Run the football. Control the clock. Contain the Cowboys' offense. Limit mistakes.
It was the only approach that would provide the Hokies with a realistic shot of beating Oklahoma State. Not because the Pokes are leaps and bounds better than the Hokies, but because their offense is so explosive. Twelve games into the season, one thing was clear: Josh Jackson was not at a point in his development where Justin Fuente could lean on him to keep pace with Mason Rudolph, Justice Hill, James Washington and company.
Oklahoma State entered the Camping World Bowl boasting the No. 1 passing (392.3 yards per game) and No. 3 (46.3 points per game) scoring offense in the country. The Hokies' defense was no slouch either, but regardless of how tough the Tech defense played, points were going to be had. The question was whether the total would be low enough for Jackson's unit to hold serve. In the end, the Hokies' offense was unable to keep pace, but they certainly had their chances.
Brad Cornelsen devised a phenomenal game plan that created consistently advantageous matchups to churn out yards and use the clock. The Tech ball carriers — including a surprisingly healthy and spry Jackson — looked as shifty as they had all season, converting early and often versus a bewildered OSU team. In total control early in the second quarter, and on the verge of grabbing a two-score lead, disaster struck when Jackson attempted to pull the ball from tailback Steven Peoples on the 1-yard line. The ensuing fumble led to 17-straight Oklahoma State points over the next 20 minutes, and a 7-20 deficit that ultimately proved insurmountable.
While that turnover proved devastating, the night was characterized by several missed opportunities. The vast majority of those whiffs were the result of players missing their spots by a matter of inches. Jackson struggled with his ball placement and receivers made incorrect reads that made receptions difficult. It's easy to pick apart Tech's offensive performance and opine the game was ultimately littered with miscues that shouldn't be happening at the end of the season. In some cases, those are fair criticisms. But at the end of the day, we're talking about narrow errors, often between relatively inexperienced players.
The shortcomings we witnessed in the Camping World Bowl were a series correctable mistakes by a young offensive group. Many of those same young players whose collective performance we're dwelling on days later — guys like Eric Kumah (5 catches, 72 yards, 1 TD), Hezekiah Grimsley (5 catches, 63 yards), and Phil Patterson (7 catches, 59 yards) — balled out. While Jackson struggled with touch and precision when throwing the football, he reminded everyone how he can impact the game on the ground when healthy, and how much more versatile Tech's offense is with a run threat behind center. Deshawn McClease busted out with a career high 124 yards rushing and became Tech's only tailback to eclipse 100 yards rushing in a game this season. And that doesn't even get into the defensive performance.
It was a disappointing end to an otherwise positive season. Some will note the Hokies' 9-4 record is deceptive and that they didn't beat any quality teams. Those people aren't wrong. Tech went 3-3 against FBS teams with a winning record and had zero wins against current AP Top 25 teams. All three wins were against teams that finished with 7-6 records after their bowl games. The ACC Coastal was undoubtedly down this season, magnifying each of those high profile matchups as rare opportunities to earn signature wins. The Hokies failed to come through against their three toughest opponents — Clemson, Miami and Oklahoma State — but a rational Tech fan would admit the Hokies faced steep climbs in each contest.
Coming into this season, there were significant concerns about the young offense's ability to consistently punch above their weight. Key players, such as record-setting wideout Cam Phillips, played hurt for extended stretches while other major contributors missed substantial time (LT Yosh Nijman, S Terrell Edmunds, RB Steven Peoples, Nickel Mook Reynolds, and CB Adonis Alexander, to name a few). That's all while the Hokies remained competitive and simultaneously integrated a lot of fresh faces into the fold.
Seventeen players caught passes for the Hokies this season, including Anthony Shegog's 22-yard reception off a fake punt against the Pokes. Ten of those players were underclassmen and all but 4 (Phillips, Clark, Shegog, and McMillian) are expected to return next season. Sprinkle in the players who redshirted or were injured all season, as well as the incoming recruits, and you'll find a talented and diverse group of pass catchers at Fuente's disposal.
The fact that the widely anticipated offensive growing pains and the injuries that robbed the Hokies of important veteran leadership coincided with down years from most of their divisional rivals was almost a blessing in disguise. Tech was forced to play a multitude of inexperienced players regardless of their opponents' records. That young offense was able to log meaningful reps in competitive situations throughout the season to churn out 9 wins, at times leaning on a veteran defense to stabilize uneven performances.
Nine wins. Behind the first freshman quarterback to start a season opener since Michael Vick (in case you hadn't heard). Three of Virginia Tech's top four receivers and four of their top six rushers were underclassmen. Oh, and they surrendered less than four yards per return behind a true freshman punter, good for 18th best in the country.
Often times 'youth movements' are associated with down years, which is jargon for 'a lot of losing'. Tech's neighbors to the north have been using that as an excuse for a long time with little to show. When those young players become upperclassmen and they're expected to compete on a national level, many whither under the bright lights because they haven't experienced what it's like to be a winner.
That's not the case with this Hokies squad. They were a bowl win away from a second consecutive 10-win season, and many of this season's wins were incredibly convincing. Where many past Tech teams have failed, they took care of business against teams they were expected to beat handily. And behind a sound game plan, they were a few plays away from besting one of the nation's most prolific scoring teams.
Think back to those subtle miscues once more. A seasoned quarterback can bail out the young receiver who finds himself in the wrong spot. A veteran wideout can snag an off-target pass to give a developing quarterback confidence. The Hokies were without either of those against the Pokes and they still managed to hold their own. Everyone — players, coaches and fans — knows what needs to be improved during the offseason. Now it's time for the Hokies to put in the work.