When Justin Fuente first took the helm at Virginia Tech in 2016, the Hokies adopted and embraced his hard, smart, tough mentality all the way to an appearance in the ACC Championship Game. Now, three years later, any semblance of that mindset has disappeared following Virginia Tech’s 45-10 gut punch of a loss to Duke.
Fuente so much as admitted it following the embarrassment, citing the lack of an identity for much of the failures in his postgame remarks.
“Like any good offense, you have to have an identity,” Fuente said. “We’re struggling to find that identity. We’re inconsistent in the run game. We’re inconsistent in the pass game. It’s a culmination of all of those things that we have got to find a way to get a handle of.”
Offensive lineman Lecitus Smith described the identity he would like to see, following the mindset that Fuente has preached from the beginning.
“We want to be known like we say – hard, smart, and tough,” Smith said. “We need to get the hard and the tough going, even the smart going as well. We want to be that team that people say, ‘They’re a smart football team, but they’re also tough up front.’ We want to make them have to scheme us well throughout the week. We want to be tough and rugged and mean when it’s necessary.”
The non-existent identity isn’t just a factor on offense, either. The defense is still finding its way back in the direction of the vaunted Lunch Pail Defense that has been under the leadership of Bud Foster since 1995.
On Friday night, the Hokies were a reflection of that defense through the first 19 minutes, holding Duke to eight yards on the first 11 plays of the game. However, things quickly shifted once Duke recovered a fumble deep in the Hokies’ territory. Quentin Harris connected with Noah Gray for the 16-yard touchdown on the next play, and the Blue Devils proceeded to put up 414 total yards for the rest of the game.
“Our mentality needs to be to go out there and get that next stop, and get that momentum back to our side,” Foster said of the quick touchdown allowed after the fumble. “At the least, snub their momentum. That’s hard to practice, and we’ve got to be better in that situation. You’ve got to embrace those challenges. That defines who you are and the make-up of our team and our character when those situations arise.
“We can’t let one play effect several, and that’s what I think we did [against Duke]. We’ve got to be mentally tougher, that’s the bottom line.”
Foster also pointed out that the reasoning of the team being young is no longer valid. The team has been together long enough, and the issues he’s seen on defense come down to execution.
“That excuse is no more,” Foster said. “There is a fine line in winning and losing at this level, particularly with teams with spread offenses. It comes down to guys doing their job and executing, bottom line… The two that we’ve lost, it was because of execution. It was because of a guy ripping his gap, poor technique, not taking his proper man.”
So where does Virginia Tech go from here? It begins with the preparation in the lead up to Miami on Saturday.
“You want a group of guys that hate to lose,” Foster said. “They put so much into this thing, so much strain, so much work, so much effort, so much preparation, that if you do get beat, it should hurt. We’re going to make sure that we have enough of those kind of guys.
“We have to go put it together, day after day after day. If I’m being honest, we can’t be good today, average tomorrow and good on Thursday. Then we’ll be good in the first quarter, average in the second quarter, good in the third quarter and average in the fourth quarter. We can’t do that at this level. That’s where our guys have to strain and sell out every day and develop those habits that it takes to win… That’s where the leaders need to step up. Challenge those guys that seem like they’re going through the motions. When you have that peer pressure from within, you have a good situation.”
One of those leaders is mike linebacker Rayshard Ashby. Ashby has been as productive as anyone of the field defensively with a team-high 35 tackles, but he was candid saying he’s done an “awful job” of encouraging and challenging his teammates as a leader. He’s still confident the Hokies can right the ship and save the season from impending disaster.
“The coaches and the players, we still have all the confidence in this team that there is to have,” Ashby said. “We just have to go out there and put it on display for each other, and just go out there and do our job… Just giving it all we’ve got and not thinking about the other circumstances.”
Alan Tisdale Progression
In a game devoid of many positive developments, linebacker Alan Tisdale was a bright spot with seven tackles for Virginia Tech. He split playing time with Dax Hollifield and looked better suited at the backer spot throughout the game.
Foster apologized for not getting him in the game over the course of the last two wins, but it’s apparent Tisdale is progressing and carving out even more playing time the rest of the season.
“The guy can run, he plays with good vision,” Foster said. “He’s got good quickness, he’s got good playmaking skills. He’s good in coverage. We play him in our ‘30’ package and some of our passing down situations, just from an athletic standpoint.
“By his body of work, he’s earned an opportunity to be on the field. Hopefully, he’s going to continue in that role a little bit. I’m not disappointed in anybody else, I’m just excited about him and the playmaking abilities he brings to the table.”
TyJuan Garbutt Returns From Injury
After leaving the Boston College game in the second series with a shoulder injury from a blindside block, TyJuan Garbutt returned to action on Friday night after missing two games, and recorded seven tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss.
“Every day I’ve been working to get better and get back to where I once was,” Garbutt said. “It feels good to get back out there with my brothers.”
It was a promising return for Garbutt as he will look to get back to full health. He’s one of the playmakers on defense who the coaching staff raved about throughout fall camp.
“I’m sure that thing is a little sore and there’s movement in there with that joint
and he can move that,” Foster said. “I’m excited about him and taking that next step. Like I said, it’s like he played his first game last week and we need to get him back practicing and playing.”
Facing Trevon Hill
Virginia Tech’s offensive line will be lined up against a familiar face on Saturday as former Hokies’ defensive end Trevon Hill now dons the green and orange for Miami.
Hill was dismissed from Virginia Tech following the Old Dominion game last year, and proceeded to end up in Coral Gables as a graduate transfer.
“I’m not worried about Tre,” Foster said. “I wish him the best in whatever he decides to do with his life. Our focus is to get ready to play Miami and he’s on the other side of the ball, so we’re going to control what we can control. I’ve got a job to do. Maybe we’ll hug after the game, but not necessarily (before).”