I never write my review until I've watched a game a second time. Why? Because when I watch the game live, I'm watching as a simple spectator, a fan, an alum. As such, my focus on the game is shallow. I follow the ball pretty much exclusively, without paying any attention to blocking, assignments, or any of the Xs and Os that go into a successful game plan. While watching live I'm prone to snap judgments and tend to fly off the handle a bit. Only upon a second watching, when I really break down the game, can I set the excitement of the moment aside and give an honest assessment of our game plan, our play calling, and our effort as a team. This week was no different, and I can honestly say my outlook on this game shifted significantly after giving it a second look.
First things first. The game plan was solid. We came out again this week showing the spread look that has worked its way onto the field as our base formation this season. It worked well, but we also used a lot of LT under center, which also worked well especially in play action. Mike O'Cain called a nice, unpredictable mix of runs and passes, did indeed get David Wilson ten touches before halftime, and perhaps most importantly did not shy away from the pass for the rest of the game when LT tossed a couple of picks early on. In the first half LT led the Hokies down the field on drives that covered 85, 90, and 77 yards. We scored first, for once. Going into halftime the Hokies had run 40 plays for over 300 yards.
So what happened in the second half? Did the lack of focus and discipline catch up to us? Did the game plan break down? Did we make bad adjustments at halftime, or did Duke make some great adjustments on defense?
Watching the game live, my knee jerk reaction was that we were playing way too conservative in the second half. The numbers from the game appear to support that position, too. In the first half we passed 18 times; in the second half we only passed ten. On every series of downs in the second half on which our possession ended, we ran the ball on both first and second down. But when I went back and watched the game a second time I realized that Duke simply took away the big play in the second half. In the first half VT had five plays of 25+ yards, while in the second half we only had one. It wasn't for lack of trying. We were still taking our shots downfield in the second half, we just weren't hitting on them.
On the first play of the fourth quarter LT threw a beautiful ball to Jarrett Boykin on a deep slant over the middle, a play on which Boykin got absolutely jobbed by the Duke cornerback. Not only did the defender lock arms with Boykin for the last three steps before the ball arrived (oh the beauty of 1/15 slow-motion on my DVR), he also grabbed Boykin's facemask as the ball was arriving, preventing Meathooks from jumping for a very catchable ball. The no-call on this play baffles me. Later in the fourth LT throws yet another beautiful ball, hitting Danny Coale perfectly down the right sideline. But Coale, who had a step on his defender, lost his grip on the ball as he was falling to the ground and the Duke corner managed to scoop it away as he rolled over top of Danny. That play was just a heartbreaker, as Coale catches that ball at least eight times out of ten. And a couple of other times in the fourth quarter LT had to check down off a deep receiver who was covered and take the shorter pass.
It also didn't really register while I was watching the game live that in the second half our average starting field position was our own 15 yard line. Four of our seven drives started inside of our own 20, and two started inside our own five. I don't know how much of an excuse this really is, since both of our first half touchdown drives started at our own 15 and 10 yard line, respectively, but it's a tall order to be called on to drive the length of the field repeatedly, especially when for whatever reason your opponent has effectively clamped down against the big play.
And that brings up the kicking game, unfortunately. Look, we have to realize that Branthover is a true freshman. He is not Demler redux, he's just inconsistent. Unlike Demler, Branthover has the leg to boot it 50+ yards every punt. He just needs to get his mechanics nailed down to be able to do it consistently, which is probably what Beamer had hoped to give him a redshirt year to be able to do. So please don't hang this kid out to dry because he's not quite ready for prime time. Having said that, punting is going to be an adventure down the stretch as it has been all year. We're going to lose the field position battle this year and there's nothing we can do about it, so our offense just needs to accept that more often than they would prefer they are going to be looking at 80+ yards to the endzone.
Not to say this game can just get written off as a couple of missed big plays and bad field position. This was a lousy effort. We were looking forward to the bye week and looking ahead to Georgia Tech. We played without urgency, enthusiasm, or spirit. And we most certainly did not give the dozens of fans who crowded Wallace Wade Outdoor Stadium their money's worth. But we escaped back to the bus with a win. We sleepwalked through an inferior opponent and lived to fight another day.
Marcus Davis... what the fuck? I'm not calling you out or cutting you down. I am saying that you are better than you played today. Next season you will be called upon to anchor this corps of receivers. It's time to nut up or shut up, young man.
But even in this underwhelming performance there were some bright spots on offense. Logan Thomas's jump pass to Eric Martin for the first touchdown was maybe the best touch I've seen LT put on a pass all season, and that aspect of his game could become a major weapon in his arsenal if he works on it in goal-to-go situations. Extra defenders will break on LT as soon as he leaves the pocket because he's such a hoss to bring down on the open run. This will frequently bring a receiver open, and if LT can routinely hit them on little flicks like this then he is going of frustrate the hell out of a lot of defensive coordinators. Despite the two picks - one of which was the result of poor route running rather than a poor pass - LT was threading the ball into tight coverage all day and has developed so, so much since I watched him from the stands against Appalachian State.
And to our injured, exhausted and beleaguered defense: thank you. You gave us this W when our offense came out cold in the second half. Enjoy your bye week, as you have most certainly and especially earned it.
FBS Mission Statement:
We at FBS believe that offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring bears the largest share of the blame for years of sub-par output from some of the most talented players ever to set foot on Worsham Field. We believe the main objective of the VT football program - a national championship - will escape us as long as Stinespring is making the calls. We therefore advocate the improvement of our football program through the replacement of our offensive coordinator.