Happy New Year! I hope all of our readers here at TSL had a splendid holiday season and are off to the new year on the right foot.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Virginia Tech football. The Hokies fell short vs. Oklahoma State in the Camping World Bowl, losing 30-21 to the Cowboys. In the end, Virginia Tech’s mistakes proved too costly. In this week’s game notes, we’ll address those mistakes and look at some of the other storylines from the Hokies’ bowl game defeat.
McClease leads successful running game
Virginia Tech’s rushing attack carried the load vs. Oklahoma State, finishing with 248 yards on the ground. That total is their highest output since Sept. 23, when the Hokies ran for 271 yards vs. Old Dominion. Deshawn McClease racked up 124 rushing yards, his highest total of the season, while Steven Peoples added 56 yards.
“Well mostly, it was the inside zone,” said head coach Justin Fuente. “I thought Deshawn did a really good job of cutting it back when it needed to be cut back, and bouncing it out the front a couple times when it all collapsed. I thought we handled the line of scrimmage fairly well, but I thought the backs did a really good job. All three of them really.”
“Practice. It started in practice all week,” McClease said. “We ran the ball a lot in practice. Coach overemphasized what we were going to do out here. Just the O-line, they did a great job. The tight ends did a great job, they made our job easier. I just went out there and did what I was supposed to do.”
The Hokies’ rushing attack was pivotal in their gameplan against the Cowboys. Virginia Tech planned on grounding and pounding Oklahoma State into submission, while winning the time of possession battle and keeping the Cowboys’ third-ranked scoring offense on the sideline.
“Yeah, that’s what we went into the game thinking,” Josh Jackson said. “We would run the ball, try and impose our will on them and that’s what we tried to do.”
Not only did Tech run all over the Oklahoma State defense, they controlled the clock. Virginia Tech held possession for 38:13, their second-highest time of possession total of the season.
Mistakes, turnovers derail otherwise successful gameplan
If I had told you Virginia Tech would average five yards per rush, and would win the time of possession battle by nearly 17 minutes, you would have thought that the Hokies would be in the game until the end. However, that wasn’t the case. Virginia Tech turned the ball over twice, and trailed by two scores on their final drive.
The mistakes mounted for Virginia Tech, starting in the second quarter and continuing throughout the game.
On Tech’s first drive in the second quarter, the Hokies had a chance to extend their 7-3 lead. Virginia Tech had a first-and-goal opportunity from the 1-yard-line, and fumbled away their scoring opportunity. Quarterback Josh Jackson and running back Steven Peoples fumbled on a handoff exchange, and Oklahoma State recovered.
After allowing a field goal, Virginia Tech’s offense drove to midfield before being forced to punt. Freshman Oscar Bradburn, who averaged 42.4 yards per punt in 2017, hit a 27-yard punt to give up a field position advantage.
Right before halftime, Virginia Tech had 45 seconds to cut into Oklahoma State’s 13-7 lead. After a 15-yard run by McClease, Jackson overthrew receiver Henri Murphy, who was able to take the top off of the Cowboys’ defense. If Jackson had hit Murphy, he would have walked into the end zone. Sure enough, the Hokies finished the first half without adding any points.
After cutting Oklahoma State’s lead to 20-14 in the third quarter, the Hokies’ defense gave up the first big play of the night. Biletnikoff Award winner James Washington caught a 65-yard touchdown pass, putting the Hokies’ down 13 points yet again.
The start of the fourth quarter brought more misfortune. Virginia Tech faced a fourth-and-eight from Oklahoma State’s 11-yard-line, and head coach Justin Fuente decided to go for it. The play failed, as Eric Gallo’s snap went past Jackson. The Cowboys recovered, seemingly ending the Hokies’ chances to win.
Tech’s defense would bow their necks and force a turnover on downs, but another turnover doomed the Hokies. Jackson threw a pass to Phil Patterson that was slightly off target, and Patterson wasn’t able to haul it in. The ball bounced off of Patterson’s hands, and was intercepted by Darius Curry. It was Tech’s second turnover of the night.
Virginia Tech forced another turnover on downs following the turnover, and the Hokies cut State’s lead to 27-21 in the fourth. Down 27-21, Virginia Tech’s defense then forced a third-and-11 with time running out in the fourth, and had a chance to give their offense one more chance. Instead, Oklahoma State’s Justice Hill ran for 31 yards deep into Virginia Tech territory, allowing Oklahoma State to kick a field goal and extend their lead to 30-21 with roughly two-and-a-half minutes left.
All of these mistakes ruined an otherwise perfectly executed gameplan, and those mistakes left Virginia Tech wondering what could have been.
“We can’t shoot ourselves in the foot,” McClease said. “That’s a great team, especially on offense. Like I said, we made a lot of mistakes. Well not a lot, but we made a few mistakes that were costly and they really didn’t make any.”
“If we could have held them under 30, I felt like we would win the football game. And we didn’t hold them under 30, they got 30,” said defensive coordinator Bud Foster. “I think we might have held them to the second least amount of points they’ve had all year, but like I said, we didn’t capitalize on a couple of opportunities and gave up a couple plays, and that was the difference in the football game.”
Coaches, veterans impressed with play from young Hokies
Virginia Tech’s loss marks the end of the careers for several Hokies. Fourteen players on Virginia Tech’s roster have exhausted their eligibility, while underclassmen Tremaine Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds and Tim Settle are all candidates to declare for the NFL Draft. Among those players not returning for 2017 is senior linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka, who started 42 games for Virginia Tech.
“Just a whole bunch of mixed emotions,” Motuapuaka said. “It was tough, taking off that jersey, seeing the guys’ faces, young guys and old guys. Just seeing how much, I guess, the seniors meant to them. Seeing the young guys crying and stuff like that. It kind of hit home with me. We’re all family, and we’ll be brothers for life.”
“I’m disappointed for our seniors, who’ve been a great group of leaders for us, and have done a great job with the transition of the new staff, and have really risen to change this program back to what Virginia Tech fans like to see and what we’ve done and where the future is going,” Foster said. “But these guys were great examples to their teammates, great representatives of this program and the institution, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Despite players like Motuapuaka, Greg Stroman and Cam Phillips leaving Blacksburg, Virginia Tech remains confident in their returning players. McClease, a redshirt sophomore, has run for 70 yards or more in his last three games. Sophomore Eric Kumah caught five passes for 72 yards and a touchdown. Redshirt freshman Phil Patterson caught seven passes for 59 yards. Sophomore Reggie Floyd led Virginia Tech in tackles with 6.5, and redshirt sophomore Houshun Gaines registered two tackles for loss and a sack.
“I saw a lot of great things out there today, especially from younger guys, like wide receiver,” McClease said. “I’m looking forward to getting back out there, getting back in the lab and getting better.”
“I think the young guys know, they see what it takes,” Motuapuaka said. “They see how hard we work, speaking like seniors, and I think the future is still bright. There’s a lot of hungry guys in there, just waiting for their opportunity, and I think they’ll be fine. We’re just part of the building blocks. It was eventually going to have to come to an end, and it’s kind of sad that we went out that way, but we can still use it as something we can learn from.”
Among those returners is Jackson, a redshirt freshman quarterback who’s play down the stretch has come under heavy criticism. Jackson got off to a hot start in 2017, throwing 11 touchdowns and one interception in the first four games of the year. Since Sept. 23, Jackson has thrown just nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. Jackson suffered multiple injuries vs. Miami on Nov. 4, and played with an injured shoulder and elbow for the last four games of the season.
After Thursday’s loss to Oklahoma State, Jackson was unsure on his level of play in year one.
“First year? Nine and four, but I hopefully got better as the season went on. But a lot for me to get better on,” Jackson said.
One thing is for certain — head coach Justin Fuente has confidence in his quarterback. Despite Jackson’s uneven play in recent weeks, Fuente believes Jackson still gives the Hokies their best chance to win.
“I think off the cuff, I would say at times he made a lot of plays. He competed his tail off, he was tough,” Fuente said. “He absolutely, right now, gives us the best chance to win. There’s probably a couple plays out there that he wishes he had back or had made, but there’s a lot of plays he did make out there too.”
However, if Jackson wants to keep the starting job, he’ll have to fend off a few challengers. Hendon Hooker redshirted this season, and was a competitor for the starting job in fall camp. AJ Bush is expected to return for his redshirt senior season, and Ryan Willis will be eligible to play for the Hokies for the first time since transferring this offseason. No matter what happens, the position should only get better in the future.