When the 2018 ACC football schedule was released, and Miami at Virginia Tech was scheduled for late November, ESPN executives probably licked their chops.
All the makings for a marquee matchup were in place. Miami rode a wave of momentum to a 10-0 start last season, hopeful it'd carry through to 2018. Virginia Tech won 19 games over Justin Fuente's first two seasons in Blacksburg. ACC Media pegged the Hurricanes and Hokies to finish Nos. 1 and 2 in the Coastal, respectively. With the game scheduled in late November, it could serve a play-in game for the ACC Championship.
Unfortunately for both fans and executives alike, that is not the case for Saturday's game.
Instead, 4-5 Virginia Tech hosts 5-5 Miami. Both teams have been eliminated from the Coastal divisional race. The luster of this matchup has dulled significantly.
First Down: Virginia Tech Defense Down Another Man
When Houshun "House" Gaines went down against Pittsburgh, it didn't look good. The redshirt junior rolled on the turf, and clutched his knee. Those who assumed the worst were correct to do so.
Bud Foster said Gaines tore his ACL during his post-game press conference last Saturday, and Justin Fuente reaffirmed the diagnosis on Monday afternoon.
"Just confirming House is out for the year with a knee injury," said Fuente. "House plays extremely hard and will be missed. But he'll be very quickly on the road to recovery and we're looking forward to having him back out next year."
Gaines went through the gauntlet this season. His mother passed away on October 1st.
"It's been a several-week situation, I guess you could say," Fuente explained at the time. "I do believe that House has found some refuge with his teammates and his coaches."
He played in the Notre Dame game on October 6th, just five days removed from the loss. He stepped up as one of the few remaining veteran defenders on this version of Virginia Tech's "Lunch Pail Defense". He racked up 22 total tackles, 5.0 for loss, and 4.5 sacks over 9 games this season.
For Gaines to tear his ACL is brutal. Not only the injury itself, but the timing of it as well.
"You feel for him," noted defensive line coach Charley Wiles. "An injury like that, it's like Vinny [Mihota] getting hurt last November. It kind of gets you in a bad time. Obviously, a blow to our football team, a blow to him, he's been through a lot with his mom. And then, it's a little closer to next fall, to have him ready to go. I think being a little bit of a smaller, Vinny was a little bit bigger, I think he [Gaines] will get over it a little bit quicker hopefully. House is handling it well. I know what we're doing, it means a whole lot to him. I hate it for him. Injuries happen, unfortunately."
Gaines' teammate and fellow lineman Tyjuan Garbutt reflected on how much Gaines means to the team, and him specifically, on Tuesday afternoon.
"As a team, that's one of our biggest blows we've took," said Garbutt. "He's a great teammate. He's always been a type of motivator, especially for a guy like me. He's a role model on the field definitely. Funny guy off the field. Somebody who really leads us and helps us younger guys. He brings energy just by his personality and his character."
And as the injuries continue to stack up for the Hokies, the mantra stays consistent. Next man up.
"It's not fun not getting off the field," said Wiles. "Not fun not stopping people. But it's a challenge as part of this process right now. We knew we were going to be young. We did have Ricky coming back, [Trevon Hill] as mentioned earlier, Vinny and his ACL took him a while, just little problems there getting everybody back. But then you lose some of your depth, some of your starters. It's just part of it. We've been fortunate to stay healthy, this is probably the most injuries I've seen in my 23 years it seems like. But that's, you know, when you're young and you lack depth in areas, it seems like that sometimes where you're attacked. And you end up losing guys in those positions. But, again, it's part of the game. We've got to find ways to overcome that as a football team, as a defense, and step up. One thing about it, nobody quit. Trust me. Ain't nobody quitting. Nobody is laying down. We're improving. Trust me."
Second Down: Offensive Offense
Virginia Tech's defense is playing at an uncommon level. The Hokies are unaccustomed to ranking near the bottom in total defense (No. 105) and scoring defense (No. 87) at this point in a campaign. Advanced stats tells the same story. However, a myriad of injuries forced inexperienced defenders into action. That at least explains some of the circumstance around the defensive shortcomings.
On the offensive side of the ball though, there aren't many injuries and the youth excuse doesn't ring as true. There are young players getting significant run, but they were expected contributors.
So whether it's the execution or the playcalling, Tech's offense is struggling down the stretch. The Hokies scored over 30 points just three times this season. Twice against FBS opponents. Since October, the Hokies' points production has been mired in the twenties. Over that stretch, Tech faced scoring defenses ranked No. 15 (Notre Dame), No. 108 (North Carolina), No. 69 (Georgia Tech), No. 49 (Boston College), and No. 81 (Pitt).
"Well I certainly would like to be [farther ahead]," said Cornelsen. "Absolutely. I think, as we look at our group, and we look at the number of freshman and true freshman and sophomores that are still playing for us, there's nothing that replaces the experience of practice and games. We're definitely not where we want to be. I don't know if any of us had a specific formula or what it was exactly going to look like this year at what point in the season. When you're struggling, and you're not winning as much as you want to, then you probably don't feel like you've progressed like you've wanted to. The thing this group has continued to do is they're together and they're doing what we're asking them to do. We see guys getting better. And we're not executing like we need to be at times. We've still got to find another notch, another level, of concentration and effort in practice at times. More importantly, and most of all, in the games, we've got to go perform better. And get them to do that. That's kind of where we're at."
Cornelsen said the buzzword again. Execution. It hasn't been up to the coaching staff's standards. Fine. But the question of what the coaches could do to improve that looms large on their shoulders.
"You try everything you can," explained Cornelsen. "You look at your scheme, sometimes it's scheme. You need a better scheme. You need something that fits your guys better. Sometimes it's not. Sometimes the problems are random and a guy did it just right all week and then something happened in the game and it didn't go like you wanted it to. The first thing that we ask our players to do and us as coaches do, is 'you look in the mirror and you figure out how can I make this better?' For coaches, you try to figure out how to scheme it better and how to coach it better and help your players understand it better. We hope we're getting the same thing from our players and we've been pleased with the way those kids have responded week to week. It's not easy, you know, of pouring everything we've got into a game and losing. And having to pick yourself back up the next day and start over again. They've been resilient and that's what they've tried to do. We've been proud of them for that. We've got to keep bringing them on, put them in as good of a situation as we can and try whatever we need to. Different things in practice, different schemes, just got to keep pushing along."
Hope you were ready to read a lot of coach speak.
Fuente mentioned on the ACC teleconference that Deshawn McClease practiced on Tuesday, but is still day-to-day. Cornelsen noted freshman Caleb Steward might fill in if McClease can't go on Saturday afternoon.
"Yeah, Caleb has been kind of repping with us the last couple weeks," explained Cornelsen. "He's getting himself in position, that if we need to use him, he knows what to do. It's been good to get him back with us and watch him develop a little bit. He's done a nice job. He's still got a long ways to go."
Third Down: 12th Game Deja Vu
Just to jog everyone's memory. Florida State rescheduled and won a 12th game last year to become bowl eligible and keep their "bowl streak" alive. And now, the Hokies are staring down the same situation. Although, their bowl streak is legitimate.
"We've got interest in all of the scenarios," said Fuente. "As you guys and gals know, there's a lot to all that. Whit has done a great job of keeping me up to date on what's going on, and we're continuing to work our way through it. Do we have interest? Certainly. We have interest in all of the potential scenarios in what could happen and all of the moving pieces that come about that don't have anything to do with the football team but have everything to do with everybody on the outside. That's a pretty vague answer, but yes is the answer. We've got interest and we're still trying to figure it all out."
Virginia Tech has not scheduled another opponent for early December. Southern Miss, a possible option, announced on Wednesday they wouldn't play a makeup game. Nearby Marshall had its matchup against South Carolina canceled due to Hurricane Florence, and it hasn't scheduled a 12th game. But don't worry, the last time that Marshall played in Lane Stadium, it definitely wasn't a close game or anything.
Fourth Down: Miami FAQ:
What has Miami done so far this year?
Miami has somehow made the turnover chain more annoying, was blown out on opening weekend, started a quarterback controversy, and lost to UVA.
This is not last year's Miami team. Those Hurricanes were obviously legitimate and didn't string together 10-straight wins off of a generous schedule and back-to-back hyped up home games. No way that would have happened. This down season is completely unexpected.
Any particular Miami player to watch?
It seems like the obvious answer here is N'Kosi Perry. The redshirt-freshman quarterback has been named the starter multiple times this season, flip flopping with Malik Rosier. Perry has appeared in eight games so far this season, throwing for 866 yards on a 54% completion rate. Rosier on the other hand has 1,007 yards and a 53.5% completion rate on the season. Both QBs have five interceptions on the year, but Perry has 11 touchdown passes. Rosier only has 6.
Perry was the starter last Saturday in the Hurricanes' loss against Georgia Tech. He played the entire game, and yes, that came as a surprise to the Miami fan(s) in attendance. Mark Richt hasn't done a great job of managing Miami's offense this season. One might even say that Mark Richt has lost control of the quarterback situation.
Who wins and why
Virginia Tech will start its 20th different player on defense this week. The Hokies' offense is limping down the field each drive. Play calling by Cornelsen is mediocre, at best. Execution by Virginia Tech's offense is lacking. Tech's defense is seemingly trying to see if it can somehow give up more rushing yards than the week prior. Things are not great in Blacksburg.
Until Virginia Tech shows that they're capable of winning a game against an FBS team in Lane Stadium this season, there's no reason to pick them. Miami wins.