The Defining Disaster of the Justin Fuente Era

By: Tim Thomas | @TimThomasTLP | Nov 08, 2020
Photo Credit: Harley Taylor

The Justin Fuente era has had its good moments from winning the Coastal in year 1 in 2016, coming back at Notre Dame in 2016, the 2016 Belk Bowl comeback, nationally-televised opener wins against West Virginia and Florida State in 2017 and 2018, and some other good moments.

But after a strong first two years, the past three seasons have seen way more failures than successes. During the past three years, Virginia Tech has had lots of disastrous failures and embarrassments happen as follows.

  • 2018 being the first losing season (6-7) since before the bowl streak started.
  • Coach stepping down after an affair on the recruiting trail.
  • Mook Reynolds kicked out for understandable reasons.
  • Academics forcing Adonis Alexander into the NFL Supplemental Draft.
  • Brief academic scandal including returning starting QB Josh Jackson
  • A 14-point loss at Old Dominion
  • Trevon Hill postgame ordeal that leads to his dismissal
  • A Thursday night rout at home to Georgia Tech, allowing 49 points
  • 13.9 yards per play for Pitt in 2018, beating VT 52-22 during 4-game losing streak
  • Painful 2018 Military Bowl loss after scheduling Marshall to extend the bowl streak
  • Mass Transfers including multiple former starters (Josh Jackson, Eric Kumah)
    • Hendon Hooker and Deshawn McClease both return in the end.
  • 35-point home loss to Duke
  • First loss to UVA, ending Commonwealth Cup streak
  • 2020 recruiting class that ranks among the worst in Power 5
  • 2020 loss at Wake Forest despite being double-digit favorites.
  • 2021 recruiting class with best VA talent in years that likely finishes outside the top 40 nationally.

And now, the final and worst nail in the coffin, a home loss to Liberty despite being 17-point favorites, and LU having played 6 games against teams with a combined 4 victories prior to Saturday.

This was a day where we saw a Virginia Tech defense that played like a shell of the past great defenses and showed that the supposed "Hard Smart Tough" mentality doesn't really seem to be true at all for the Hokies.

In this game, Tech had some big hits, but also played with a lack of discipline being over aggressive plenty of times and Malik Willis exposing Tech's defense for it. Once again, Tech failed to stop a mobile quarterback from making plays, a mobile QB who decommitted from Virginia Tech during the first half of the memorable 2016 Belk Bowl mostly because Tech didn't see him as a QB and Auburn did.

That, of course, set the stage for Willis ending up at Liberty with Tech's misevaluation of his QB potential that has turned the lone disappointment from that incredible comeback in Charlotte in 2016 into a key piece in the ultimate 2020 disaster for the Justin Fuente era.

There were missed tackles left and right and a defensive line that lost lots of battles in the trenches against an undersized Liberty offensive line. In that, recruiting failures showed to an extent from a grad transfer cornerback at safety because of a lack of quality safety depth though Taylor has been admirable and better than expected, along with a defensive tackle group that simply has a gap between an intriguing young wave and a struggling elder group for various reasons.

Justin Hamilton was a popular hiring in many ways as a former player replacing Bud Foster but this season to date has to raise some questions if he maybe was rushed into a job he needed a little more seasoning for. I do think Hamilton has a bright future ahead with a normal offseason to implement his defense but in the short term, Hamilton's "value meal" defense continues to take a step back from the progress of 2019.

You also have to wonder if his staff is also the right mix especially with LBs coach Tracy Claeys coming from way outside and linebackers seeming to be out of place a lot. That has to make you wonder if Claeys and Hamilton's styles are clashing and if maybe someone like Jack Tyler would be a better fit as the lead voice of the linebackers room going forward.

Offensively, there was plenty to like even without Khalil Herbert and James Mitchell, but much of that was due to Hendon Hooker putting on a show and making plays left and right to save Virginia Tech. In reality, this was a team without a true bell-cow RB to step in for Herbert with Raheem Blackshear being a very good change-of-pace back and Jalen Holston just not having the explosiveness. If anything, it was disappointing not to see a little of Tahj Gary who showed some promise last season and JUCO transfer Marco Lee in this game.

Additionally, you have the critical late third quarter decision when on 3rd and 6, the Hokies decided to run a QB power up the middle, not even to the outside or something, but right up the middle with the result being only a short gain unsurprisingly. That was followed by Brian Johnson missing a 50-yard field goal and Tech still being down 21-20 at that time.

On a day where Hooker was once again throwing the football extremely well, there's no reason why the Hokies shouldn't be throwing the football there or at least really putting it in Hooker's hands to make a play. If it would have been incomplete, the only difference would have been that the field goal attempt would be from 52 instead of 50. If he makes a play as he did aplenty in this game, you may have a big touchdown drive to reclaim the lead and gain control of the back-and-forth that Tech could have used in the end.

On a day where Hooker was keeping Tech's hopes of avoiding the embarrassing upset alive, Brad Cornelsen took the ball out of his hands in reality even if it was still his run.

That bizarre playcall seemed like a potential defining moment, of course, until the decision that may cause some fans to sleep with one eye open, gripping their pillow tight.

The infamous timeout.

Justin Fuente rightfully took responsibility after the game as the good man that he is, but his decision was rooted in the type of absolutism that will cost you games and his postgame response showed the level of coaching malpractice that was on display.

The situation going in was a guy in Alex Barbir who started out at Penn State but never played, was just a student at Liberty in 2018 and 2019, and then was 2-6 so far this season from beyond 30 yards. That's the guy who's about to attempt a 59-yard field goal.

Safe to say, there's almost no reason to call a timeout and give Liberty more time to think about this. If anything, you're staring down a situation potentially similar to the Kick Six of the Iron Bowl with a long field goal that is likely out of his range, and a talented playmaker in Raheem Blackshear in this case back deep ready to make a play on a kick protection unit largely made up of slower offensive linemen.

Now Justin Fuente was planning on calling the timeout anyway which also makes no sense for more than just the fact that the odds of Barbir making it were extremely low. Fuente said it was due to the need to make sure his field goal block unit was set which of course, we clearly saw it was.

That shouldn't be surprising given that Tech previously attempted to block five extra points so it wasn't like they didn't have practice earlier and didn't know what to do because it's November and these players have been practicing in full form since early August.

Fuente said he tried to call the timeout a couple times sooner to prevent the play from getting off but the ref didn't hear him which seems fair given some of the calls we saw from a referee crew that showed plenty of incompetence but still doesn't change the illogic of the timeout.

After that, we saw Liberty change their formation to look like a hail mary attempt but smartly took advantage of the significant prevent buffer with 8 seconds left to gain 8 more yards underneath to the left sidelines. That

In the end, that moment will live in infamy but this was a team that once again came out unprepared for the task at hand and not 100% mentally focused with a slow 14-3 start, even if Tech put up 17 unanswered to take the halftime, exposing that a lot. And as shown above, this is far from the first time that we've seen that happen in the Justin Fuente and has now become a repeated mistake from just over two weeks ago. This with a team that is old as any Fuente team and is now basically all guys that he recruited, shoutout elder statesman Tyrell Smith.

In the aftermath of this game, we now have a toxic situation brewing on multiple fronts.

You have one member of the Board of Visitors publicly commenting on his disappointment with the result which is something we haven't seen in Blacksburg previously to my knowledge (not the only one disgruntled either), former players showing plenty of disappointment on social media, coaches in the talent rich 757 publicly questioning why they would send their players to Virginia Tech, and a fan base that seems to have almost turned on all fronts against Justin Fuente. Even some of the biggest Fuente supporters have gone shockingly radio silent in the aftermath.

And that is rightfully so for a program that has lost at least once to every single FBS program in the Commonwealth of Virginia within just the past 2.5 seasons. This is a program that has built itself around a "Hard Smart Tough" identity that was exposed to be lacking once again by a team with far less talent that played harder, smarter, and tougher overall. A defense that used to be defined by a lunch pail that now has given up 305+ points for the third time in the past five games when they've gotten significantly healthier but have somehow gotten worse from the beginning of this season.

An offense that has some stars and a great offensive line but seems to lack some depth in places and has playcalling that, while having plenty of good moments, also has some critical bad moments that seem to hold this very good unit back from being great.

From failure after failure against subpar competition to poor recruiting to a fan and donor base that feels pushed aside in a buttoned-up, much more shut off to the public program compared to the Frank Beamer years, the minimum standard of performance that has been set in Blacksburg has not been reached by Justin Fuente over the past three seasons with disappointment after disappointment.

We can talk all we want about how Tech needs more resources for football to reach higher and that has some truth. But there's no reason why this program should be losing to Liberty and Wake Forest in 2020, UVA in 2019, Old Dominion in 2018 with an extra game against Marshall needed to make a bowl game, recruiting outside the top 70 in the 2020 cycle and outside the top 40 in a 2021 class that is as good as any in Virginia, and still keeping the program closed off to the point where this past week was the first time former Hokie Justin Hamilton spoke to the media since his appointment as defensive coordinator.

It's hard being the guy after the guy. After 2 years of a seeming revival, mediocrity has set in under Justin Fuente for a program and fan base that deserves better than this and unfortunately, the trajectory points in the wrong direction.

Calling for change isn't a fun thing to do and Fuente may end up being a really good head coach at the Power 5 level, but sometimes, people have to fail first to achieve greater and unfortunately, that appears to be the case for Fuente because what seems clear is that Fuente isn't the guy to take Virginia Tech back to the high levels of consistent success that Frank Beamer brought VT to.

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