficult by sticking with a lame duck head coach in Justin Fuente in late 2020?
Only time will tell.
Sometimes you dig your own grave.