I'll give you a sample of the post-game comments from the Hokies. See if you can guess the common theme.
"They just made more plays and executed better than we did. On that long run, they cracked us. We didn't get to crack them so it's pretty much execution." -Ricky Walker
"The small things, of us paying attention to our own assignments, and it kind of got out of hand in the second half." -Reggie Floyd
"I think we could do a lot of things. We could run the ball at times; we could throw the ball at times. We just couldn't do it well enough times altogether." -Damon Hazelton
"We played solid football early, but in the second half, we didn't execute like we needed to do, and they did. That was the difference in the football game." -Bud Foster
A Virginia Tech team that — for periods — effectively moved the football on offense and successfully contained Notre Dame on defense ultimately failed because they struggled to do the simple things throughout. When you play a talented team like the Irish, you need to play sound football from start to finish. Sure, you can make a mistake here or there. But that mistake cannot be ruinous. On Saturday night, the Hokies made multiple back breaking mistakes, seemingly at the worst possible moments.
A wayward and ineligible Christian Darrisaw negated some nifty trickeration from the Tech offense. Tech failed to punch it in from the 1-yard line on three consecutive downs. And then Ryan Willis' attempt to weave through the Notre Dame defensive line like Ethan Hunt versus a vault full of lasers resulted in a 42-yard fumble return for a touchdown. And that was just the first half!
The roller coaster of emotion within Lane was equal parts exhausting, exhilarating and demoralizing. Fans were continuously exposed to moments of euphoria that were almost immediately followed by bewilderment.
Games like that can be memorable for all the right reasons (remember when Tyrod did it, Mikey?). When it's your team that ultimately comes unglued for good, it ruins your evening. It can bring out the worst in the fan base. And it makes the post mortem all the more ulcer-inducing.
I've thought a lot about Saturday night's loss. I initially tried not to, but I couldn't shake the frustration from what I had just witnessed. Inconsistent execution and ill-timed mistakes clearly undid the Hokies. There really is no debating it. Not from the coaches, the players or the fans. I understand that the defense is young and the starting quarterback was only making his 2nd start in orange and maroon. But Tech has had young defenses before and they've managed to not make so many critical mistakes. And in Justin Fuente's third season in Blacksburg, the offense at best looks like it is stuck in neutral and at worst taken a few steps backwards.
This all might sound a little harsh. After all, Notre Dame is more than likely the most talented team Tech will face all season long. Until late in the third quarter, I believe Tech was still out-gaining the Irish on offense despite a 31-16 Notre Dame lead.
Imagine if Tech had converted a couple of those field goals into touchdowns. Imagine if Hezekiah Grimsley's touchdown pass wasn't called back. Imagine if the Hokies were able to lock down the edge — something they had excelled at all season — on Dexter Williams' 97-yard touchdown run, or played assignment football on Miles Boykin's touchdown catch one drive later. Not only are we talking about a completely different football game, but potentially a Virginia Tech rout.
The Irish didn't play a perfect game of football, either. Their shortcomings, however, ultimately proved to be far less impactful. Ian Book missed on a number of deep throws all night long, despite his receivers consistently shaking the Tech secondary out of their shoes. The Notre Dame running game was anemic until Williams broke free on his own doorstep. They were able to adjust and ultimately rise above it. The Hokies, on the other hand, were not.
The Hokies had their best defensive stretch of the game from the late first quarter through the end of the second. During that time, Tech stuffed the run and Book continued to overthrow his receivers downfield. After Williams' long touchdown run, Book seemed to settle down. Rather than play vertically, Book continuously took what the Tech defense gave him. Notre Dame OC Chip Long utilized the wide receiver screen game to bully the Hokies secondary on the outside. Irish receivers found soft spots in the Tech zone, offering Book higher percentage throws that he executed consistently. Rather quickly, a one-point deficit became 22 and the Hokies were reeling.
Good teams overcome moments of poor execution. On Saturday night, the Hokies allowed them to snowball. Does this mean the Hokies are not a good team? Honestly, I really don't know what the Hokies are right now. Heading into the game, I was hopeful. With the ODU debacle still fresh in my mind, I kept my emotional guard up knowing that I had no idea which Tech team we would see against the Irish. Maybe that's my biggest issue right now.
Traditionally, you know what you're going to get from the Hokies. A capable offense. A tenacious defense. Solid special teams. That wasn't really the case for me this weekend. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I didn't have the typical confidence in the defense's ability to control the ball game. I wouldn't say it was a product of Notre Dame's offensive prowess, but rather the collective performances we've witnessed from the Hokies in 2018. While they have the ability to be the aggressor, my current perception of them is quite different.
The idea of the Virginia Tech offense being the steadying hand is similarly awkward. Tech has had solid offensive units in the past, but rarely (if ever) have they been paired with such an inexperienced defensive unit. In big games like these, young players feed off of the energy from big offensive and defensive plays. After digging themselves an early 10-point hole on defense, it was up to Ryan Willis and the Hokie offense to shift the momentum. Repeatedly settling for 3 after failing to get 7 does little to inspire the other side of the football. Ricky Walker all but confirmed the emotional impact on the Tech defense, noting:
"It is a little frustrating, them getting field goals and not touchdowns, that's huge. You got to score in these kinds of games against these great teams. Personally it was frustrating seeing referees go like this (incomplete pass sign) all night."
Fans tend to overreact to losses like these, reading too much into their teams' inability to rise to the occasion. Those feelings of inadequacy are only exacerbated by the fact that the loss came in front of a national audience. If you're a Virginia Tech fan, you haven't seen the Hokies beat a ranked team in Lane Stadium since 2009. These stages provide an opportunity to walk into work or class with your head held high, knowing that your team just had a statement win that even the casual sports fan is aware of. Instead, you sulk and grunt your way through the obnoxious conversations that commence with some variation of, "So what happened on Saturday?" Spare me the mental anguish of constantly revisiting an unpleasant memory. It's bad enough that it's Monday.
That's part of being a fan, even if your favorite team is Alabama. You live and die by your team — metaphorically, of course (unless your favorite team is Alabama) — serving as a social ambassador to your non-Hokie colleagues. At the end of the day, you can let it go to some extent because it's not the primary focus of your life. You're a student, an employee, a spouse, parent, etc. It's different for those within the program. They're in control.
Based on what I've read from the coaches and players, I don't get the impression that this is a particularly confident team right now. Confident teams play sound football, knowing that their teammates are going to properly execute their assignments. That lack of assurance showed on Saturday night, from the failed goal line conversion to the second half letdown.
Tech has now lost to one of the best teams in FBS and one of the worst. They've also won twice on the road in-conference, including over a previously undefeated Duke squad. Were it not for the loss to Old Dominion, most people would view losing to the Irish through a different lens, focusing on the positive aspects of the performance. Instead, they're faced with the sobering reality that this young team is an enigma.
While discussing the busted assignments on Boykin's first touchdown catch of the night, Bud Foster noted, "Those are plays that sometimes, until those guys see it, they have to learn how to play it right." Unfortunately, there will be a lot more of these teaching moments this season. The hope is that the Hokies can learn from these mistakes and limit the severity of them. That leads to growth. That inspires confidence.