There's a lot to unpack from Virginia Tech's 22-28 loss to Georgia Tech. Dubious play calling, early point chasing, a lackluster run game, and third-and-long defensive busts stick out like a sore thumb. All-in-all though, one thing is clear. The honeymoon is over for Justin Fuente.
Rewind for a minute. Eighteen games into Fuente's tenure, he led the Hokies to an ACC Coastal Championship, beat an SEC team in a bowl, won at the elusive FedExField (against West Virginia nonetheless), locked up College GameDay in Blacksburg, and was on the brink of national prominence. Fast forward through a six-game stretch which included 3 losses to the most prominent conference foes on Tech's schedule, and fans and reporters alike are taking Fuente to task. And it's fair, even with 10 wins on the table, too. The how in this instance at the micro-level is as valid as the macro-level what happened over the course of the season.
There's a rational argument to make that both Clemson and Miami had a distinct talent edge, but that does not hold true for Georgia Tech. And it's not even close by 247Sports Composite rankings.
|Year||Miami||Clemson||Virginia Tech||Georgia Tech|
And 9 games into the football season, Tech's abundance of youth on offense is a less compelling point.
Indeed, Virginia Tech's players did not play a perfect game. There were busts, gaffes, and bad execution. However, they did enough to put the team in a position to win. Down 6, Tech drove from its 26-yard-line down to the Georgia Tech 32. The Hokies converted a 4th-and-1 and a 4th-and-8 along the way. Beginning with a third-and-one, Fuente opted to pass on successive downs. Both the 15-yard attempt on third down, and go-for-broke pass into the end zone on fourth down were incompletions. The third-down heave to Eric Kumah might be the more egregious decision of the two calls. Georgia Tech only had six defenders in the box there, and the Hokies had a 2-man numbers advantage.
In comparison, the Bees loaded the box on 4th down and the Hokies schemed Cam Phillips in one-on-one coverage against redshirt freshman backup corner Ajani Kerr. Still though, the call goes against the grain of the 'expected outcomes' mantra which Fuente has preached throughout his tenure at Tech.
"We've got the best matchup we could possibly get," said Fuente. "We've got press coverage with our best guys. Everything we did was a struggle offensively. We had a couple opportunities there to go freaking win the game, and we took those, and we didn't come through in 'em, but that was the deal. Whether it was third-and-one, whether we make another yard and have another opportunity, those were our chances.
"Making first downs and driving the football were difficult for us, and have been. We felt like we had an opportunity, with as good a look as we were going to get to go win the game."
At the poker table, I've been there too (a few times). I've talked myself into an all-in move in what appears to be a good spot against a lesser opponent that's ultimately backfired. That allure of the big move is equal parts seductive and toxic. All Virginia Tech had to do was pick up the first down on the ground, gain one-yard on two attempts, and then bleed the Yellow Jackets of their chips. Then with the new set of downs, exploit the mismatch in a situation that won't end the game. There was no need to push.
There was also point chasing which was so confounding and bad that had Mike London done the same, it would've lived on in TKP infamy as a variety of memes. During his postgame interview, Fuente discussed the early failed two-point conversion try plus the decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 instead of a chip-shot field goal attempt.
ON ESCHEWING A 25-YARD FIELD GOAL TRY:
"It was fourth-and-short, and the game was 7 to 3. Just don't know how many times we're going to get down there, quite honestly. It was fourth-and-two, and really felt like that was our best chance. We thought we had the good call. We did not execute worth a darn on it, and didn't get the first down."
ON GOING FOR TWO IN THE SECOND QUARTER:
"We're trying to stay on the number. I have in my history not done that, but I really felt like those points were precious early. I really did. And that's what we did. We were trying to get back on whatever the score was, I can't remember. We were trying to get back on pace there. Because I really don't feel like we're going to have tons of opportunities to score. That's just the way we're built right now. Trying to get back on the number, whatever the number was, regardless of time of game, is how I feel with this squad."
"I have coached in the past where we were made up differently, and I never chased the number early, just because I always felt like there was going to be plenty of opportunities. But this squad right now, I don't feel that way. I haven't felt like that all year. We've kind of talked about that with the local media, just who we are and where we're at. I don't see us having multiple, multiple opportunities down there."
Points are precious, but five were squandered away haphazardly. That's hard to reconcile. Mind you, had Tech converted said field goal and extra points after all its touchdowns, the score is 27-28 on the final drive and a game winning field goal is in play.
While Fuente's insight did not provide sufficient justification for the aforementioned game management decisions, it did reveal his lack of faith in his offense. For a coach that has limited fan and media access to his program from day one, and kept issues in-house, it was odd to hear him divulge so much inner-monologue to the press.
Point blank though, the perplexing in-game decisions and play calls overshadowed any shortcomings on the field. And it's even more concerning Fuente sounded like he'd do it all over again the same way. His remarks were candid, but not accountable. Defensive tackle Ricky Walker, arguably Tech's best player this season, taught a graduate-level class in accountability and leadership last week.
Fuente had his worst day at the office as head Hokie. He showed he is capable of making costly calls and mistakes. What's more important is what he exhibits next, that he can grow from the experience. That will help make the marriage work over the long haul.