The Virginia Tech football team suffered what might seem like a disheartening 42-12 loss in the Sun Bowl to the UCLA Bruins, but the game was still valuable for some of the lessons it can teach the team’s coaching staff headed into 2014.
The loss certainly looked ugly to the casual observer, and once quarterback Logan Thomas left the game after the crushing illegal hit he suffered, things were pretty much over for the Hokies.
But that doesn’t mean that the game was a complete disaster, or that it’s some sort of program altering result, as some fans and members of the media have suggested.
Instead, the game merely served to offer some important clues about what the coaches will need to fix in the offseason and what they should leave untouched.
Leal Has Plenty Left to Learn
Before Thomas left the game in the second quarter, the Hokies were very much in this game.
The score was tied at seven, and although the defense had given up some big plays and committed some costly penalties, the team seemed fired up.
Then Thomas went out, forcing redshirt junior Mark Leal into the spotlight, and things quickly went awry.
Even though Leal had likely gotten more reps in practice in the month leading up to the bowl game, there was still no way he could possibly be entirely prepared to take on UCLA’s formidable defense after attempting four passes all year.
Despite completing just 12 of his 25 passes, Leal still showed some good things.
He did get sacked three times, but he showed good awareness in the pocket, and although he didn’t necessarily seem like a threat to run, he still moved nimbly behind the line of scrimmage.
His accuracy wasn’t phenomenal, but he did have some nice throws, including this throw to the back of the end zone that should have been a touchdown had D.J. Coles not dropped it.
However, for spending four years with the program, he still made some mistakes that should be a little concerning.
His interceptions were particularly ugly. The first was truly egregious, as he managed to heave the ball into a mass of defenders as he was about to be sacked, leading to a defensive score.
You’d hope that a veteran quarterback would recognize just how disastrous making a move like that can be, even if they’ve only been watching from the bench. After all, he’s had plenty of chances to watch Thomas do the same with similarly terrible results.
But for all of his issues, it seems like Leal has a complete vote of confidence from the staff headed into the season.
“Mark’s the next guy in line here,” Frank Beamer told The Washington Post. “He had a couple tough throws. He’ll learn from that. . . . That’s not a great situation for your backup guy to step into. But I’ve got a lot of confidence in Mark. I’ve seen him in practice too many times.”
However, that complete confidence doesn’t entirely seem earned when you consider the depth the team has at quarterback headed into 2014.
So while Leal probably deserves to be the one getting starter’s reps headed into spring practice, it doesn’t seem wise to unilaterally declare him the team’s quarterback of the future.
Ford will be enrolling in January, and it would really behoove Beamer and company to make this a full competition to truly see what the team has here.
Leal’s performance wasn’t bad enough to eliminate him from contention, especially given the circumstances, but he also didn’t perform so well that he should be beyond reproach.
Instead, the Hokies need to take a good long look at the position and take their time to decide who will be the next starter at quarterback.
Stopping the QB Run
Prior to the game, it was abundantly clear the Hokies needed to find a way to contain UCLA’s Brett Hundley when he tucked the ball and ran, and they just couldn’t do it.
Hundley gashed the Hokies for 161 yards and two touchdowns on just 10 carries, with no run more backbreaking than this 86-yard score that came immediately on the heels of Thomas’ injury.
Tech’s front seven actually got a really good push on the play; in fact, four different defenders were in the backfield, collapsing the pocket around Hundley.
But, as has happened so often this season, the defensive line got too aggressive and overpursued, leaving the secondary vulnerable with their man coverage assignments.
It’s a weakness in Bud Foster’s scheme that teams like the Marshall Thundering Herd and Maryland Terrapins have exploited to great success this season, and now that there’s tape on this deficiency, there’s little doubt other opponents will try to do the same.
Foster last made major adjustments to his scheme when the defense got scorched by Aaron Rodgers and California’s dynamic passing attack, and it sure seems like things are ripe for another change.
Mobile quarterbacks are the wave of the future in college football, and with teams that like to run spread offenses like the East Carolina Pirates and Ohio State Buckeyes on the schedule in 2014, Foster will need to make some kind of adjustment this offseason.
The wily defensive coordinator even seemed to figure out how to keep Hundley in the pocket in the second half; he carried the ball just twice for four yards in the second half. But by then, the damage had been done, and poor tackling on the perimeter undermined his efforts.
Foster will be losing seven starters from this excellent unit in 2014, and it’s abundantly clear that he’ll have to tweak his scheme if he wants to keep it competitive going forward.
No Staff Changes Necessary
Any big loss will prompt negative reactions, and perhaps rightly so.
But there’s been a lot of chatter in the media about this bowl loss somehow represented the loss of Tech’s identity as a physical team or that the days should be numbered for Frank Beamer.
While the lopsided loss is embarrassing, attaching too much meaning to it is a generalization and a sign that people haven’t carefully examined the way the team’s performed the last few years.
Two years ago, this team was in the ACC Championship Game and lost the Sugar Bowl on an incredibly questionable call. These are exactly the types of goals that Beamer has always set for the program and held his players to.
Should the staff be aiming higher? Maybe. But making these last two years out to be a fall from grace is disingenuous.
Beamer has plenty left in the tank, and it would be stunning to see him go anywhere until at least the end of his contract in 2016.
And the final score doesn’t truly reflect what an excellent game the staff coached.
Not only were Foster’s halftime adjustments to contain Hundley brilliant, but offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler impressed with his game plan as well.
Without starting running back Trey Edmunds, Loeffler had to get creative to generate any sort of running game, and in the first half, that’s exactly what he did.
By both using fullback Jerome Wright on option plays and running wide receiver Carlis Parker on jet sweeps like this one, the offense ran for 113 yards in the first half alone.
It was a creative solution to a complicated problem, and although the team had to largely abandon the running game as UCLA’s lead grew larger, it still represents ingenuity on Loeffler’s part.
Combined with the staff’s recruiting staff, it seems more and more like Beamer made the right decision when he hired the new batch of offensive coaches last offseason and far from needing a change at the top, the program seems to be in good hands.
But one constant is Beamer’s excellence, and while the team may need some changes to ascend to the very top of the college football world, the Hokies are doing just fine for now.
There are some big questions heading into 2014, but this bowl game served to perfectly illuminate them and make the way forward very clear.
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