Virginia Tech enters bowl season in the unusual position of being 6 and 6 and playing former Big East whipping boy Rutgers. As I said before the Sugar Bowl last year, besides national perception, any bowl game besides the BCS National Championship has been rendered rather meaningless. The benefit comes from the extra practice sessions for Frank Beamer's squad, which (according to Andy Bitter) he has correctly utilized to get meaningful work for young players that will need to produce next season. When Alabama rolls into the Georgia Dome, the Hokies chances of victory will depend heavily on contributions from players like Trey Edmunds (who has wowed the coaches in bowl prep practices based on Beamer's comments), Demetri Knowles, Laurence Gibson, Mark Shuman, Ronny Van Dyke, and the young defensive backs. Hopefully, the rotation for the bowl game makes sure that the non-redshirts get meaningful snaps to prepare for a big 2013.
2014 is shaping up to be an elite recruiting year, and while most of the focus has been placed on the one-in-a-lifetime group of elite defensive linemen coming from the Commonwealth, the Hokies are quietly setting the table for a secondary that could help them return to the elite of the elite in college football.
Like last week, there were a lot of positives that came out of Chestnut Hill. The defensive line again delivered a ton of pressure on the quarterback. The secondary essentially took away the Eagle's downfield passing game. The offensive line delivered their best effort run blocking since the Duke game. Seniors Marcus Davis, Martin Scales, and Randall Dunn made huge plays.
At the same time, I came away with a sour taste in my mouth. Boston College has been poor running the football this season, yet dictated the pace of the game by running between the tackles against the Hokie 4-4 scheme. The linebackers were terrible taking on lead blocks by H-backs and got pinned inside on counter and zone plays, and the defensive tackles (especially J.R. Collins and Luther Maddy) played with poor pad level and looked like they were playing on roller skates on throughout the game. And perhaps most disturbing, Logan Thomas had his worst game since East Carolina last season.
My Hate Week began with a sense of apathy and frustration despite the victory, but the dam broke after I read the following from noted sportswriter, author, and (former) Tech faculty member Roland Lazenby.
Before I start this week, I want to take a moment to thank BilldozerVT. All season, he has labored following many a painful football game to upload the game film that we use for analysis. Without his effort, this column would have degenerated into wandering nonsensical thoughts with the occasional reference to some seminal moment in my childhood, like Tim Krumrie's leg snapping in the second 49ers-Bengals Super Bowl or Don Mattingly's seven game home run streak. Please join me in thanking him.
Any hope the Hokies had of getting back into the ACC Coastal Division race evaporated into the cold Blacksburg sky on Thursday night. Perhaps, for the first time all season we saw what should have been for the 2012 Hokies. We saw a dominant defensive front that decimated the Florida State rushing offense, one of the top in the country. We saw an offense that flashed the skills of an elite quarterback, vertical passing, and a read oriented running game that opened holes on occasion with more guile than muscle. We saw a team that should be contending for an ACC title, but instead finds itself meandering its way through the worst season since I bought my first Nirvana cassette tape.
A public service announcement for Frank Beamer and Jim Weaver: The moment you placed the empty national championship trophy case in your facility, the stakes were raised. No longer was the status quo, as unlikely as it is for a program in the heart of rural Virginia with no history of being nationally relevant, acceptable. A conference championship like 1995, a season remembered by older Hokie fans like me as a magical season, now means a guffaw and "I don't want to fly to Miami." The bar is higher, and you moved it with that trophy case. Unfortunately, this program is trending in the wrong direction. Virginia Tech used to win with a dominant defense, great special teams, and a ball control offense that played like a bully and limited mistakes. Offenses are catching up to the defense. Special teams have been in shambles for several seasons. The offense lacks any identity, other than being the team that struggling defenses circle on their schedule to get back on track.
On the eve of a critical Thursday night matchup with the Miami Hurricanes, questions about the Hokie offense abound. While any changes to the offensive coaching staff, and a corresponding change in philosophy, will not take place until the offseason, we have seen a radical change in Bud Foster's defensive approach that has resulted in a significantly improved pass rush and run defense over the past two weeks. That continued success will be critical to any hopes of victory against a depleted, yet talented Hurricanes offense.
A quick comparison of film from the Pitt and UNC games versus the Duke and Clemson games demonstrates two significant changes in Bud Foster's philosophy.
A New Spin on an Old Trick: 4-4 and Stopping the Run
The first was a return to the old 90's 4-4 alignment, but adjusted to fit three and four wide receiver sets. It was utilized to shore up a previously porous run defense.
We are 5 days removed from the disaster in Death Valley, and I still find myself completely at a loss for what to write. The reality is, I see lots of good things. I really do. I think about 70% of the pieces are there for this to be a great football team. No, I am not kidding. The defensive line has been turned loose two games in a row, and without having the robotic responsibility of slanting to a gap and holding the space rather than pursuing, they have looked like the dominat unit we expected in preseason; a unit that can demolish without parlor tricks. Against both Duke and Clemson, the offense moved the football when it followed a coordinated, sensible plan of attack coupled with reasonable execution. I saw terrific effort, passion, and nastiness from critical players. We have evidence this can work.
I apologize this is late this week. Stay in school, because day jobs are not as fun as history lectures. -- French
The homecoming game against Duke came at a critical time during Frank Beamer's tenure. While the talent deficiencies in key areas make it most likely that the Hokies are not a great bet to run the table, a loss to Duke would have shaken the aura of invincibility that Virginia Tech has over the weaker programs in the ACC. That aura often has weaker teams beaten before they step off the bus, and it has given the Hokies several wins over the last 8 years that have kept them relevant as a regional power. Now we come to the three measuring stick games for 2012, starting perhaps with the toughest matchup, the Clemson Tigers.
This is a hit piece. I can't run from the fact that on Saturday, the Hokies were so poor in their fundamental execution of their basic responsibilities that I find myself doubting that they can turn this ship around this season. After the end of the debacle in Chapel Hill, I tried desperately to find some kind of building block to give me hope for the immediate future. I expected to turn on the film of the game, and see tremendous effort sabotaged by singular errors in execution that we should come to expect with a young team that is struggling to gel. Instead, I saw breakdown after breakdown of the most basic fundamentals in football.
One of the major problems with the defense is not only the lack of veteran depth in the secondary, but also a lack of veteran depth in the linebacker corps. In previous editions of French on the Bench, I have casually mentioned how the defense has been hampered terribly by horrific recruiting classes from 2008-2010 (prior to Shane Beamer's arrival.) Here is a quick breakdown of the defensive recruiting during that period.