After a bizarre, last-second, downright unbelievable loss to Liberty, Justin Fuente believes he's arrived at his "What now?" moment.
In his press conference Monday, Fuente described it as the moment that arrives for anyone who's endured a tragedy or some other trauma once they've gone through the traditional "scream at the moon" phase of things. You ask yourself, "what are you going to do now?" Fuente said.
That's a question that feels relevant for Fuente and his Hokies for the rest of this highly unusual season, but it's about more than just 2020. As calls for Fuente's job grow louder than perhaps they've ever been in his tenure in Blacksburg, fans will be watching the head Hokie's response to this latest disheartening loss with an eye toward the future as well.
"You have to ask yourself, 'what kind of person are you?'" Fuente said. "When things go bad, are you the type that crawls under a rock and hides? Or are you the type that stands up and says, 'Let's go fix this.'"
Fuente is very much hoping to be the latter rather than the former. He concedes that the Hokies are a "very inconsistent football team" right now, but he hopes not to let such a backbreaking loss change the way he approaches preparing for Miami. With the game decided in such a chaotic, surprising fashion, Fuente suspects fans could just as easily be elated about a thrilling win over a ranked team instead of despondent.
"The result shouldn't change the teaching," Fuente said. "If we block the field goal and run it back for a touchdown, then, sure, people feel better, but there's still a lot to be corrected...I don't like that the game fell the way it did, but it's up to us to continue to strive for improvement and that's exactly what we're doing."
All of that being said, Fuente will allow that this loss hurt more than most. He said he made a point of apologizing to the team after the game, and admitted that he's had some trouble moving past the game even after it was over.
"I went home after the game and looked at the app on my phone to see how much sunlight we had left," Fuente said. "So I went outside and grabbed the girls and said, 'There's no complaining,' we threw the football around and the wiffle ball around while the sun was out, and that made me feel better for 42 minutes...but when you lie down to go to sleep at night and it's still racing through your mind, there's no one to turn to there."
About that timeout
Part of the reason Fuente is taking this loss so hard (and winning so much vitriol from fans in the process) is because it can be attributed to directly to a single one of his decisions: that fateful timeout just before Liberty attempted a 59-yard field goal.
Without that timeout, CB Jermaine Waller wins the game for Virginia Tech with his runback of a blocked field goal. With it, Malik Willis gets the chance to convert a fourth down and set up a game-winning 51-yard kick.
What makes it especially frustrating for Fuente is that he hoped to avoid anything like that from ever happening, simply by calling the timeout well before the ball was snapped.
"I don't regret taking a timeout there," Fuente said. "The biggest thing that chaps my hide is I believe in taking a timeout there and I believe in taking it before they snap the ball...There's nothing wrong with that in that situation as all, but what I go into every game saying is 'I'm not the guy who takes a timeout as the ball gets snapped,' but that happened."
Fuente said he'd try to do so well in advance, but the referee didn't hear him until he "jumped in front of him, screamed bloody murder, something like that." By then, it was too late.
"It's not his fault, it's my fault," Fuente said. "What bothers me the most is I have a set way to handle all of this, which is to take the timeout earlier so I can get everything adjusted. And that's not what happened."
Waller made it all the way down the field after the block, only to discover that the score didn't count. And that made things "pandemonium" on the next play immediately afterward, Fuente said.
He said the Hokies had offensive players still on the field, as some were part of the field goal block unit. Plus, Waller himself suddenly needed to get back on defense even though he "can't hardly breathe" after running 60 yards, Fuente added.
"It was just a perfect storm of a really difficult situation there," Fuente said. "Still, our guys handled it really well...We've practiced eight seconds to go in the game with a tied ball game and the ball on the 45. We've never practiced it before with a blocked field goal called back for a timeout."
The Hokies had all sorts of problems against Liberty, but one of them was more basic than most: tackling.
Allowing 274 yards on the ground, including 128 yards to Willis all on his own, hints at many issues for the defense to address, but there is something especially frustrating about seeing defenders struggle to bring players to the ground.
"When we did fit up the run and get it to the unblocked hat, we just didn't tackle very well," Fuente said. "We just need to be in a little bit better position...The more space there is, the more difficult it is to get a skill position player down."
But fixing such an elemental part of the defense can be a challenge as the season runs down. As Fuente noted, it doesn't make much sense to run too many full contact tackling drills now that players are banged up with injuries (and many defenders missed the chance to do so during this Covid-altered fall camp).
"I can't go out there and go tackle anybody tomorrow," Fuente said. "It's just not what you do in the middle of the season. But we're doing our best to teach it."
The Hokies better be able to make adjustments quickly, considering that Miami comes to town Saturday. QB D'Eriq King has proven to be one of the most dynamic players in the country thus far, amassing more than 400 rushing yards alone, and he will surely present similar matchup problems as Willis did.
"This guy is explosive and can really throw the football," Fuente said. "To say it's a daunting task is an understatement."