Any casual college football observer seeing the 45-23 final score of VT-Notre Dame flash across ESPN's bottom line could be forgiven for assuming that the vastly more talented Fighting Irish blew out the Hokies, and that was that.
And in many ways, they'd be absolutely correct. The result was pretty much a foregone conclusion for the entire fourth quarter, and didn't exactly look all that close in the third, either.
But what's frustrating about this loss, like so many of Tech's losses in big games over the last few years, is that this game offered more than its fair share of hopeful moments for Hokies fans. For a large portion of the first half, in fact, Tech seemed like it had enough answers to pull off the upset, even if the team could never quite do enough to take the lead.
Then, starting with Ryan Willis' fateful fumble and continuing soon after with Dexter Williams' back-breaking 97-yard touchdown run, the game suddenly seemed completely out of reach for the Hokies.
Sure, there are coaching quibbles to be made here and there (and c'mon Christian Darrisaw, don't run quite so far downfield next time), but the result seems emblematic to me of what's wrong with the team this season, and the program more broadly.
A deeper team (on both sides of the ball, but especially on defense) might be able to sustain a pair of catastrophic outcomes like the Willis fumble and the Williams run, then counterpunch. The Hokies are not that sort of team, at the moment.
That speaks to the near-term problems with depth in the secondary and on the defensive line, as brought on by the extreme attrition the team suffered this year. But a team that recruits at the level of a program like Notre Dame would also be considerably better equipped to handle such attrition, there is no doubt about it.
This is not a new problem! Tech fans have been puzzling over this frustrating middle ground the program has occupied for years now, and this season (where the team could absolutely still win its division and finish ranked within the top 25, despite these aforementioned issues) could easily be a continuation of this trend.
But seeing Saturday night's game really drove the point home that, while so much about the program has changed in recent years, a lot remains the same.
All that being said, there's two months of the season left, still. Let's see what they bring.
Sunday Morning QBs in the Red Zone
Beyond the systemic problems I just spent a few hundred words whining about, there were indeed plenty of more specific criticisms leveled at the coaching staff for that game.
Chief among them was the second-guessing of the play-calling inside the red zone. Offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen's decision to repeatedly line up in shotgun was particularly troubling for many, at least based on my informal observations of angry Tech fans at the bar Saturday.
Cornelsen, for his part, made some good points about his methods when chatting with reporters Tuesday.
#Hokies OC Brad Cornelsen said the first two plays of the goalline stand by Notre Dame were zone runs, the safest, simplest running plays Tech uses. Doesn't second guess staying in the shotgun for those plays.— Mike Barber (@RTD_MikeBarber) October 9, 2018
I certainly understand where he's coming from on this, and the numbers show that Tech really has been pretty good inside the red zone this season — in 19 trips, the Hokies have come away with 13 touchdowns, a rate that puts them 52nd in the country. So, there's certainly room for improvement, but I'm not sure it rises to the level of a problem that will reverberate throughout the rest of the season.
I'm more receptive, however, to arguments about whether Justin Fuente should've been more aggressive in gunning for touchdowns versus field goals on all those red zone trips. The final of those three field goal drives, ending as it did on Notre Dame's five-yard line, seemed particularly ripe for a little aggression.
Look, I'm well aware that football coaches are never going to simply look at the numbers-based arguments for when it makes sense to go for it (or go for two) versus bailing out and taking the points. I get that they're human, and are just as afraid as getting second-guessed the other way if they leave points on the board.
But, in the moment, coming off a Reggie Floyd interception and a 41-yard Steven Peoples run, the timing felt right to me. I'm of the opinion that coaches should swing for the fences, especially at home, when trying to pull an upset, and that felt like a good moment to do so.
I'm not saying it would've ultimately made a difference — maybe the Irish still force that scoop and score right before the half, and the talent disparity still becomes painfully clear the longer the game goes on. But maybe a Tech touchdown in that spot puts a bit more pressure on Ian Book, who at that point still looked awfully shaky, to force his throws even more and things change.
My point is, if you're going to criticize the coaching in the red zone, there is room to be more nuanced than just screaming about, say, the efficacy of a simple QB sneak.
'Day by Day' at Center
Another frequent critique of the offense in the game revolved around the persistent penalties on the offensive line, and with good reason.
The penalties were real drive killers in the first half, and undoubtedly a frustrating development from one of the most talented units on the team.
OL coach Vance Vice stopped short of outright blaming the penalties on the Irish defense — the most he'd tell reporters was that there were "noises" coming from that side of the ball, out of fear of seeming like a poor sport.
I'm not especially interested in that little bit of controversy — the quality of Notre Dame's defensive line is such that they don't need to do anything illegal to get even good offensive linemen to make a mistake.
But I'm considerably more interested in this little tidbit here.
#Hokies OL coach Vance Vice on who will play center in the upcoming game: "It's a day by day thing." Praises the work of his whole line group and the versatility of Kyle Chung.— Mike Barber (@RTD_MikeBarber) October 9, 2018
So, yeah, not a ton of clarity on where the team stands at center.
Zachariah Hoyt was certainly less than impressive — two of the false start penalties were on him, and he was behind a few questionable snaps — but Kyle Chung hasn't been fantastic either. He had a false start of his own, lest we forget.
It's a bit frustrating that there are more questions on the line, just a week after Fuente seemed so confident that he had a start five pretty much set.
Certainly, not playing Jerry Tillery and company will help as the coaches look to figure this out. But it will also go a long way toward ensuring that Willis and the run game is successful if there's a bit more consistency at center.
Definitely something I'll continue watching these next few weeks.
Devon Hunter's Uncertain Future
A lot of fans, myself included, figured this would be a breakout year for former star recruit Devon Hunter.
But after seeing only limited snaps, we get the news Monday that Hunter will be redshirting, a real disappointment for a secondary desperately in need of some playmakers.
The team tried to make it clear Tuesday that the decision was a collaborative one with Hunter, particularly after he fired off some tweets that made fans a bit nervous that he could be leaving the program in the wake of the decision.
Safeties coach Tyrone Nix said Devon Hunter wasn't happy with himself this season, thought he could be a better football. Talked with staff and they came up with the redshirt decision. #Hokies— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) October 9, 2018
In the near term, that makes the team's depth at whip really, really scary, as if it wasn't bad enough already in the secondary — Nix added that he hopes Divine Deablo will play this week, but it seems very possible that Tyree Rodgers will get the starting nod at the free safety spot once more.
But when it comes to who might help spell Khalil Ladler at whip, Nix was out here Tuesday naming players that sound more like characters in a Victorian novel than viable starters on defense.
#Hokies safety coach Ty Nix said, with Devon Hunter redshirting, Ismael Seishay is in the mix looking at the WHIP position. Said he expects DJ Crossen will redshirt, but injuries could change that.— Mike Barber (@RTD_MikeBarber) October 9, 2018
Perhaps more importantly, this move raises real questions about Hunter's future with the program.
After a promising freshman campaign spent largely on special teams, Hunter often looked lost in coverage this year, and could never consistently get on the field, despite the clear need at both whip and safety for a playmaker to emerge.
So where does this leave him? Can he use the offseason to really get his head around learning Bud Foster's scheme? One would think two years in the program would be enough to start making some progress here, so it seems awfully unlikely that more time will make much difference.
Would he be better suited at rover? Maybe, but Reggie Floyd would seem to have that spot locked down. Corner is a huge need right now, but we don't really know if he'd be a good fit there, and the same concerns about learning coverages persist.
What about a move to the other side of the ball? Fuente shot down that prospect pretty quickly Monday, arguing he saw "no position changes" in Hunter's future.
"He wants to play and his heart is on the defensive side of the ball," Fuente told reporters. "We want to continue to give him an opportunity to try and have success and come along. Certainly if he goes through this year redshirting we'll look at everything in the spring and try to evaluate where he needs to be in the secondary, I'm not sure about that. But there has been no other discussion about drastic changes."
Given the rave reviews he earned as a recruit, I'm certainly rooting for Hunter to sort things out this offseason, but I have to admit I'm pessimistic.
And that's troubling not only because of how acute the need is in the secondary, but also because of what Hunter means to the program's reputation.
Convincing him to spurn other, more high profile offers elsewhere was a gigantic recruiting win for Fuente, and Hunter's subsequent performance on the field won't entirely diminish the meaning of that decision.
But if other, similarly talented players from the 757 see a guy like Hunter flounder in Blacksburg, that's not exactly what I'd deem a long-term positive for the program, either.
I'll leave you this week with some insight into Hezekiah Grimsely's Cook Out order, which seems very strong indeed.
Grimsley jokes that Darrisaw offered him some @CookOut after the bad illegal man downfield call."Regular hamburger, everything on it, triple oreo milkshake. He's got some money coming out of his pockets." #Hokies— Henry Skutt (@henryskutt) October 9, 2018