Since what feels like the beginning of time, Virginia Tech football fans knew that they could always lean on the Lunch Pail Defense. Regardless of how limited the offense was or how inconsistent the kicking game might be, Bud Foster's unit could be counted on to keep the Hokies' heads above water regardless of the inevitable adversity they would face.
The defenses were often faced with seasons where they needed to unexpectedly reload — maybe not quite as significantly as 2018, but major turnover has happened in the past. What aided those units was a group of experienced and productive upperclassmen that both steadied the ship and led by example.
That's been nearly impossible this season, given the off-field actions of multiple players Foster & Co. were counting on in 2018. Asking Ricky Walker and Vinny Mihota, Tech's two lone remaining senior defenders, to shepherd this young group along against a crop of suddenly capable conference foes is an impossible request. It's certainly not for a lack of trying on their part.
As the season has worn on, Tech's defensive depth has been rapidly whittled further and further down. Against a physically demanding Boston College offense, Foster was forced to start a true-freshman and a redshirt-freshman at linebacker, slide his stud free safety to whip and utilize a relatively green replacement in his place.
To their credit, Rico Kearny and Dax Hollifield played solid games in the 31-21 loss to the Eagles, finishing with 18 and 10 tackles, respectively. Divine Deablo had a great game despite the position switch, logging 14 tackles, a TFL, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup. After getting thoroughly embarrassed on national television 10 days earlier, the defense bounced back and worked their tails off against the Eagles.
Against Georgia Tech, the Hokies defense let their offensive teammates down, killing their early momentum by repeatedly failing to make a stop and get off the field. Saturday afternoon, the offense repaid the slight. Despite a strong performance from the defense over the first 37 minutes, the offense sputtered on the final two drives of the first half and never regained momentum until the waning minutes of the game (after surrendering 21 unanswered points).
Tech's inability to put together a complete performance in all three phases of the game speaks to a larger issue within the program. Everyone is quick to point to the inexperience on defense and the strengths on offense and special teams and assume the defense is often the culprit for the Hokies' 4-4 record. The truth is, the team is flawed throughout.
It can be easy to look at this season as a rebuilding year of sorts. A young and inexperienced defense, injuries across the board, and some bad breaks here and there have presented quite the challenge. But rebuilding years are often filled with evidence of future promise. Just because the team is young and inexperienced doesn't necessarily equate to future success. In order cook up an award-winning program, you need the right ingredients: identity, culture, talent, discipline, mental and physical strength, and a little bit of luck (to name a few). After watching this team play 8 games, are the makings of a championship level program present? Maybe.
For the first time in years, the offense was the unit most fans expected to carry the team. Instead, the season has been characterized by prolonged droughts and drive-killing mistakes. What should fans expect from the offense next season, aside from more questions at quarterback, running back and along the right side of the offensive line?
The defense is without a doubt the least productive I have witnessed from a Bud Foster-led group. Given all of the mistakes, missed tackles and blown assignments, is anyone certain that the struggles are predominately related to inexperience at this stage of the game? Is it reasonable to expect the defense to return to the traditional dominance fans are used to seeing from that side of the ball? Or is this year's performance reflective of a larger talent-related issue that could plague the program for years to come?
You can see the worry on Justin Fuente's face. During the post-game press conference, Fuente read his usual prepared remarks where he thanked the fans for coming out and creating a great atmosphere before lamenting the result against a well-coached team. It was the look on his face and the corresponding body language that caught my attention. That sullen appearance doesn't come through in the transcription. It was the look of a man that didn't completely buy into what he was selling.
As much as fans love to chide coaches for evading questions in their own unique ways or tip-toeing around difficult topics by overwhelming the press with coach speak, it was an unexpectedly candid moment from Fuente. He looked resigned to the fact that the final few games of this season were going to be a grind, and his staff's ability to repeatedly prepare their players would be put to the test.
Fuente the Motivator emerged shortly thereafter. Like a man who has spent some time around Virginia Tech's men's basketball coach, he touched on the growing pains of a young, inexperienced and banged up group asked to repeatedly rise to the occasion. The problem is, as truthful as that sentiment is, the "youth and inexperience" card can only be played for so long. After awhile, it begins to feel like an excuse.
It's been a confidence rattling season for Tech fans. The Lunch Pail Defense no longer feels invincible. Day or night, Lane Stadium is hardly the fortress all wish it still was. Virginia Tech hasn't come close to hitting rock bottom, but there is an air of resignation that I can't quite remember sensing (even in the twilight of Frank Beamer's tenure).
Poor recruiting at the end of the Beamer era appears to be rearing its ugly head. Sure, there were plenty of early and unanticipated departures. But early departures happen regularly across the college football landscape, especially at top flight programs. The difference is that the perennially successful programs build the requisite depth to sustain premature exits. The cold hard truth is Virginia Tech struggled to do so in Beamer's final years, assisting in the current quagmire that is the 2018 season.
Dating back to last season, I've often highlighted the 'moments' that certain players or units have had. Those flashes of brilliance, athleticism or execution have given me hope that, despite all of the struggles and losses, the Hokies will ultimately come out of this as an even stronger program. They've acted as evidence of sorts, justifying my position that the only thing stopping the Hokies from returning to a perennial power was time.
But the way that this season has played out and the way that Tech has found ways to lose has cast those moments in a new, dimmer light. Have I been viewing these "moments" through orange and maroon-tinted glasses, mentally exaggerating these plays into more than they really were? Maybe it was just another moment in a football game that will ultimately disappear in the annals of Virginia Tech football.
That feeling of doubt is what frustrates me most. It makes the highlights harder to savor and the losses harder to stomach. I want everything to have some larger meaning, contributing to this greater mission of shuttling Hokies football back to the promised land.
Truthfully, only time will tell. That instant gratification that we all seek in today's society is a near impossibility in this moment. It would take a monumental reversal for this team to pivot off two home losses to win out at Pitt, at home against Miami and UVa and possibly again during Championship Week. So here I am, resisting the urge (and failing) to write about how this team just needs to put all of those moments together into one complete performance. And then do it again. And again. Or maybe just twice. I would even settle for once, if it means maintaining control of the Commonwealth Cup.
I'm reminded of another home loss to Boston College — yes, I'm going there. Eleven years ago, the Hokies failed to cash in a fourth quarter DJ Parker interception and put the Eagles away. Matt Ryan then rallied a subdued Eagles offense to 14 consecutive points over the final 2:11 to stun the Hokies in Lane. Before the two teams met again in the ACC Championship game five weeks later, the Hokies wore t-shirts with the time 6:01 — the moment in the fourth quarter when Parker picked off Ryan — printed on the front and the phrase, "A minor setback for a major comeback" on the back.
Fuente would be wise to resurrect that 2007 shirt this off-season.