I feel like I have written this column before. The Hokies build up hope in the fan base, only to lose in frustrating fashion days later. It was a scenario that characterized the past few seasons. It's one of the traits that forced many to come to terms with the need to move on from Frank Beamer.
And here we are, one year later, faced with similarly mixed feelings of confusion and betrayal. Was their loss to 2-win Syracuse a product of circumstance or indicative of inherent deficiencies that lurk beneath the surface?
There is no denying Syracuse played marvellously. Orange quarterback Eric Dungey had one of the strongest games of his career, accounting for 420 total yards and 2 touchdowns. The 'Cuse offense was able to make big plays at opportune times, including converting 4 of 5 fourth down attempts. And they executed their gameplan well on defense, limiting Tech early and containing them late as they tried to match the Orange offense.
Sometimes you just need to acknowledge that you got beat.
What was most frustrating about Saturday's loss was the manner in which it occurred. Everything felt off about the game. The offense sputtered early. And even when they found their footing in the third quarter, nothing ever felt in sync. After being the aggressor in every game this year — including the Battle at Bristol, prior to the fateful second quarter — the game against the Orange felt antithetical.
After narrowly defeating an almost identical Tulsa offense in last year's Independence Bowl, the Hokies were surely aware of the lumps they were about to take on defense. Sometimes the key to defeating a fast paced spread team is to weather the storm and cash in each and every offensive opportunity. Against the Orange, the Hokies offense struggled to hold up their end of the bargain.
Whether it was arrogance or timidity, the product was maddening to watch.
All afternoon, the Hokies struggled with self-inflicted wounds at critical points in the game. Down 14-3 and struggling to find their form late in the second quarter, a holding penalty on Augie Conte negated a 17-yard touchdown scamper by Jerod Evans on 4th and 1. On the ensuing play, Joey Slye yanked a 45-yard field goal attempt wide. Early in the third quarter and on the verge of a game-tying touchdown, Jerod Evans uncharacteristically forced a throw into coverage that was picked off in the end zone.
Defensively, the Syracuse offense appeared to physically and emotionally wear down the Hokies. By the second quarter, the psychological toll of defending Babers' offense was akin to playing Georgia Tech's triple option. Repeated third and fourth down conversions extended drives and progressively demoralized the Tech defense. And the brisk staccato of the Orange offense frustrated a Tech defense that struggled to change packages and make pre-snap adjustments.
As the Hokies defense tried to keep the game within reach late in the fourth quarter, the tackling and movement lacked their typical sharpness. They looked spent.
Was Saturday a trap game? Who knows. Does it really even matter?
Fans had openly begun to wonder if this team was on the cusp of something special years ahead of schedule. Even the media had hopped aboard the hype train, discussing the Hokies as a darkhorse playoff contender.
After their loss to the Orange, I've wrestled with the entire validity of the hype.
Three straight blowout wins are attention grabbers; thoroughly dominating a ranked opponent on the road in a hurricane augments the spectacle. But everyone — even the craziest Tech fan — knew that this team still had a series of challenging matchups left on the schedule.
In hindsight, it was foolhardy to think that those three wins equated to a playoff spot. The sample size was too small. The wins were, however, indicative of this team's potential. So was the hype train temporarily derailed in Syracuse this weekend, or was it merely a ghost all along?
On Saturday, the Hokies fell victim to the biggest challenge of being a Top 25 team: Home or away — but especially away — you're almost certain to get the other team's best shot. Syracuse played outstanding in all three phases of the game. The Hokies, on the other hand, had difficulty matching the pace and incisiveness of the Orange.
Despite all of that, the Hokies were in the game until the very end.
Tech can't always count on Jerod Evans to be razor sharp. They can't assume each week that the running game will be relentless or that the defense will be impenetrable. It is natural for everyone around the program to strive for perfection, but it is irrational for everyone to assume it will be a given.
The question is how do players and coaches adjust when their peers are off their game? That is a key component of what separates good teams from great teams. We have seen how great this Tech team can be when they are firing on all cylinders. But how great can they be when they're not?
Here's what we do know: Aside from some bad quarters of play, the look and feel of this team has improved significantly from a year ago. There is an unmistakable swagger that had been missing in recent years.
Maybe it is the promise of the offensive system, or the presence of fresh blood and a new perspective. Whatever it is, it still feels authentically Virginia Tech. Along with this loss, that's something you can continue to build off of.