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It has taken me 8 games into the season to see it, but I think I now have a feeling why this program isn’t going anywhere.
It’s a decided lack of trust. Or for lack of a better word, fear.
Not just fear of dialing up a daring play when the game is on the line, although that certainly happened in the fourth quarter. The coaching staff actually put together an imaginative offensive game plan where early plays set up later plays and for three quarters, they ran it well. It wasn’t until the fourth period that they became like a turtle going back into its shell, afraid to do anything other than the basic core plays they run all the time.
But I’m talking about more than that.
One of the things you’ve probably noticed if you’ve been a long-time watcher of Virginia Tech football is that the most hated man in Blacksburg is always the offensive coordinator. Half of the profane words I have accumulated into my vocabulary were acquired sitting up high on the alumni side of Lane Stadium around the 20, listening to old-timers describe the job they thought Ricky Bustle was doing.
Fans weren’t much kinder to Gary Tranquil, Bryan Stinespring or Scot Loeffler, and under Justin Fuente, Brad Cornelsen is the man getting his time in the barrel.
Over the years, sometimes the brutal criticism has been warranted. Other times it has not.
But if you’ll look at the years when the Hokies’ performed well no matter who the OC was, I think there’s a trend that’s hard to ignore.
Take 1995. The first half of the season, the offense was boring. Some might even say pitiful, and they got off to an 0-2 start. They started winning, but they were still winning by scores like 13-7. It wasn’t until midseason when the offense put up 77 on Akron that the offense picked up, and I doubt it’s because the offensive coordinator got smarter.
I have always believed that the season got to a point where quarterback Jim Druckenmiller got tired of some of these calls, saw what worked when they scored the 77 points, then ignored what was being called from the sidelines and just told people to go deep. If you look at some of the big plays Mike Vick pulled off in 1999 and 2000, some look like either broken plays or the result of glancing around and deciding “this isn’t going to work, I gotta go.”
They, like Tyrod Taylor, Logan Thomas and some of the other successful quarterbacks of that era, had a certain attitude about them. They weren’t afraid they were going to be pulled from the game. They had no fear of being yelled at on the sidelines after calling their own numbers.
The only thing they were afraid of was losing. And they hated it.
Fast forward to what we have now: A system where three different quarterbacks have started in the last two years. It doesn’t need to be said out loud, but the message is clear: do what I say or there are two other quarterbacks waiting in line who will gladly take your place.
As I said, today’s coaching staff looked like they had done a lot of preparation and soul searching to put in plays that were counter to their tendencies today and they worked. Justin Hamilton bounced back nicely with some great calls on defense. Fuente and company looked like they had hit rock bottom last week, received the message, and were starting to take the next few steps up the stairs from the basement.
But they stopped in the fourth quarter. Had Druckenmiller been playing, I could imagine him laughing at the call sent in, said “nice suggestion. Everyone go deep and we will discuss it after the game at Top Of The Stairs.” If it were Vick, he’d have called the play, then ignored it, taken off and run, and probably scored a touchdown.
They knew they were the quarterback and would far rather ask for forgiveness than permission because they knew Frank wouldn’t have a problem with it. Football – and team sports in general – are games of trust. The coaches have to trust their key players and empower them to do the right thing on the field. The players have to trust what they are being told by the coaches will put them in a position to win.
It’s the mark of every successful team since the beginning of time.
But while Druck would tell everyone to go deep and Vick would take off and run, Hendon Hooker in the fourth quarter seemed to be experiencing the worst of both worlds. The plays he was being told to run were highly predictable and had a low chance of success. Hendon then looked like a player trying to still execute those plays, at key times holding on to the ball too long, hoping that extra half second would give him a chance to have success with the play.
That didn’t happen, he got sacked twice in the closing minutes and the Hokies lost the game. I don’t necessarily believe a QB of Hooker’s talents goes from being a confident, accurate, great decision maker in 3 quarters, to an inaccurate player with no field awareness in the fourth quarter all on his own. Maybe he got nervous, maybe Miami’s defense got better, or maybe he just had bad luck.
Or maybe he’s been in a situation too often where if he checked off to something that might work better, he’d be pulled out of the game quicker than a fisherman pulling a small mouth bass out of Smith Mountain Lake into the boat. Fuente is supposedly a quarterback whisperer, but I’ve scratched my head many times regarding the way he’s managed both the player development and confidence of the quarterbacks who have played for him in Blacksburg.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I believe if Druck or Vick were playing, they’d have won the game, then told the OC “it worked, didn’t it?” if there were any complaints.
Instead, the Hokies couldn’t hold onto a lead in the fourth quarter where it seemed both an offensive coordinator and quarterback didn’t trust each other enough to take chances.
Which is why I thought it so significant last season when I saw a running back go to the sideline and hug consultant Jerry Kill after a successful play instead of his position coach.
Those two trusted each other.