Execution and consistency. Those are the two major tenants to a winning performance against Paul Johnson's Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Singular lapses can result in catastrophic plays. On Saturday afternoon, Virginia Tech fell victim to those pitfalls and left Atlanta in defeat.
Despite all of its complexities, the Yellow Jackets' triple option offense can sustain periods of imperfection. All they need is one opening. One blown assignment. One mental error.
Playing a team like that can have profound impacts on game planning, play calling and individual focus. It can force coaches and players to fall out of the moment, operating in an almost inorganic fashion that drives them to make poor contextual decisions: Coaches might abandon their instincts in favor of predetermined strategies; players' heads tie up their feet.
Georgia Tech knows this. It's what makes them so frustrating to play. It's what makes such a straightforward style so enigmatic. They come to play each and every week with an additional weapon that is entirely intangible.
In their two head-to-head matchups, Paul Johnson has not only defeated Justin Fuente on the scoreboard, but also between the ears.
The Yellow Jackets hit on three plays of 60 yards or more — two of which came through the air — that led to 21 points. Those three plays accounted for 52% of Georgia Tech's total offense, a backbreaking statistic for a defense that had a pretty disruptive afternoon.
Possessions tend to come at a premium against the Yellow Jackets. Thus, the standard approach is to take points as they come. It was clear in the first quarter that the Hokies were trying to maximize their scoring opportunities by coming away with as many points as possible.
We can argue back-and-forth as to whether or not Fuente's approach was the right one. There was a lot of chatter post-game about how much Virginia Tech would liked to have had those 4 lost points — from the failed 4th down and 2-point conversions — on their final drive. As always, hindsight is 20-20. The larger problem was that the play calls were head scratching.
Why bring in your backup quarterback — a guy who can throw, but is clearly in the game to run the football — on a key 4th-and-2 from the GT 8-yard line and eliminate your chances of keeping the defense honest? Why throw a low-percentage back-shoulder fade on a 2-point conversion try? And while we're at it, why go for the jugular instead of converting a mere two yards to keep yourself alive with one minute to play?
"I have coached in the past where we were made up differently, and I wouldn't chase the number early, just because I always felt like there were going to be plenty of opportunities," Fuente noted after the loss. "But this squad now, I don't feel that way. I haven't felt that way all year. We 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 opportunities."
That's a pretty sobering quote from the head coach. His quote to the local media, as he mentioned above, was equally telling. When asked earlier this week if he had any concerns about his team's slow starts, Fuente said:
"Points will be harder to come by, whether it's the first quarter or the second quarter. I think part of that is because things have to be pretty perfect for us to have success right now. In the first quarter, teams play you slightly different. You have to try and get a handle on it. When you're better or more established or older, those things don't matter as much because you can overcome them with experience and talent, and right now we're just not there yet."
Fuente has made no bones about the fact that his confidence in this offense is significantly lower than a season ago. That's entirely understandable, given the lack of experience at key positions. However, it falls on the coaching staff to maximize their potential and set them up for success. On Saturday, the staff failed.
How the Hokies would respond to the loss of key contributors on the offensive side of the football was a major storyline heading into this season. Josh Jackson's efficiency. Cam Phillips' early season dominance. Sean Savoy's emergence. Eric Kumah's recent improvement. All of these positives clouded public perception, for the reality is the offensive success came against some pretty poor defensive units.
Consider this: The Hokies' six FBS wins in 2017 have come against teams with an average rank of #87 in total defense (3 of which are ranked #102 or worse). Their three losses, on the other hand, have come against teams with an average rank of #21.
Therefore, it's no coincidence that Tech's struggles in consecutive weeks have come against two Top 35 defensive units. The offensive play calls have been noticeably more conservative. To keep blindly rolling with plays that worked against the ECU's and UNC's of the world is like kicking up the difficulty from Varsity to Heisman and expecting the same level of success. You can't truck stick your way to 4th down conversions or 4 Verts your way to touchdowns when you're playing talented, well coached defenses.
But something — or some things — got lost in the process. Diametrically opposed to Tech's cautious game plan, the truck stick and 4 Verts plays still found their way into Saturday's game at critical moments. The conservatism seems to have allowed opposing defenses opportunities to load the box and dare Josh Jackson to beat them over the top. The offensive line is struggling to keep Jackson upright. Jackson's confidence looks shot. Cam Phillips looks frustrated. And now A.J. Bush is making cameos to try and jumpstart an anemic run game.
Since arriving in Blacksburg, fans have lauded Fuente and Brad Cornelsen's abilities to put their players in a position to succeed. After watching Saturday's loss, it's clear that the game was an abject failure from a game-planning perspective. It's hard not to love the concept of being aggressive with your opportunities, but it was repeatedly frustrating to watch the implementation.
What's even more frustrating is the lack of accountability. The fan base has understood from Week 1 that the offensive depth chart lacked the polish of a championship caliber squad. But that same green unit racked up some impressive stat lines and point totals against Power 5 opponents. It's not like the offensive staff was tasked with making chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what. The pieces were there, they just needed time and experience. Now, they look neutered.
One could argue that the frustration many people are feeling has more to do with the product than the formula. If the first quarter 4th down conversion had been successful, everyone would be applauding the aggression. If the fourth quarter 4th down conversion had resulted in a game winning touchdown, everyone would be praising the savage play call. Despite Fuente's preconceptions, opportunities continued to present themselves; Fuente just appeared unprepared and the final execution fell short.
Everyone has bad games. While there were mistakes abound, it's hard not to place this one on the head whistle. That weird feeling you have is disbelief. Suddenly the mystique has vanished. Virginia Tech's hot young football coach is fallible.