An Op-Ed by Grant Mitchell
The best chefs in the world are renowned for having a complete mastery of every instrument, ingredient and dynamic in their kitchens. A great chef can take completely unrelated items and blend them together to satisfy the needs of different palettes, regardless of their background; it takes creativity and unwavering confidence to command that level of attention and still meet expectations without fail.
What happened during Virginia Tech’s 21-10 victory over the Richmond Spiders last Saturday was nothing more than a check in the “W” column and an encapsulation of many fans' biggest fears; there was little to no control, a void of mastery, and a glaring disparity between expectations and performance.
What’s Going On in the Kitchen
The analogy of the chef would not be complete without discussing what is in the kitchen— in this case, the different components of Virginia Tech’s team.
Just when it seemed as if the Hokies’ dynamic receiving corps was losing its reputation, two players reminded the world of what they are capable of; Tre Turner made a one-of-a-kind, running-in-the-air, toe-tapping catch in the back of the end zone for a touchdown, and Tayvion Robinson once again did his part to electrify the team with first downs and a tremendous punt-return that he took to the house.
The offensive line was a hallmark of past VT teams but has been struggling since injuries forced them to shuffle around their alignment; the defensive line was supposed to be led by Amare Barno, but the junior defensive end has only recorded four tackles in his last three games, none of which have been sacks.
The secondary has been great more times than not and is probably the best unit on the team, but even they have let up costly big plays that devalue them more than they should (see: West Virginia game).
All of these component parts in the kitchen, regardless of their star power or potential, will operate under the command of the head chef: on the field, that is quarterback Braxton Burmeister.
The Head of the Snake (Kitchen)
Braxton Burmeister has operated under an extremely limited playbook this season, much to the chagrin of the fanbase; calls for offensive coordinator, Brad Cornlesen, to let his junior QB air the ball out rang far and wide throughout Blacksburg for three weeks until finally, Burmeister was granted the chance against Richmond.
What the Hokies’ QB showed during his 60-minute battle with the Spiders is that simply put, he is not capable of making throws that a winning, Power-Five QB needs to make. Putting Cornelsen’s lack of ingenuity and questionable decision-making in the past, he gave his captain on the field a chance to prove that he deserves more responsibility with the ball, and he was met with resounding failure.
If Burmeister's primary read is not open, he is typically gone like the wind; sometimes his primary read will even be open and he will still decide to tuck and run, which is either down to a lack of awareness, baffling coaching instruction, or is a damning self-evaluation of his own abilities. All of this contributed to the Hokies scoring 14 offensive points in four quarters against Richmond, seven excluding the scripted opening drive.
Whether Burmeister’s problem is inconsistent accuracy or consistent inaccuracy, who knows— the only tangible takeaway is that for all of the window-squeezing peaches that he throws, he also misses sure-fire conversions that have the power to decide a game. His ups will always be on display, but until he either gains the confidence or finds the mettle to get past the downs, the offense will never operate in top gear.
One More Level Up
As much power as Burmeister has on the field, the real Head Chef at Virginia Tech is Justin Fuente, and he looked scarily desperate last Saturday.
The best reflection of Fuente’s lack of ambition during his time with the Hokies comes from last season’s 45-10 loss to #3 Clemson; as bad as the final score looked, VT, at one point, seemed as if they could pull off the upset.
Facing a 17-10 deficit in Lane Stadium, the Hokies got the ball at their 32-yard line with 1:06 left in the first half and three timeouts at their disposal. Rather than going for the throat and trying to at least close the gap, Fuente chose to dial up two runs and head into halftime without even attempting to make a statement.
Fast-forward back to last Saturday: not only did Fuente use two timeouts when Richmond was backed up on their goal line near the end of the half to try to luck his way into a safety, he actually revealed a wrinkle in the playbook and signed off on a fake punt, again, against an FCS Richmond Spiders team. The ball ended up falling harmlessly to the ground and causing a turnover on downs, but that is not what mattered— what mattered was that Fuente showed that he is running out of answers.
Putting on a Brave Face
As much wrong as there is to point to, the outlook could be entirely different if viewed from a different lens. As expressed by Burmeister, “we are 3-1 sitting in the bye week about to go to play Notre Dame and the game we lost we lost on the 3-yard line going into score.”
VT’s QB did not tell a lie in his midweek remarks, but what he lacked was pragmatism. In reality, yes, the Hokies are 3-1; compared to what is expected, or demanded of them, however, they have failed nearly every test post-week one.
Again, the cupboards are full of everything that is needed to get back on track. Putting recent trends aside, the coaching staff has set program records, the players have shown their value, and the team can still be a Coastal contender— but the problem is that, at this point, none of these qualities are coalescing at the same time, and the team appears without direction.
If the Hokies are best in one area, though, it is coming up big when their backs are against the wall; a VT with no expectations is a dangerous VT, and they have what is needed to pull off a major upset over Notre Dame when they come back from the bye week on October 9.
It will be up to the players and coaches to write the script for the following week’s headlines because as of now, the kitchen is failing the critics’ test.