Late Struggles Doom Virginia Tech In 41-36 Loss To Syracuse

Virginia Tech lost another heartbreaker on Saturday, this time against Syracuse. (Jon Fleming)

For the third time this season, Virginia Tech had a chance to win in the last minute of a football game. And for the third time, the Hokies were unsuccessful, this time losing to Syracuse, 41-36.

At West Virginia, Tech had four plays inside the ten, needing a touchdown, and failed to get it. Against Notre Dame, the game was tied until the Hokies stalled and gave the ball back to the Irish, which turned into Jonathan Doerer’s game-winning field goal.

This time, it was against Syracuse. Virginia Tech led by nine, 36-27, with six minutes to play. Syracuse cut it to two, 36-34, with two minutes to play. But, despite running 1:19 off the clock, the Hokies got stuck offensively and punted, relying on a defense that had been solid through six games but poor through four quarters on Saturday.

No dice. 

Justin Hamilton’s defense backed Garrett Shrader & Co. into a third-and-ten, from which he gained six yards, and then a fourth-and-four. Will Stewart’s tweet accurately describes what happened next.

Shrader picked up six. Two plays later, he found Damien Alford, over the outstretched arms of Dorian Strong, for the game-winning strike from 45 yards out.

“The guy made an incredible throw, got hit right as he threw it, dropped it right in there,” Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente said. “That’s a tough way to lose a ballgame.”

Indeed. Hokies have been there too many times this year. This could easily be a 6-1 team with a road win in Morgantown, a top-25 win over Brian Kelly’s bunch and a bounce back win over the Orange. Instead, Tech is 3-4 overall, 1-2 in the ACC.

The Hokies just can’t put it all together for a complete game. They haven’t been able to do it all season. And now, instead of having some momentum before going on the road, the team lost three straight home games, the third time that’s happened in Blacksburg under Justin Fuente (2018, 2020, 2021).

Below is a table that shows Virginia Tech’s record over time under Justin Fuente in one-score games and five-point games. The five-point table narrows it down a bit more and indicates a closer game. It’s also a bit more telling. The Hokies have lost their last four games closer than five points.

Through 2019, only two of those five-point games were at home: UVa win in 2018 (34-31), UNC 6OT win in 2019 (43-41). The last four games, in which Tech is 0-4, were all at home. Liberty (-3 margin), Miami (-1), Notre Dame (-3) and Syracuse (-5).

The Hokies have struggled in close games for a while now, and Saturday was just another (devastating) example.

Offensive Explosion

Over the past few weeks, the offensive players have preached running the ball more efficiently. Tech didn’t improve in recent games. 3.2 yards per carry against Richmond and Pitt, 3.6 against Notre Dame.

Against a Syracuse defense that was No. 2 in total defense in the ACC, the Hokies exploded. They churned out 260 yards on the ground on 44 carries, equal to 5.9 yards per carry. That’s a season-high for both statistics.

They were efficient for the majority of the game, and came up with some huge plays. Tre Turner had a jet sweep for 26 yards that set up a score, while Raheem Blackshear’s long was 36 yards.

It was Malachi Thomas who impressed the most, though, and boy, did he ever.

Malachi Thomas was fabulous on Saturday for the Hokies. (Jon Fleming)

A six-foot, 197-pound back from Hartwell, Ga., Thomas had three touches against Notre Dame and six against Pitt. Right before the game against Syracuse, the coaching staff told him he was going to get a bunch of carries.

He finished as Virginia Tech’s leading rusher with 21 carries for 151 yards and three touchdowns.

His first two scores came from four and two yards out. The third was explosive, and sent Lane Stadium into a craze.

On third-and-one from the 47, center Brock Hoffman pinned his guy to the inside, while left guard Lecitus Smith blocked his defender into the ground. The linebacker and safety were caught out of position, and Thomas took it to the house.

“I got the ball and then the o-line just made a beautiful block backside and I just hit it,” Thomas said. “I just was thinking, ‘this time, I’m not going to get caught.'”

Despite Thomas and the offense finding success on the ground, Tech couldn’t connect in the air. For the third straight game, Braxton Burmeister completed 50% of his passes or less. He was 10-20 for 177 yards and a score, a 22-yard pass to Drake DeIuliis in the first quarter, but it was too stagnant.

“I feel like once we get that first explosive play of the drive, whether it’s running or in the air, it lights a fire under the offense and that really drives us,” wide receiver Kaleb Smith, who finished with two catches for 48 yards, said.

“[From] a receiver standpoint, Jafar [Williams] preaches to us every time the ball is in the air, we’ve got to come down with it. That’s our job. Whether it’s pretty or not, whether it’s late in the game, early in the game, that’s our job to come down. I feel like we’re moving in the right direction with that.”

Defense Couldn’t Get Stops

For the first time this season, though, it wasn’t the offense that “lost” Virginia Tech the game. In the previous six games this season, Tech’s defense needed more help from its counterpart. Against the Orange, it was that unit which struggled.

Against a run-heavy Syracuse offense that entered Saturday averaging 400 yards per game, the Hokies allowed 550 yards. 314 of those yards came on the ground, and all but 28 of the yards came from Shrader or running back Sean Tucker.

Virginia Tech allowed two teammates to each rush for over 100 yards for the second straight season. Last year, it was against North Carolina with Michael Carter (214 yards) and Javonte Williams (169). Against the Orange, Shrader tallied 174 yards (averaged 7.9 ypc) while Tucker had 112 (5.6 ypc).

Justin Hamilton’s defense had trouble against Syracuse. (Jon Fleming)

“He [Shrader] made a bunch of plays with his feet,” Fuente said. “I don’t know what his rushing yards were, but he seemed to have really timely plays, third and fourth down. One third and 12 or 13 that you feel like we had him hemmed up and he was able to get out of it.”

Virginia Tech only had three tackles for loss and one sack over the course of the game. Tech pressured Shrader (five quarterback hurries) but he often escaped, like Fuente mentioned. Syracuse just couldn’t miss offensively, including in the passing game.

That wasn’t a strength entering the game, but you couldn’t tell that. Shrader only completed 16 of his 34 pass attempts (47%) but he still threw for 236 yards and two scores. Ironically, they were Syracuse’s last two touchdowns.

The Hokies lost Jermaine Waller in the second quarter, who had been nicked up since the previous game against Pitt. Fuente said he just “couldn’t go.” Still, this is a defense with experience, and confidence, in the positions that Hamilton put them in.

You couldn’t tell for most of the game on Saturday. Tech made plays, but not enough, and just looked out of sync at times. Syracuse only converted seven of its 16 third downs, but was a perfect four-for-four on fourth down. The Orange had scoring drives of 11 plays (4:34 time of possession) and 13 plays (6:00), which kept Virginia Tech’s defense on the field for long stretches.

In the end, when the Hokies needed a stop, they didn’t get it. 

What’s Next?

Which leads into the question, what’s next?

Virginia Tech travels to Georgia Tech and Boston College over the next two weeks. The turnaround for the Eagles is a short one with a Friday game. The Hokies then come home for one final home game against Duke, before jetting to Miami and playing Virginia in the Battle for the Commonwealth Cup.

In team sports, sticking together is the most important thing. Kaleb Smith said the team is a family and they’re going to stick together. Malachi Thomas said there’s no doubt in his mind that the Hokies are going to bounce back next week.

But their coach is under scrutiny. Fuente seat continues to heat up. And it wasn’t hard to hear the “Fi-re Fue-nte” chants coming from the fans after Syracuse scored with :19 to play. It wasn’t like it was just a small group of students, either. It was a chorus of fans, and it was loud.

What’s next? (Jon Fleming)

“I’m worried about giving these guys a chance to win,” Fuente said regarding his job after the loss. “I’m not – we ain’t going down that road, OK?  Everybody up and down that hallway is selling out to give these kids a chance to win, so I’m not worried about any of that. So we can’t be focused on things we can’t control. What we can control is our attitude and our effort. Our kids have been incredible with all of that. Our job now is get them to do the exact same thing for next week.”

Rumors will continue to swirl. Many will continue to question him and his logic. But it seems obvious – Fuente’s lost a majority of the fanbase, including those who are important donors.

Losing games, bad decision making and more have contributed to the chipping away of the rock that is the people who believe in him. The season is nowhere close to being over, but it’s likely to feel that way for a good portion of those who support Virginia Tech athletics. A ton of questions, with no answers.

You can’t exactly put a rock that’s in a bunch of pieces back together. At least, not in a natural way. And Saturday was just another example of that – another heartbreaking, last-second loss, and another instance of chipping away at that rock.


Full box score:

63 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. To be clear there are bigger issues than just 4th down decisions, kicking, etc. but there is no question that his conservatism permeates the game flow and has likely cost the team a handful of games during his tenure.

  2. Part of Fuente’s issue is that he defaults to conservatism too frequently when in close spots. The 4th and 1 punt against ND, the conservative play calls on the last drive against Cuse…there are a lot of examples. He defaults to punting and kicking field goals far too often and tries to “hold on” in close spots. Since the start of the 2019 season opponents have gone for it roughly 2x the number of times VT has with a far higher success rate. Tech has also attempted far more FG than our opponents over Fuente’s tenure. Some of this could be expected if we were consistently winning or consistently way ahead. That has not been the case.

    In close games, his conservatism simply costs the kids. He’s afraid to let the kids win the games on the field.

  3. Letting any coach go (fired, or they go on to another job) creates havoc. As much as I hate to use North Carolina as an example, I am going to here. Mack Brown has come in with good energy on the recruiting side, and with that, is establishing the Tarheels as the team to beat in the Coastal in the coming years. However, short term, it comes at a cost, and losses mount as younger players play, and older players exit. At some point (sooner I expect than later), he will retire again, and NC will be back to being NC. On the other hand, Dave Clausen of Wake Forest is the current example of how VT rose to a national prominent name, by building the program through moderate recruiting, redshirting, learning a system, and an occasional superstar. (Remember we did not prioritize Boogie Basham in our back yard). All this means is that any change will be a start over, and unless it comes with a superstar coach, and assistant coaches, we will be at the bottom starting over again. Perhaps the answer is somewhere in between. Retaining Fuente, give him a 2 year extension and rework his salary to compensation with the risk, and have a new OC for the coming year. I still have full confidence in Whit. Last but not least, I bought season tickets for my family (including kids and grandkids) this year, but will not next year. I have not seen such rude behavior from those who wear VT apparel and call themselves fans in my 60 years of being a fan. The beer sales were a HUGE mistake for Lane Stadium.

    1. I concur with your opinion about the beer sales. I have been surrounded by drunk students. Last week one of them spilled a full beer all over a woman in front of me and soaked her purse. This weekend one fan had to be removed by the state police. I too will not be renewing my season tickets next year.

    2. The beer sales were a HUGE mistake for Lane Stadium.>>>>

      Guys & Gals – if you feel this way, like I do – PLEASE e-mail Babcock AND Sands with your feelings. I got a response back in 5 minutes. Not a good response – but a response that my e-mail was read by someone in both offices.

  4. I am very disappointed in our loss today as anyone I suspect …. But also maybe more disappointed in hearing that our fans were chanting Fire Fuentes…. Our tradition ie fan base and atmosphere has been one of the constants throughout the good and the bad …. We cannot always control the wins and losses … but can control how we act in the face of adversity. Wonder what the recruits thought about this.
    Let’s let Whit Babcock do his job privately and professionally and hope for the best outcome.
    Hokie Nation can be better than this. Go Hokies!

  5. Can’t argue opinions – BUT:

    1) The same group who started the ‘Fire Fuente’ chant were the same ones who booed Sands at Homecoming. Although there was one drunk behind me who was yelling ‘Hire Bud Foster’. BTW – the chant was a lot louder on TVthan it was in person. Sorta like what the media does at Miami games. 🙂

    2) All of our players play there hearts out. Effort isn’t a problem. And Effort is part of coaching. Players with lesser talent make up for it with effort AND natural football instincts. See Myron Newsome. Plus – you don’t fire 85 players.

    3) Big Donors don’t have big mouths. Also they aren’t lining up at Whit’s door with their checks for Fuente’s buy out. You think the guy who donated $50 million is worried about Fuente.

    4) Reporters nowadays report over themselves by reporting stories that they’ve heard 2nd, 3rd and 4th hand. Report something often enough – loud enough – and some folks – who want to believe it – believe it.

    5) Watching Hooker play for UT reminded me of the story that reporters gobbled hook, line and sinker – because they read it on and not from the source itself. BTW, very few of these kids who transfer tell the real reason – they tell what they think their parents and media want to hear.

    6) Finally – I’ve heard first hand more season ticket holders are considering not re-newing – because of the beer sales and rowdie VT fans. Note: Will saw the fight behind me at the ND game. And I sit in Section 9 in the row behind where the most expensive seats on the East stands are. That’s first hand not what somebody heard somebody else heard that somebody. said.

    7) How many media types are hyping the Clemson OC now for just about every HC opening?


      1. Did someone donate $50M??>>>>

        Yeah – the CEO of Boeing for the Innovation Campus. A couple also donated $5 or $10 million.

        VT’s national giving day produced a record amount of donations. Most of the big ones were anon. And – the athletics picked up a nice sum too.

  6. Local paper headline reads is Fuente’s time up? I agree with most comments above, it’s this and that however Fuente’s time was up 2 years ago. Get rid of the entire coaching staff..they’ve all proved their lack of leadership. D1 is to big for this staff..

    1. It really gets old after awhile that when there is a bump in the road, folks like you cry …. get rid of the entire coaching staff. Last week it was fire Corn, his time has come and gone. Now it is fire the entire staff. I really pray that Whit does not listen to you or anyone else for that matter. Before I go please reply with your exquisite experience and expertise to make such a heady comment.

      1. Thx Reston! These ‘fire everyone’ nuts are still drunk and lacking fresh oxygen all around. We are 15 plays from being 5-1 and the nuts are like, ‘these guys aren’t D1 ready.’ Seriously, you people embarrass yourselves.
        It’s so predictable. Let’s say Tech was 5-1 but the #1 penalized team in ACC. The bozos would say, ‘yep, we’re just overly aggressive and amped to make plays!!’
        At 3-3, loser of super close games and #1 in penalities, the clowns say, ‘So embarrassing, no discipline, zero coaching, these guys play like a rag-tag JV team in high school…’
        Seriously folks, how about 10 deep breaths and a look at the macro picture? Whit will hang w/Fuente, keep grooming JHam and get a high powered OC.

        1. phoenixhokie, I like the way you think. While Whit and others probably avoid this website and others as if it had the plague, I worry about the impression this and other sites give prospective recruits and the current players. “Hey Dax, you really got trashed on TechSideLine. Anyone who posts a negative comment about a player on this site or any other site should be willing to meet that player in the parking lot and repeat their insult.

  7. Our two starting linebackers are a detriment to the defense. The wouldn’t start on any other P5 team. They are lost and clueless. They get swallowed up in the wrong gap every single play. If we had two competent LBs, this defense would be vastly improved. It’s embarrassing to watch them honestly.

    1. Our two starting linebackers are a detriment to the defense. >>>>

      EXACTLY. You’ve got to have 11 players on D. Duh. Neither LB has any football instincts. JH can’t coach that. On one of the SU QB’s TD runs – Dax was 10 yards away in the backfield – by himself – looking bewildered as the QB ran thru the spot at EXACTLY where he lined up before the snap.

    2. Bingo. They can’t tackle, miss run fits. 3 guys on the second TD run all filled the same gap and left the B gap vacant. Is that coaching or ability? I think it lies somewhere in the middle. There’s a culture change that’s needed.

  8. Nobody seems to remember 1992 when Tech went 2-8-1 and Beamer could have been fired. They were always on the edge of winning it seemed but couldn’t quite get it done. Looks like this another year where we are just on the cusp but can’t quite it done. But in 1993, everything turned around.

    As said in the article we could be 6-1. These players put their heart and soul into the game. They work out and practice constantly. The coaching staff are no dummies. Whose fault is it they are losing? Probably everyone can share blame, except those who come on here and criticize. Easy enough to do when you have no skin in the game except watching and ranting, and maybe attending the game.

    1. Nobody seems to remember 1992 when Tech went 2-8-1 and Beamer could have been fired. >>>>

      Snatched quite a few defeats from the jaws of victory. Lots of similarities. Good reminders for the faithful.

    2. Pretty hard to say that no one remembers how bad 1992 was when it’s literally the origin story (complete with the protagonist starting down in the dumps with the world set against him) of the best football coach Virginia Tech ever had, and among the best to ever coach the game anywhere.

    3. Let’s also not forget that Beamer saved his job after 1992 by replacing his offensive and defensive coordinators.

    4. I get tired of the statement “they put their heart and soul in the game” or “they play hard”. It’s D1 football, 99% of players on all teams play hard. It’s what organizations and sports teams say when they don’t know how to fix their problems.

    5. Exactly … i have a feeling those that who protest the loudest were at best shitting in their diapers in 1992. I attended my first Va Tech game in September 1968, we lost to Alabama at home in the opener. I only bet on Va Tech in one game. I was in Las Vegas at the time on vacation and thought what the heck. I love watching the games. In 53 years the love of the games has never faded and probably will not right up to the day I die. I am just glad the guys who belly ache the most on here did not serve with me in the Navy aboard ship. As soon as it gets a little intense, and it did several times, you guys would be singing the chorus of “We’re Going to Die”. Had you been aboard my ship when we had a collision with another US ship you would have shit your pants and your bed.

      1. Reston Hokie-the Bama Game was 1969-they had Johnny Musso, 17-13. If Yer gonna run your Yap-get your story straight-cause I was there. Fuente just hasn’t worked out-that’s the bottom line. Save your navy stories for your Boy Scout troop, CPO.

  9. David, if you are going to say, matter of factly, Fuente has lost major donors, you really need to support that some how. What’s the source? You may well be right, but a statement that specific should be backed up. Just some free advice.

    1. At the top of the paragraph it says, “Rumors continue to swirl…” I feel like that adequately sums up the phrase. He’s an excellent beat writer who gets the minutiae. No source required on rumors.

      1. Sorry, but saying definitively “he HAS lost”…based on swirling rumors is having it both ways. One is reporting; the other is gossip without any attribution unless you can at least provide the nature of the source.

        1. Oh ffs, this isn’t the Washington Post or New York Times. Anyone with a functioning brain stem knows he has lost the majority of the fanbase, some of which undoubtedly includes some major donors. He didn’t claim those donors would be withholding money but obviously there is little contidence in Fuente as a coach to right this ship. He’s had 6 years. His team is entirely assembled by him. He owns this mess. A nice guy? No doubt. The right coach for VT? Nope. Time to rip off this bandaid.

          1. Again Exit37 where is you proof. It was a great crowd and they seemed energetic enough. Maybe you should exit stage right

          2. The WaPo and NYT are actually far worse when it comes to treating rumor, innuendo, wishful thinking, and anonymous/mischaracterized sources as reporting.

            That doesn’t make it good journalism – and excusing it (or worse, not recognizing it or even cheering it when it fits a narrative) is a big part of the problem.

            When I was reading the article, I thought “whoa, that’s news”. Then I kept reading and eventually realized it wasn’t substantiated in any way.

    2. Bugle76, I agree with you. I’ve been wondering what the big contributors are thinking (clearly I’m not one) because they are going to have to pay the buyout. My guess is our age is showing in this thinking.

    3. Rumors are easy to start and difficult to quell. The rumor very easily could have started on here or other websites. The really big donors are in it for the long haul. There is an old old navy saying … lose lips sink ships.

    1. Let’s see – that’ll be J. Fuente as HC. He’s going nowhere.
      Agree on the critique of this article too. Boo birds don’t mean you’ve lost the fanbase. No attribution to that at all. Give us sources, quotes, quotes from unidentified sources – SOMETHING- with meat. I mean … Beamer was boo’ed in the 10-win season era when the O stunk up the field. Fan IS short for fanATIC

      1. Ok, how’s this. I’m a season ticket holder, and it’s hard to round up people to go to games with you. I know quite a few others who have the same issue. We are all considering not buying season tickets next year. Check on Stubhub, and see how cheap you can buy tickets these days.

        1. P.S. David has it right. The “Boobirds” you refer too at the end of the game IS the fan base I have no problem with what he’s saying.

        2. Well if you are not buying season tickets next year then that gives me, and other, a chance to own 4. I have come into a great deal of money. Anyone know of there are any booths available?

      2. Neither is Badcock going anywhere. He is here until 2029. What is the real story behind that?

    1. Fuente’s salary is good for around 40th across college football head coaches. I wish people would stop throwing that # out there like it’s some crazy-high figure. It’s market rate for a P5 coach. It’s not like we’d suddenly be happy with his / the team’s performance if he were being paid $1.25 million

      1. Good Point……I definitely would still be disgusted with 3-4 and not any happier.

        We probably need to pay more if we want more than $4.2M….and not just to the head coach.

  10. Get the kick into the end zone and the long return doesn’t happen. More time off of the clock and more likely a win.

    Our last possession, I understand trying to put the game away, but run on third down and take another 40 seconds off of the clock and more likely a win.

    1. It was effectively a run – albeit for a loss. I’m sure he was told to throw it if it’s a high percentage attempt, but otherwise do not throw it away.

    2. Clock did run but I hated the pocket drop back. Should’ve been a sprint right with BB3 having a run option. Also would’ve saved us 10 yds at least

  11. I’m not sure where VT goes from here, but inconsistency in anything is the result of not being prepared and in football it’s usually where poor recruiting tends to have an impact. Hopefully the players can move as one together and somehow pull out of this slump, but it’s going to take a tremendous amount of work. Go Hokies

  12. David,
    You have the years switched on the UVA and UNC games. The 6OT game against UNC was 2019. We played at UVA in 2019 and lost. We beat them to finish 2020 at home

  13. Nice piece, David. One reason why we are struggling more-so in close games?? Our players are not good enough relative to theirs at the end. This was not true a few years ago, and hence why it is more prevalent now. In close games, the teams with more play-makers win out a significant amount of the time, I would think. We have very few play-makers.

    Seeing Brion Murray try to make plays in the secondary is tough to watch. One of the worst secondary guys I can recall getting significant P/T in 20+ years. Dorian Strong did not have a good day but he is a good player that will get better over time. Credit to Syracuse, their QB is a beast.

    Parting shot. Can CC do some stats on LB’s like Dax and tell us if he is the lowest “solo” tackling LB in his 4 years of starting? The only plays he makes are tipped INT’s.

    1. You didn’t see Dax today level the runner with a hard, vicious hit. You must want to see what you want to. Lay off of the players and put the blame where it needs to go-the Coaches.

      1. One play doesn’t make up for an entire game of missed assignments and just getting a huddled out of the play in general time after time.

        1. If you’ve got an axe to grind, maybe save it for the multi-millionaire who continues to fail to meet even lowered expectations instead of a kid. Instead of slamming Dax, maybe ask yourself why he is the best middle linebacker we have. If you feel that he’s not good enough, isn’t it on the coaches to help him improve or recruit/develop a superior replacement? No matter which way you slice it the failures of this team are on the coaches, leave the players alone.

      2. In my thinking, Dax is probably not playing “football” because the Targeting Penalty potential is too great anymore. Put a vicious “good football tackle” on anybody anymore and some buffoon in the broadcast booth or in the replay booth will stop play and you have probably a 50% or higher possibility of getting ejected! Tell me that doesn’t weigh on practically every hit!

    2. The problem is that the games are close in the first place. Long-term win expectancy of games decided by less than 1 touchdown is about 50%. In individual years teams may slightly over/underperform this target by a game or two, but it always evens out over multiple years. Virginia Tech is in a position to lose these games at the last minute because they too often to fail to extend leads earlier in games even after forcing 3-and-outs, or getting good field position, etc.

      1. Exactly! They or the staff lack the “killer instinct” and rarely put a team away early. That’s why we use the term “playing down to your competition” and “keeping them in the game” to indicate our inability to “put em away” regardless of who’s favored. We will sometimes score a couple TDs and grab an early lead and then seem to go braindead until the other team catches up or roars past us. This has been a frustrating fact for years. Even CFB got wrapped up in the “good sportsmanship angle” and not run up scores. VT has rarely scored 50-60-70 points in a game against inferior competition even during CFB’s tenure. Do we see other schools doing this? Heck no, they pile on the woodshed beating as high as they can. It also offers them the opportunity to put in backups and get them the experience they need to develop for when it’s “their turn!”

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