We shouldn't be mad.
Okay, maybe we shouldn't be that mad.
College football is a fickle beast, and with the possible exception of three-to-four juggernauts the schedule spares no one. Good teams lose to mediocre ones all the time. North Carolina falls to a Florida State squad basically running the triple option from the shotgun the same week Auburn loses to the most Muschamp of Muschamp performances. Oklahoma falls to Kansas State and Iowa State in back to back weeks. Texas drops one to TCU. Penn State can't beat Indiana. Virginia Tech loses to Wake Forest.
This doesn't change what we've seen from the Hokies through five games. They're a hard running group who wants to get out, hit you and slam the trio of Khalil Herbert, Raheem Blackshear and Hendon Hooker down your throat. We knew the defense was going to be a problem, but it too is not without bright spots.
Divine Deablo has finally become the player we've all hoped he'd be, a versatile weapon in the defensive backfield. Amare Barno has gone from looking like a baby deer in a three-point stance against NC State to explosive pass rusher. Dorian Strong has all the makings of Tech's next great diamond in the rough story. It's not a great group, but it is improving.
And take away two missed field goals and three interceptions, and the Hokies probably win. Sometimes these things happen, right?
Or maybe we should be mad.
The Hokies didn't just make mistakes, they had backbreaking mental lapses. They had a redshirt senior defensive tackle draw a 15-yard penalty after he'd already been tossed from the game for an initial 15-yard targeting flag. 102 of Tech's 110 penalty yards came in the second half, and came increasingly as the game slipped further and further from their grasp.
Losing in an upset is one thing. Losing in an upset due to self-inflicted mistakes is one thing. Losing in an upset due to self-inflicted mistakes specifically caused by you losing your composure? That's another thing entirely.
This was the team with 20 seniors. With the sixth most returning production in the country. If 2018 and 2019 happened because the Hokies had to roll out a bunch of young players who weren't ready, this was the year all the heartburn would start to pay off. It would be a composed group of players who believe in themselves, the program and the #hard #smart #tough mentality that makes for a great Instagram post. This wasn't supposed to be a group that beats itself against an opponent with one NFL caliber player on its roster. We were promised perseverance — not panic — when shit hit the fan.
But sometimes things just snowball. Sometimes a quarterback plays the worst game of his career and there's just not a whole lot the coaching staff (or anyone else, for that matter) can do about it. Again, this is not some massive referendum on the state of the program.
Well, unless it is.
This isn't the first time we've seen this loss in the Justin Fuente era. While many point to the Syracuse game in 2016 (an unforgettable 31-17 drubbing when Tech was ranked 17th), this one felt like a different disappointment later that year.
After rebounding from their embarrassing Carrier Dome showing, Jerod Evans and company ripped off three straight wins with three different types of performances. They routed Miami, dominating the Hurricanes on the ground and sacking Brad Kaaya eight times. They won a barnburner against Pittsburgh where both offenses put up massive numbers in a 39-36 Hokie decision. And they beat Duke in an outing that needed defense and special teams after the Blue Devils naturalized their white hot attack.
By the time they hosted Georgia Tech, the Hokies had built back their credibility as a borderline top-15 team. The Yellow Jackets had to play their backup quarterback and it felt like Fuente's group was headed for six straight wins to close his inaugural campaign. They took the field ready to go, and promptly no-showed for four straight quarters.
Evans was bad, the first half defense was abysmal and the Hokies fell apart at every level. They fumbled the opening kick off, were down 20-0 at half and 30-7 in the fourth quarter. At the time, it was simply confounding. How can a squad who looked so tough for over a month look like (gestures wildly at the box score) that?
Well, after five straight seasons of absolutely mind boggling losses, it seems like we have the answer. This is part of the program's DNA. There will be at least one completely inexplicable loss every year of the Fuente administration until proven otherwise.
The 2020 edition of Virginia Tech football is still a fun thing to watch. No one can walk away from the loss in Winston Salem pretending that the offense hasn't been an absolute supernova through the first month of the season. And though it's been largely a disappointment it's irrational not to see steps taken by an improving defense (they did, after all, hold the Demon Deacons to just six points in the second half.)
But the real story will be laid out by this program in the next two weeks.
Louisville is, at its core, a program in transition. Scott Satterfield inherited an absolute tire fire from Bobby Petrino, and while he's done a remarkable job in a year and a half, they still have places the Hokies can exploit. The Cardinals are 2-4, lost to Georgia Tech by 19 and have the 88th ranked defense according to SP+.
But they're also mean as hell, coming off a total thumping of Florida State and look far better than their record indicates. If the Tech offense can show up and keep scoring points like it had been before the Wake debacle, everything should be fine. But what if things aren't fine? What happens if Malik Cunningham breaks open a few big plays, Javian Hawkins tears it up on the ground, and the Hokies find themselves in the middle of a dogfight? How will their composure be then?
For the 2020 season to be considered a success, Tech can't have any more inexplicables. They can't lose to a scrappy two-win Louisville team looking to sink their teeth into another ACC foe. And they definitely can't fall to Hugh Freeze and Liberty the next week.
If the Hokies are a good team — and they've shown us every indication of being one through four weeks — they rebound nicely and dispatch the Cardinals because it's what you're supposed to do to an opponent in the midst of a rebuild. And then they'll go out and handle a frisky Flames squad looking for a headline-grabbing upset.
Good, top-25 caliber programs make these things happen. But if the struggles against the run continue, receivers keep failing to get open, and the entire team flails against less talented competition, it becomes another conversation entirely.
Because when it's year five and the inexplicable starts to become explicable, the situation tends to become untenable for leadership. Virginia Tech fans shouldn't sharpen the pitchforks for every single poor performance, but if those performances become a trend, maybe everyone has the right to be mad.