Monday, September 17, 2012

Hokies Smashed by Pittsburgh, But Not "Upset"

Virginia Tech was absolutely dominated by the Pittsburgh Panthers Saturday, a team that entered the game with an 0-2 record that included a loss to Youngstown State of the FCS.

To say the No. 13 Hokies were upset would be incorrect. That implies that the result is unexpected or even unprecedented, neither of which is true.

Losing football games to "inferior" opponents has become an unnervingly consistent part of Virginia Tech football. If it isn't Pittsburgh, it's James Madison or East Carolina upending Tech in early season match ups.

True there's still the ACC title to aim for as these are almost always non-conference missteps, but after seeing the Hokies completely outclassed on both sides of the line of scrimmage against Pitt, one can't help but be pessimistic about the odds of Tech beating Florida State or Clemson.

The Hokies currently have no offensive identity whatsoever. The much ballyhooed pistol formation has been a total flop. The running game has been completely nonexistent and each game has been a blur of formations and personnel swaps.

No one has rushed for more than 54 yards in a game—Michael Holmes in the opener against Georgia Tech—and the last two games have seen the leading rusher come in the form of a wide receiver and a quarterback.

That leaves the Hokies currently ranked 96th in the nation in rushing offense. Bad news for a program known for running the football.

Pitt freshman Rushel Shell (4) gashed Tech for 157 rushing yards
This is bad, but even worse given the total regression of quarterback Logan Thomas.

Thomas has struggled this season save for his fourth quarter performance against Georgia Tech. The Pitt game however was his worst game as a starter, missing basic throws, open receivers and getting rattled in a half-empty stadium.

One has to wonder exactly what if any tinkering went on at quarterback "guru" George Whitfield's passing workouts this past spring, but Thomas is just not the same QB from last season.

His throws are consistently missing high not surprisingly his completion percentage has dropped and two of his career-high interceptions against the Panthers were not even close to receivers.

The pressure of being a pre-season Heisman candidate and having to carry the entire offense may well be a factor, but something seems a bit off in his mechanics.

So time for solutions.

Tech needs to simplify on offense. They're trying to do too many things without perfecting any. The pistol formation was supposed to signify the Hokies modernizing the offense, but the philosophy remained the same.

The Frank Beamer recipe for success is simple, control the clock by holding the ball on offense, don't make mistakes on special teams, score what you can and play suffocating defense to eek out victories.

This works well, but Tech can't control the clock. Currently, they rank 111th in time of possession and 70th in turnover margin with a mark of -.33.

The pass protection has been pretty solid so keep throwing, but the Hokies need fewer formations.

Tech almost always looks great in the two-minute offense because it limits the play-calling to the top handful of plays. Expand on that a bit and toss the rest. Just because you have a ton of plays and looks doesn't mean the defense will be confused by your "complicated" offense.

The Hokies need to start Martin Scales at tailback because he is the most decisive runner and most likely to hit the holes in Tech's zone blocking scheme.

The lack of depth on defense was exposed against Pittsburgh after injuries forced a major shuffle in the secondary.

There's not much you can do about that, but I suspect Bud Foster has more than just injuries to deal with after his defense allowed 537 yards of total offense to a Pitt squad that scored more points against the Hokies (35) than they did against Cincinnati and Youngstown State combined (27).

In one more negative sidebar, it occurred to me after Saturday's thumping at Heinz Field that Tech seems to lose an awful lot in professional stadiums.

I did some digging and sure enough, since 2000, the Hokies are just 9-15 in such games.

I don't think there's a particular trend to read into there but it is slightly worrisome for a team poised to face a game Cincinnati club at FedEx Field in two weeks, a place where Tech is 0-2.

The good news getting back to my original point is this is nothing new for the Hokies. They've lost early in the season many times, including the last FedEx game against Boise State and the ensuing disaster of James Madison.

Tech usually rallies and finishes strong, but this season may be the biggest challenge yet.

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