As Jermaine Waller sprinted down the sideline for what appeared to be the game-winning touchdown, the small contingency of fans in Lane Stadium was elated. Two plays later, Liberty walked off with a three-point victory and stunned Hokies everywhere.
“It’s disappointing to fans, coaches and players alike. It’s up to us to continue to strive for improvement, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Head Coach Justin Fuente said. “I don’t like it, nor does anybody. It’s up to us to bounce back.”
A back-and-forth game all afternoon, Liberty stepped onto the field for a 59-yard field goal with eight seconds remaining. The kick was blocked and returned for a touchdown as time expired and players celebrated in the north end zone. However, just before the snap, Fuente called his last timeout and stopped the play.
“I don’t regret taking a timeout there. I think the biggest thing that chaps my hide is we’ve talked about it ad nauseum as a staff is I believe in taking a timeout there to make sure everything is set and I believe wholeheartedly in taking it before they snap the ball,” Fuente said. “The whole, ‘take it right as they snap it,’ I’m out on all of that. And that’s what happened and that’s what bothers me the most.”
After all of that, eight seconds were still on the clock, and the Hokies had to regroup. Instead of lining up for a second attempt on fourth-and-six, Hugh Freeze and the Flames elected to send the offense back out.
“Our guys handled it really well, but we were down. Waller can hardly breathe because he thinks he just won the game and now, we have to turn around and put him in there on defense,” Fuente said. “It was just the perfect storm of a really difficult situation there.”
After throwing to the sidelines for a first-down, Liberty sent the field goal unit back onto the field and Alex Barbir split the uprights from 51 yards away and continued the Flames’ undefeated season.
On the other hand, the Hokies fell to 4-3 as they continue to struggle with consistency. Since their 2-0 start, Tech has gone back and forth between puzzling losses and rebound wins.
“You just watch us play and on both sides of the ball, when you go through the film, we just seemed to be a really inconsistent football team,” Fuente said. “We have to get our execution level much higher, so we spent a little extra time in the meeting room yesterday. We’re trying to work to continue to get those things ironed out.”
Tech spent more time in meetings on Sunday, trying to figure out what went wrong against the Flames. Although the game easily could have gone the other way, the Hokies have plenty of issues to figure out as a tough stretch of ACC games approaches.
“The results shouldn’t change the teaching. We block the field goal and run it back for the touchdown and the game is over,” Fuente said. “Sure, people feel better, but there still is an incredible amount of correction that must go on. That didn’t happen, so we still have to praise what’s good and try to correct what needs to be improved and try to articulate that to players.”
The Hokies have to quickly turn around and try to get another rebound win off of last weekend’s heartbreaking loss. Getting things turned around this week will be no easy task as Miami travels to Blacksburg as a top-ten team in the country.
“The first thing you think of when you think of Miami is speed, and they certainly have it. Their quarterback is playing at a really high level. They’ve got a really good scheme that fits him, both running and throwing the ball,” Fuente said. “They like to push the tempo, and they’ve got skill players all over the place at wide receiver and running back. I anticipate their big tight end will be back this week. That will pose another big challenge there.”
D’Eriq King will be the third straight mobile quarterback that the Hokies have faced. Malik Willis and Malik Cunningham both had big days for Liberty and Louisville, respectively, as they combined for over 500 passing yards, 150 rushing yards and seven total touchdowns.
The difference in the Hokies’ winning against the Cardinals was the defense intercepting Cunningham three times. Not many teams have been able to stop King this season, but forcing mistakes will be the key to Tech getting back on track.
“To say it’s a daunting task is an understatement. This is a guy who is a big-time player. There’s similarities [between King and Willis] certainly because they can both throw the ball. There’s only so long you can make it if you can’t throw it. No matter how good an athlete is, it comes down to you’re going to have to be able to throw the ball at some point. He can do both.”
The Hokies have been great at bouncing back under Fuente, losing just five times following a defeat in the previous game during his tenure, three of which came in 2018. They’ve rebounded with a win following their previous losses two this season, and they’ll look to do the same on Saturday afternoon.
“When things go bad are you the type that crawls under the rock and hides, or are you the type that says, ‘let’s go try and fix this thing.’ There’s a lot of people that just run away from those challenges,” Fuente said. “We try to challenge our young people in today’s day and age, which is harder than ever, in my opinion. As adults, we’ve built in a million excuses for them. To challenge them to stand up and take something head on as a challenge is very rewarding.”