Virginia Tech showed signs of life with an early 53-yard touchdown pass from Grant Wells to Da'Wain Lofton to take the lead. However, no one would have imagined that the Hokies wouldn't score after that on their way to a 24-7 loss to Duke that never even felt that close to be honest.
The loss has the Hokies at 2-8 on a 7-game losing streak with this being their longest losing streak in a long time and longest winless streak since 1992 when they had 7 losses (including a 5-game losing streak) and a tie in the final 8 games of that season.
So with that said, here are my postgame thoughts on the Hokies' 24-7 loss to Duke.
1. Anemic Offense Gets Worse
This was not a good day for the Virginia Tech offense to say the least.
After a fast start with the Da'Wain Lofton 53-yard TD, Virginia Tech's offense went very quiet averaging a meager 4.3 yards per play the rest of the way while seeing Duke control the ball for two-thirds of the game at the whole. That combination was a recipe for disaster and helped Duke wear down a Virginia Tech defense already struggling with depth at key spots like cornerback due to injuries.
Brent Pry said after the game that the Hokies felt they had a good plan going in and suggested that they were trying to do some different things, but also hinted at wanting a shift towards getting to the roots of what they are trying to do on the offensive end.
"We’ve obviously got to move the ball better. I think everybody on the staff believed we had a good plan going into it. And we just didn’t get it done. We’ve got to be able to move the ball more effectively. And we’ve got to look at what we’re doing. I think we tried to do some different things. At the same time, you try something new and how good at it can you really be? You’ve invested a lot of time in being a certain style of offense, and when it’s not working, and you have to get creative, how good can you be at what you’re doing," Pry said.
It's a fair point as Tech couldn't really get much going though this was a day where all of their running backs averaged over 4 yards per carry with Tech as a team averaging 4 yards per carry against a good Duke rush defense. That's an encouraging sign that the core physical style of offense they want to be and have been trying to engraining may be showing some signs of life as the season progressed.
However, this offense continues to be languid to say the least as they are now averaging only 18.9 points per game, the lowest scoring average for the Hokies currently in a season since 1989. Even with the rebuild and the loss of talent on the offensive side of the ball from last year's team, that's a disappointing regression that continued today.
2. Pass Rush Struggles
Virginia Tech's defense didn't get any help from the offense in terms of time of possession with Duke having a 39-21 advantage in that regard. However, they also didn't get much help at all from their pass rush either.
The Hokies' pass rush struggled for most of this game with fatigue clearly not theonly reason or necessarily even primary reason for the struggles today. Tech had 0 sacks and only 2 QB hurries both of which came from Keonta Jenkins and not a single of which came from a defensive lineman for the Hokies.
It wasn't necessarily for a lack of trying as Tech get a little more pressure on one play where they went with 4 defensive ends instead of a classic 2 DE, 2 DT look for a 4-3 defense. Though that helped some, that wasn't necessarily sustainable given the overall struggles along with the situation that can put you in against teams that want to push the tempo or could audible into some power-running plays creating a size issue for those moments.
Those pass rush issues have continued to be a weakness for the Hokies as Brent Pry discussed postgame.
"I think that’s been a weakness for us all season. We have not had the ability to just rush four and get home. So you try and manufacture pressures and people know that now, so they’re changing their protection to pick up the pressures and then you’ve got to be good enough on the back end. If you’re going to bring pressure, you’ve got to be good enough on the back end and cover and challenge. And right now, we haven’t proven to be good enough there either. And certainly don’t have the depth to play a ton of man and sustain and cover like you want," Pry said.
Tech also has a depth issue that is handcuffing them some on the blitzing front or the variety of plays that they can use without Dorian Strong to lead that unit or Cam Johnson to provide additional depth. Depth issues that limit their blitzing options combined with a struggling pass rushing group that can't simply rush four and get pressure consistently.
Brent Pry admitted that concerns about depth especially with the Strong injury are holding him back on what options he feels he has defensively.
"It’s challenging. It’s been challenging since Week 1. You lose your best corner at a position you were already short, to play this type of defense we want to play and to be aggressive, generally 40% pressure and doing things, we’ve had to work a little harder at trying to generate some rush. It makes a difference when you’ve got a guy that can just win his one-on-one often enough and get home. You can give the illusion of blitz, then you’re bringing it or not. That’s what’s challenging on offenses. Right now, they know for us to get home, we’ve got to bring it," Pry said.
Tech's going to either need some guys to step up or maybe gamble more on the coverage side of things in hops that they can get to the QB quick enough to where sacrifices in coverage won't get exposed. If not, there could be some comfortable afternoons ahead for Tech's remaining opponents at QB.
3. The 4th Down Call
The hinge point that seemed to seal this game came late in the third quarter when the Hokies put together their best drive since the opening 2 possessions of the game snapping the ball inside the 30 for the first time all game.
That led to an interesting 3rd and 7, 4th and 4 combination that started with a QB draw in a move that pointed towards a four down mindset for the Hokies. Then, they chose to take a shot down the field to Kaleb Smith rather than try to target something less risky underneath to get the 4 yards and keep the drive moving. All of this came in a crucial situation with Duke coming off a TD that gave them a two-possession, 17-7 lead with the Hokies having a chance to tighten in back to a one-score game.
Personally, I thought that the late third quarter was too early to try to chase the points especially given that a field goal would have cut the lead to within a possession at 17-10. Now I understand if John Love being short on a 50-yard field goal in that same direction earlier gave them some hesitation especially with the wind being somewhat consistent towards that direction. However, a 42-yard field goal even for a true freshman should be more than doable in that situation.
I understand the thought of trying to maximize one of the few opportunities you might get in this game, but taking the points there and making it a one-score game at 17-10 instead of failing to convert and it being 17-7 would have given this game a completely different outlook. Instead of a game that largely was trending the wrong, Tech suddenly would have some momentum in a one-score game rather than Duke just continuing to roll.
Now if you are going to go for it, going for it all seems like the wrong way to go about it. Kaleb Smith is a good choice to have as a primary target, but why not use him on the strong side outside on a curl or a slant or a crossing route, or try to use a big tight end like Dae'Quan Wright or Nick Gallo over the middle. Those things have worked fairly well all year and definitely would be safer, more surefire bets rather than going all or nothing on a fourth down play.
Maybe you take a shot on third down in that scenario but fourth down in a game where you desperately are trying to get it within one-score to re-energize and give yourselves a reasonable chance, that seems like a bad risk decision there.