Hate is a strong word, one reserved for serious subjects. My mother used to suggest that I use less venomous words to describe things that didn't fit my fancy, such as "dislike" or "disapprove". The truth of the matter is sometimes you need to tell it like it is, and this is one of those instances. I hate Miami.
I hate them more than any other team the Hokies play on an annual basis. I hate their fair-weather fans. I hate that those same fans throw up their wings and chant "Seven Nation Army" as though it's unique. I hate the baseless swagger that seems more like an admissions requirement than something earned. I hate that they always think they're relevant despite zero accomplishments in the last 14 years. I hate the turnover chain, which is the most Miami thing ever. But most of all, I hate that Miami is on the verge of truly being back.
People will tell you that the ACC is a better conference when Miami is nationally relevant. They're right. Miami's brand has remained strong despite close to fifteen years of mediocrity, but that's due to a combination of marketing from shoe companies and a generation of fans 30 and older. Their national identity is more closely rooted in a dwindling collection of NFL talent that symbolize their last great teams in the early aughts. As guys like Frank Gore and Greg Olsen wrap up their professional careers, they illustrate just how long it's been since Miami won on the big stage.
But here's the thing: I don't want Miami to be back. Ever. I've enjoyed watching the Hokies play a major role in their recent irrelevance. The 2004 win in Coral Gables — the one that netted Tech their first ACC Championship in their inaugural season and marked the first of eight consecutive ten-win seasons — continues to be one of my favorite Hokie football memories. The win served as the launching point for the most successful stretch of football in Virginia Tech history. Miami, on the other hand, fell through the Moon Door and began their descent into the fog of college football.
Maybe I continue to suffer from an inferiority complex that dates back to Virginia Tech's move to the ACC. When the Hokies joined the conference, they were treated like the kid brother that the more popular older sibling was forced to bring along. Tech took that slight personally, and I clearly have not gotten over it. Every, "Is Miami Back?" article that popped up served as a constant reminder that the national media desperately wanted the Hurricanes to be relevant. Yet when the Tech program slid backwards in the twilight of the Frank Beamer era, the articles focused more on how sad it was and less on an eagerness for Blacksburg's return to national significance.
The Hokies haven't exactly dominated the Canes since joining the ACC. Tech holds a narrow 8-6 edge after Saturday's loss, with the Canes having won 3 out of the last 4 meetings. Each loss to Miami has stung, but this year felt especially painful. Not only did the Miami win kick the national hype train into fifth gear ahead of their clash with No. 3 Notre Dame, but it was frustrating to watch the way the Hokies lost.
Once again, ball security played a major factor. The Hokies have had a negative turnover margin in each of their six losses under Justin Fuente, and they're 2-6 when they turn the ball over more than their opponents.
Miami was far from perfect, tossing three interceptions during a brutal offensive stretch bracketing halftime. What made the difference was the Canes' ability to cash in on the Hokies' mistakes. If you omit the two Tech turnovers that came within seconds of the end of the first and second halfs, Miami converted 2 out of 3 turnovers into touchdowns. The Hokies only managed one score on three turnovers (a 1-yard Josh Jackson touchdown run off a short field), and turned the ball back over the other two times. Simply put, that was the ballgame.
Obviously the disparity between each team's performances was greater than their ability to convert on Saturday night. But it's hard to ignore the momentum Virginia Tech seized near the end of the first half, only to slump into a lifeless offensive blob time and again.
The offense struggled all night against an aggressive and athletic Miami front. Maybe they were feeding off of the home crowd — that was a statement I never thought I would write regarding attendees to a University of Miami football game — or maybe they were that hungry. Whatever it was, they were a well disciplined unit hell bent on controlling the game from start to finish.
Virginia Tech managed 299 yards of total offense (their lowest output of the season) and a depressing 2.37 yards per carry (their second lowest of the season). Watching the Tech offense felt painful all night, and one look at the drive chart will tell you, no, you didn't black out for brief periods of time. Tech's offense was that dismal.
The Hokies managed a mere 3 drives that traveled more than 40 yards (two of which finished in turnovers), and went 3/14 on third down and 0/2 on fourth down. Despite a single drive that went three-and-out, the Hokies had 8 drives that went 20 yards or less and came away with 10 points from 5 drives inside the Miami 35 yard line.
The correlation between turnovers and losses is nothing new to Justin Fuente and the Hokies. Ball security is something Fuente has stressed since taking over in Blacksburg, and it became a focal point of the team after a bad case of "fumbleitis" characterized the start of the 2016 season. Days after losing to Tennessee in the Battle at Bristol, Fuente reflected on his team's five fumbles, saying, "My issue is with taking care of the football. If we could just do that at a much higher rate, then our consistency will improve; it'll give us better opportunities to be more consistent."
He made similar comments this season after the September loss to Clemson and again on Saturday night.
What is especially frustrating for all parties — coaches, players and fans, alike — is how fully aware everyone was of Miami's penchant for takeaways. They entered the game ranked No. 9 nationally in turnovers forced, and some would argue the Turnover Chain had gotten more national attention than the product on the field.
"By all accounts, they do get excited about it and it's something they take pride in," remarked Fuente earlier in the week. "Obviously they understand the importance of taking care of the football and taking the ball away, probably one of the biggest reasons they're in the situation they're in right now."
Fuente went on to note, "I think the biggest thing, statistically speaking, is [turnovers are] still one of the biggest determining factors of winning and losing games. Last year for us here was kind of an anomaly in terms of [not] taking care of the ball and still winning games. And if you look at the games we won versus the games we lost, there's a huge discrepancy."
Like the losses to Tennessee and Georgia Tech in 2016, it's difficult not to reflect on Saturday's loss to Miami and wonder what could have been. I, for one, do not feel like the Hokies are 18 points worse than the Hurricanes. Forgive me for being terribly cliche, but mistakes happen. What separates good teams from bad ones is not only their ability to limit self-inflicted wounds, but also their ability to bounce back.
We've seen the Fuente-led Hokies lose gut-wrenching games to beatable teams behind an insurmountable number of gaffes. What has made them so beloved has been their ability to bounce back the following week and take care of business. Virginia Tech is 5-0 under Fuente following a loss and 7-0 after sporting a negative turnover margin.
Take solace in the fact that the Hokies have a short week to prepare for Georgia Tech and the triple option. The less time they have to dwell on their mistakes, the better off they will be in arguably their most mentally challenging matchup of the season.