Virginia Tech’s offense was so bad during the first half Saturday that at one point, after a pro-Hokies crowd of 46,026 had showered the Hokies with boos, a collection of fans was resigned to meekly chanting, “We want a first down.”
It took Virginia Tech 25 minutes (and six three-and-outs) to answer their call, perpetuating a season-long issue for the Hokies. And, perhaps more so than a defense that buckled in crunch time, another slow start paved the way for a heartbreaking 27-24 loss to Cincinnati at FedEx Field.
By the time the first half ended, Virginia Tech had mustered just 72 yards and two first downs, the least amount of times the Hokies have moved the chains before halftime since a triple-overtime loss to Syracuse in 1996. Virginia Tech led 7-6 heading into the second half, but considering its defense forced two turnovers, the Hokies missed out on a chance to open up a commanding lead.
Through five games, Virginia Tech has now scored just 14 points in the first quarter and is averaging less than 15 yards on its 18 first-quarter drives this year.
“Can’t point any fingers but we’ve got to figure it out soon,” quarterback Logan Thomas said after the game.
Wide receiver Marcus Davis called the issues “troubling,” and the focus among fans has centered on play-caller Mike O’Cain and offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring. Two games in a row now, it appears the Hokies were caught off guard early in the game by the opposing defense and the offensive coaches struggled to adjust quickly.
Against Bowling Green, Thomas and company managed in spite of that. Facing a Cincinnati team that went 10-3 last year, they weren’t as lucky. O’Cain said the team was hamstrung by poor field position and admitted to being more conservative and calling more screens than usual because of the Bearcats’ powerful defensive line.
Thomas said starting drives deep in Virginia Tech’s own end “limited the playbook.”
“It’s kind of hard to get things going and we didn’t do anything to get ourselves out of there,” O’Cain said. “Until you get a few plays, you don’t really know what they’re doing. We just never could get anything going.”
A strong finish to the fourth quarter, including an on-the-money 50-yard bomb from Thomas to Davis and a 56-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Corey Fuller, was encouraging for Coach Frank Beamer.
He also was pleased that redshirt freshman Michael Holmes seemed to get on track after he gained 48 yards and scored a touchdown on one fourth-quarter drive. He mostly stressed the positives on an afternoon when the Hokies gained 402 yards.
But it couldn’t mask the inconsistencies that have plagued Virginia Tech’s offense this year. Thomas again looked less than stellar, throwing two interceptions and failing to target a wide-open Davis a few times. And no Hokies tailback has rushed for more than 100 yards in a game, the first time since 2007 they’ve gone this late in the season without doing so.
That set the stage for the 39-yard touchdown pass that allowed Cincinnati to escape with a victory. It was the finishing touch to another frustrating afternoon, even if the statistics say this was Virginia Tech’s second-best game of the season in terms of production.
“You always see it on TV or you see it in a movie and you never want to be that team,” Davis said of his emotions following that game-winning score. “That feeling inside you is unreal, but it happens. . . . They just made one more play than we did.”
***We would be remiss without re-visiting Virginia Tech’s secondary play in this space. The lack of quality depth in the defensive backfield had long been one of Bud Foster’s biggest worries and on Saturday it was exposed.
Playing their nickel package much of the afternoon, the Hokies were burned repeatedly by Cincinnati’s athletes in space. Cornerback Antone Exum committed four major penalties (two face masks and two pass interferences) and was the primary defender as Bearcats wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins racked up seven catches and 134 yards.
Redshirt freshman Michael Cole, who played safety when redshirt sophomore Detrick Bonner moved to cornerback in nickel situations, had a blown assignment that left running back Ralph David Abernathy wide open for a 76-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. Freshman cornerback Donaldven Manning also allowed a 29-yard touchdown pass to Thompkins with junior Kyle Fuller on the sideline with cramps.
Fuller, a preseason all-ACC selection, wasn’t immune either. He allowed Cincinnati wide receiver Damon Julien to get behind him on the game-winning 39-yard touchdown pass.
Bearcats quarterback Munchie Legaux finished the afternoon with 376 passing yards, and Cincinnati had 392 yards through the air as a team (They picked up 16 yards on an unsuccessful fake field goal in the first half). It’s the most passing yards the Hokies have allowed since Cal’s Aaron Rodgers torched them for 394 yards in the 2003 Insight Bowl.
When that happened, defensive coordinator Bud Foster made wholesale offseason adjustments to his scheme to compensate for the new wave of spread offenses. With few alternatives to turn to this year, though, it remains to be seen how he’ll respond to Saturday’s meltdown.
***On the injury front, left guard David Wang did not play Saturday due to the ankle injury he suffered at Pittsburgh. Wang had been listed as probable. In his place, the Hokies started the game with Michael Via at left guard and redshirt sophomore Matt Arkema at right guard. Redshirt sophomore Brent Benedict also received a significant amount of snaps.