Virginia Tech beats Virginia: Five observations on the Commonwealth Cup


Virginia Tech and Coach Frank Beamer notched yet another win over Virginia. (Steve Helber/AP)
November 30, 2013

Virginia Tech is bringing the Commonwealth Cup back to Blacksburg. Virginia, meanwhile, trudges into the offseason in the midst of a nine-game losing streak few in the program saw coming. What else happened Saturday, besides fights, field goals and some foolish red zone play calls? Here are five observations from the Hokies’ 16-6 win over the Cavaliers.

1) Virginia Tech’s bowl destination is still unclear.

Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer claimed he wasn’t aware the Hokies wouldn’t be going to the ACC championship game until he walked into the visiting locker room at Scott Stadium and asked someone about the result of Saturday’s Duke-North Carolina game.

But most of his players knew the Blue Devils had escaped with a 27-25 victory — and won the ACC’s Coastal Division — about 20 minutes before kickoff against Virginia. It means Virginia Tech’s next game will be its bowl game, although exactly where the Hokies are headed remains to be seen.

Depending on whether No. 2 Florida State plays in the Bowl Championship Series title game and if Clemson earns an at-large berth to a BCS Bowl, the Hokies could very well be in contention for five bowl games: The Chick-fil-A Bowl (Atlanta), the Russell Athletic Bowl (Orlando), the Sun Bowl (El Paso), the Belk Bowl (Charlotte) and the Music City Bowl (Nashville).

Things to consider in the coming days: If Clemson doesn’t earn a BCS bid, would the Chick-fil-A Bowl want the Tigers in Atlanta a second year in a row? Would the Russell Athletic Bowl bring the Hokies back to Orlando? How intriguing are Miami and Duke, teams that have nice back stories but questionable fan support, to prospective bowl games?

If this beat writer had to guess, though, there’s a decent chance Virginia Tech returns to the Sun Bowl for the first time since 1947.

When asked after Saturday’s game what bowl he’d like to go to, senior quarterback Logan Thomas simply said, “Somewhere warm.” When asked about El Paso, he responded, “Not that warm.”

Obviously, Thomas didn’t realize the low in El Paso on Saturday was 47 degrees. The bowl picture likely won’t crystallize until after next weekend, when all the conference championship games are complete and the BCS scenarios become clear.

2) It’s going to be a long offseason in Charlottesville

Coach Mike London’s job is safe for at least one more season. Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage has repeatedly said as much when questioned by reporters in recent weeks. But there’s no sugar-coating how little room for error London and his staff now have after finishing the worst season this program has seen in more than 30 years.

The Cavaliers finished with 10 losses for the first time since 1981.

“I don’t really have a lot of answers for it . . . 2-10 is not going to cut it,” tight end Jake McGee said. “Something is going to have to change for this not to roll into next year.”

So how will London and company navigate this offseason?

What will he say at alumni meetings, with a vocal portion of the fan base asking for him to be fired? Though London’s job is safe, doesn’t somebody have to take the fall for a campaign that ended in an historic slide? After hiring three new coordinators this past offseason, could London go a different direction considering it seemed to be of no help this year? What about next season, when Virginia’s nonconference schedule includes games at BYU and against UCLA to begin the year and London is looking at a bowl-or-bust campaign?

These are all long-term questions Virginia must ponder.

Perhaps more disheartening over the next week, though, is that London’s game-management skills again came into question Saturday. He essentially handed Virginia Tech its only touchdown with his late first-half decision to go for it on fourth and 11 at Virginia Tech’s 35-yard line rather than pin the Hokies deep with a punt.

It wasn’t necessarily the play call, either, although offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild’s vanilla attack needs some serious tweaking. The problem from this perspective is that London seemed to have little grasp about the coach he was matching wits against.

If Virginia Tech had started with the ball inside its own 20-yard-line with less than a minute remaining before halftime — and after a turnover on its previous possession, no less — there’s a good chance Hokies Coach Frank Beamer elects to kneel the ball and head to the locker room ahead 9-6.

Instead, London’s decision to go for it — which ended with quarterback David Watford sailing a pass over his intended receiver — gave Virginia Tech the field position to go for a late score. And when Thomas hit tailback Trey Edmunds for a 26-yard touchdown pass with 21 seconds left in the second quarter, any momentum the Cavaliers had disappeared.

“We have to address the things that cause us to lose games,” London said during his postgame news conference. “Players need to understand their position isn’t guaranteed next year. Coaches need to look at systems and schemes. . . . We have to get it right. We have to get it fixed.”

3) Virginia Tech’s offense still lacks a killer instinct, and losing Trey Edmunds won’t help.

The Hokies got to take the Commonwealth Cup back to Blacksburg again, but the postgame celebration hid the fact that their lackluster offense would have been a story line had they been facing better competition.

Virginia Tech gained 364 total yards Saturday against Virginia, but the Hokies were forced to settle for field goals despite moving the ball inside the Cavaliers’ 25-yard line on three of their first possessions. Virginia Tech was then held without a point in the second half, and went 4 of 14 on third-down conversions.

Aside from a few trick plays, it was essentially a repeat performance from the one the Hokies put forth against Maryland two weeks ago.

The bright spot for most of the day was running back Trey Edmunds, who “was having his best game since he came to Virginia Tech,” according to Beamer. He finished with 93 rushing yards.

But Edmunds went down on the first play of the fourth quarter with a right leg injury and limped off the field. Virginia Tech revealed after the game that the redshirt freshman suffered a broken tibia and will be out at least four to five months. Suffice it to say, he won’t play in the Hokies’ bowl game.

4) After 12 games, it appears David Watford is not the answer at quarterback for Virginia.

As Virginia backup quarterback Greyson Lambert tried to rally the Cavaliers back from a 16-6 deficit in the fourth quarter, former linebacker LaRoy Reynolds stood on the bench and yelled in the direction of his old coaches, “Put 5 back in the game.”

He was referencing sophomore David Watford, who was pulled late in the third quarter in favor of Lambert after another disappointing day. But while Reynolds may have been clamoring for his former teammate, it has become increasingly clear the Cavaliers don’t have a reliable quarterback of the future in the program right now.

Perhaps Lambert could be the answer since his late-season audition happened in such fits and starts, it’s hard to properly judge just how good he could be. But Watford had 12 games as Virginia’s starting quarterback, and if anything, he regressed as the season wore on.

Saturday was no different, as the Hampton native mixed moments of potential with several poor overthrows and missed reads. Virginia’s defense, which sacked Thomas five times — defensive end Eli Harold had three by himself — created 21 turnovers this year. The Cavaliers scored just 13 points off of them.

“If we can’t stay on the field, we can’t score points,” he said after finishing 13 of 23 for 122 yards.

Watford is unfailingly polite, and often takes too much of the blame. But that doesn’t make him an ACC-caliber quarterback and the statistics seem to back that up. He threw more interceptions than any signal-caller in the conference this year and Virginia averaged fewer yards per passing attempt than any team in the country.

Fairchild said earlier this week the offense this year wasn’t necessarily how he plans for it to look long term, but he won’t have any success until he finds a signal caller that can make his scheme work.

“All problems can be fixed,” Lambert said. “We’re going to go back to the drawing board and prepare like we never have before, and prepare so this never happens again.”

5) Torrian Gray might just ride his young cornerbacks to a promotion when it’s all said and done.

It seemed appropriate that on the same week Virginia Tech defensive backs coach Torrian Gray became one of just three non-coordinators to be nominated for this year’s Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach, Saturday’s game essentially ended when freshman cornerback Kendall Fuller corralled his sixth interception of the year in the fourth quarter.

The former All-Met Player of the Year finished with a team-high four pass-break ups to cap off a stellar rookie campaign in the college ranks. Combined with the rise of fellow freshman cornerback Brandon Facyson, who suffered a sprained AC joint in his shoulder, and the Hokies never missed a beat on the outside even though seniors Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum played just two snaps together this season due to injury.

Perhaps more importantly, it appears Virginia Tech is set at the position for years to come. And the notoriety both should receive could turn Gray, 39, into an attractive defensive coordinator candidate.

After all, this isn’t a one-year wonder. Just take a look at some of the other quality NFL defensive backs who played for Gray at Virginia Tech (Jayron Hosley, Roc Carmichael, Brandon Flowers and Kam Chancellor).

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