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Well, here we are, back at the crossroads.
We knew we’d be back here one day. As we watched the rocket ship take off under Frank Beamer, enjoyed the streak of bowl games, the long streak of wins over Virginia, even the decades-long streak of not having a losing season, we knew nothing would last forever.
But last night it officially did. The end of the streak of not having a losing season ended two years ago. The 15-game streak over UVA ended last year. With a 45-10 loss to Clemson last night, there will be no bowl game. The 27-year run is over.
Every brick Frank put together to build the foundation of the football program is now gone.
That it has happened so fast is maddening. That it is Justin Fuente who has fired up the flux capacitor and taken this program back to where it was in the 1980s is stunning. After his first two seasons, he was doing so well fans were afraid he might leave. He won 19 games in those seasons, said all the right things, and executed the transition between Frank and his program flawlessly.
But last night’s game was a microcosm of what has happened since. You could see flashes of what a great coach Fuente could be in the first quarter; he employed personnel in different roles, showed different formations defenses couldn’t study on film, and made bolder calls on offense that for a moment, had Clemson back on its heels.
This fired up an already well-prepared team, as they realized the improbable could be possible. It was 10-10 late in the second quarter, and despite having to create their own energy in an empty stadium, the Hokies were showing a national television audience they weren’t going to roll over and fulfill the 23.5-point beating oddsmakers had predicted.
But Clemson then scored to make it 17-10 in the final minute. The Hokies got the ball back with relatively decent field position at the 32, one run got them to the 36, and another advanced the ball to the Clemson 43. For a second I thought there was a mistake, as my television showed the clock continuing to run through all that, with Khalil Herbert’s 21-yard run going out of bounds with only two seconds left in the half.
It was no mistake. Fuente told his offense to run out the clock despite having three timeouts left. Had he just used one, he probably could have kept running the ball and ended up in field goal range. As it was, they threw a Hail Mary that was caught at the one, and the half ended with no time on the clock.
As people around the country scratched their heads wondered “what was that all about?”, it appeared there could only be one explanation for managing the final minute in such a manner: The coach had more fear of the bad things that could happen, than confidence in the good things that could be accomplished. Fuente said as much after the game, pointing out Clemson had just driven down the field on his defense and that they also had 3 timeouts.
In other words, he had no faith in his team to not screw things up.
Yeah, I’d like to play for a coach like that.
Things went downhill from there. There were fumbles, penalties, injuries and mental mistakes. The play calling reverted from bold and daring to the same running plays, screen passes and jet sweeps previously used ad nauseum. Clemson knew what was coming, played with one high safety in the unusual case the Hokies did throw deep, and everyone else up was up on the line to snuff just about everything for little to no gain.
Because they knew what was coming, Clemson’s defense became even more aggressive, first knocking quarterback Braxton Burmeister out of the game, then knocking Hendon Hooker – who had already been taken from the game in the first quarter because of injury – out when he came back a second time. The coach known as the quarterback whisperer was now reduced to playing fourth-string QB Knox Kadum, as earlier this week third-stringer Qunicy Patterson decided he had had enough and entered the transfer portal.
All of which is how you go from a 10-10 tie with a minute left in the half to a 45-10 loss.
What was maddening about this game is that if you watched the first half, you saw a really good coach with a solid, imaginative game plan; you saw really talented players put in the right position to succeed, and all of them were players Fuente recruited since this is now his fifth year. You saw the potential in just how good the program could be.
But in the final minute of the first half, you saw the downside. Like the game earlier in the season against Miami where there was a similar start that lasted three quarters, you saw a lack of faith. A turtle going back into its shell. Calls made to avoid losing instead of trying to win.
It was like a golfer on the practice tee who hits everything dead solid perfect when he knows if he misses one, there’s another 50 in the practice bucket. He’s relaxed and confident. But once he gets on the first tee and there are no mulligans, he gets a little tight in his backswing. He overthinks what he’s going to do instead of just letting natural talent and muscle memory take over. And he hits it in the woods more times than not.
It’s no different than a quarterback – which Fuente was – who only throws when his receiver is unquestionably open. He won’t pull the trigger when it’s a risky throw, fearing the interception. But the greatest QBs of all time learn to overcome that. Terry Bradshaw threw a lot of interceptions with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he also won four Super Bowls by throwing up 50-50 balls and trusting his receivers.
Fuente doesn’t appear to have learned to overcome that. At least yet.
I like Fuente, and for the last three years have been hoping he figures all this out. He’s a good fit for Blacksburg, and he’s young. But I come from a long background in sales, where you learn it doesn’t matter if you’re liked or not, it’s only about results. Hit 100 percent of quota and you’ll be liked and get a bonus. Hit 80 percent and you’ll be liked but working at another company.
The first-half Fuente I saw last night who is bold and confident can coach any team I pull for any time he likes. But the Fuente who plays to avoid a mistake instead of playing to win is a big question mark. A question mark, I might add, that has cost the Virginia Tech program its lengthy streaks of not having a losing record, not losing to UVA, and not going to a bowl game.
So like I said, here we are. Back at the crossroads.
Someone needs to choose.
You encapsulated, and expressed better the jumble of thoughts ricocheting inside my mind. After five years, there is no one else's feet at whom to lay the current state of the program.