The Offensive Identity Crisis for Virginia Tech Football
Following the 35-28 loss to Boston College on Saturday afternoon to open the season, much was made of the issues surrounding the loss for the Hokies.
“New year, same frustrating team,” were the echoes voiced on social media and by all accounts, those who made the trip and witnessed the game firsthand in Chestnut Hill.
It was shades of the 2016 Battle at Bristol, as the Hokies killed drive after promising drive with a back-breaking turnover. It seemed as though anytime there was any semblance of offensive momentum, the Hokies would give the football right back to Boston College at the most inopportune of times.
The Hokies turned the football over five times on the day. All four offensive turnovers can be laid squarely on the shoulders of senior quarterback Ryan Willis, who threw three interceptions and lost a fumble. Hezekiah Grimsley muffed a punt to account for the fifth turnover, which set up Boston College in outstanding field position.
We’ll get to the quarterback position in a second, but there is clear concern in the return game for Virginia Tech after Week 1, especially when considering that the punt return duties specifically were not doled out to Grimsley until the end of camp. Justin Fuente and his staff couldn’t find comfort over who would take over the punt return duties, and after Grimsley’s critical mistake on Saturday, we can now see why. It was Grimsley and freshman wide receiver Tayvion Robinson who emerged as most likely to pick up the punt return duties, and after Saturday’s muffed punt, keep an eye on who will be back returning the punts against Old Dominion on Saturday. That is, assuming that Old Dominion actually punts in the football game, which is something that the Hokies could not force defensively a year ago.
Sure, I took a shot at the defense. But the defense played quite well on Saturday, especially in the second half. Boston College was only able to amass a total of 79 yards of offense and seven points after halftime on Saturday, and struggled to run the football with A.J. Dillon and David Bailey throughout the course of the game. In total, it took the Eagles offense 48 attempts to compile 157 yards of rushing.
The Hokies took away the bread-and-butter of the Boston College offense enough to force quarterback Anthony Brown to throw. To his credit, he played well in the first half, connecting on a handful of long passes, including a 58-yarder to Zay Flowers and a 56-yarder to Kobay White. Brown finished 15-of-26 for 275 yards and two touchdowns, but was largely a non-factor in the second half.
The fact that the Hokies could not capitalize on their first encouraging defensive performance of the season sits squarely on the inconsistency of the Virginia Tech offense, which is now becoming more of a trend than an outlier. The Hokies didn’t get much out of either side of the football last year, but if forced to choose, the offense was far more consistent than the defense.
Saturday’s game against Boston College presented an outlier in regards to turnovers, but a trend in regards to the play-calling and overall schematics of the offense when considering the skillset of the roster. The Hokies cannot, and have not been able to, run the football for the better part of the last decade. It’s no coincidence that the overall downturn of the football program pairs up with the fact that the Hokies have not ranked in the top 30 nationally in rushing since the 2011 football season. They finished 27th in the country in rushing that year behind their last bell cow rusher, David Wilson.
Virginia Tech, like most offenses in college football, attempted to keep up with the times and implement a spread offense. Ironically, 2011 was the only time they were able to use that spread offense to their advantage, and it was due in part to the fact that they had a dual-threat (kinda) quarterback in Logan Thomas. Thomas, a converted tight end, never emerged as a consistent passer during his time at Virginia Tech, but his ability to run the football in the read game helped the offense tremendously, especially considering the fact that the offensive line in 2011, while good, had its weaknesses that were masked by an electric running back and an athletically-gifted quarterback.
Fast-forward to 2019, and it makes one wonder where the Hokies are heading offensively. The offensive line is capable, but surely is not as good as the Virginia Tech offensive lines of old. The running back room is suspect, but has some talent, especially when considering the burst that freshman Keshawn King showed in his collegiate debut on Saturday. The experience of running backs Jalen Holston and Deshawn McClease round out a room that shows potential, but has not lived up to its ceiling.
The strength of the team on paper, and clearly in practice after Saturday is at the wide receiver position. Seven different receivers from the wide receiver/tight end group caught passes on Saturday, and that’s before even factoring in returning All-ACC receiver Damon Hazelton, whose hamstring injury kept him out of action in the season opener against the Eagles.
This offense is fit for the air raid, and quarterback Ryan Willis is the most capable passer of any of the three who were in contention to start throughout fall camp. Willis turned the football over at an alarming rate on Saturday, which when reviewing last year’s statistics is quite uncharacteristic of him. Justin Fuente emphasizes “expected outcomes,” a fancy way of saying “take care of my damn football,” and the fact that he never flinched and turned to Hendon Hooker or Quincy Patterson on Saturday after Willis’ four turnovers says quite a bit about the trust that Fuente has in Willis, and also the lack of trust that he has in Hooker, Patterson, or both.
The problem that remains is that the Hokies are still attempting to run an offense predicated on spread rushing principles. The 42 carries for 98 yards on Saturday is testament to the fact that offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen wants to establish the spread run, as ineffective as it clearly can be. While the commitment to running the football is admirable, Virginia Tech does not have a quarterback whose strengths lay in his ability to make plays with his feet. While Willis, to his credit, did pick up a handful of crucial third down runs on Saturday, he’s not a quarterback who is a natural fit for a spread rushing attack. If the Hokies are going to go full spread run, while mixing in the pass, Hendon Hooker is a far better option to make that portion of the offense more effective.
However, if Cornelsen wants to throw the ball 47 times like he did on Saturday, Ryan Willis – preferably the version without the three interceptions – is the only option at quarterback who can elevate the offense’s ceiling in a pass-heavy attack. The other quarterbacks have earned the trust of Justin Fuente and the staff to take care of the football in the passing game. If they had, fans would have seen Hooker or Patterson in relief of Willis on Saturday.
Regardless of which direction the Hokies ultimately go, a decision must be made.
Justin Fuente and his staff must come together and ask the question, “What kind of offense do we want to be?”
Is it one that relies on the passing game, and mixes in the run? If so, Ryan Willis is the guy.
Is it one that relies on the rushing game, and mixes in the pass? If so, Hendon Hooker or Quincy Patterson may be better, as the Hokies running backs alone have not been enough to establish a reliable rushing attack.
The head-scratching play-calling and total lack of offensive identity on display on Saturday won’t cut it. It was an issue last year, and it sure appears that it could be an issue once again this year.
Ironically, after one week, the Hokies are at a fork in the road and need to make a decision regarding what type of offense they want to be.
Otherwise, it truly will be “new season, and the same old Hokies.”