Virginia Tech owned the first quarter Saturday at Clemson. The Hokies sacked Tajh Boyd twice on the opening possession and promptly scored on Logan Thomas’ touchdown pass to Corey Fuller. Michael Cole intercepted Boyd on the next series, and Thomas subsequently drove Tech into the red zone.
A 14-0 lead at Death Valley? There’s no telling how the Hokies, or the Tigers and their home crowd for that matter, would have responded.
Then came the one play, and the thinking behind it, that embodies Tech’s season to date.
After a methodical drive from their own 13, the Hokies faced fourth-and-a-long-1 from Clemson’s 18. To go or not to go? With an injured player on the field, Tech coach Frank Beamer had plenty of time to answer the question.
Based on my Twitter feed, I’d say fans were split. I leaned toward kicking, to secure points and a two-score lead.
Beamer’s nature is the same. His history said that he’d kick — Cody Journell hasn’t missed since his first attempt of the season — and rely on his defense.
Except this isn’t an ordinary season for the Hokies, and the Tigers are not an ordinary opponent.
Fact is, two early stops notwithstanding, Beamer had little reason to believe Tech, over four quarters, would slow Clemson’s spread.
The evidence was North Carolina. Two weeks earlier, the Hokies had limited the Tar Heels’ spread to zero yards and first downs in their first three possessions. Carolina’s next three drives netted 59, 86 and 76 yards, and three touchdowns.
Tech lost 48-34, the most points it has ever allowed in an ACC game. A repeat against Clemson, which has more weapons than UNC, was a distinct possibility.
“You kind of get out of your rhythm a little bit because you’re playing a team that can score points in a hurry,” quarterbacks coach and play-caller Mike O’Cain said of Clemson. “Probably, normally in that situation, we kick a field goal right there.”
Beamer elected otherwise.
Now on most fourth-and-1s, the Hokies are going to run the 6-foot-6, 262-pound Thomas on a sneak. He is not only a tank but also their most reliable rusher.
But on a third-and-1 earlier, Clemson end Corey Crawford had stuffed Thomas for a yard loss. So O’Cain went elsewhere, running freshman Michael Holmes off left tackle.
Holmes’ per-carry average ranks fourth among Tech’s four tailbacks, and at 208 pounds, he’s 18 pounds shy of teammate Martin Scales. So he was a peculiar choice — that likely falls on running backs coach Shane Beamer — especially since he’d gained just a yard on third-and-2, and especially since Scales had netted 5 yards on an earlier third-and-1.
Crawford and linebacker Corico Wright stopped Holmes for no gain.
And there you have the Hokies’ 4-4 season in capsule. They are capable of challenging quality opponents, but at key moments haven’t coached or played well enough, or confidently enough, in all phases.
Beamer wasn’t confident enough in his normally dependable defense to kick on fourth-and-1. And the offensive line, tailback and coaching wasn’t good enough to convert and extend the drive.
Clemson took over at its 18 and drove to a field goal. In the second quarter, Tech committed three turnovers, two of which the Tigers converted into touchdowns and a 17-7 lead.
The game had turned inexorably. The Hokies lost 38-17.
“I think in the end, it gets down to about four, five, six plays,” Frank Beamer said.
None was bigger, or more symbolic, than fourth-and-1.
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