“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” —Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight
While not nearly as dramatic a subject matter, the message of Harvey Dent’s quote applies quite well to endgame scenarios for some of the most iconic college sports coaches. These men devote their entire adult lives to building a program, from struggling underdog to national powerhouse. Despite all of their in-game successes, these men have a particular weakness: they don’t know when it’s time to quit. Frequently, the game passes them by, with the legendary figures suddenly unable to adapt to new recruiting or coaching tactics. The last few years of their reign are painful, with their team falling into disarray. Once revered, they face scathing attacks and calls for their firing.
Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer appears to be stuck in such a downward spiral. Heading into Saturday’s matchup at Alumni Stadium against Boston College (3-5, 0-5 ACC), this iteration of the Hokies (3-5, 1-3 ACC) bears little resemblance to the powerful teams of Beamer’s past. After winning at least 10 games every season from 2004 to 2011, Beamer, coaching his 29th season in Blacksburg, Va., has sent out perhaps his most disappointing team in 2015. Not since 1992 has one of Beamer’s teams had just three victories this deep into the fall. He also seems out of touch with today’s recruiting practices. With the 69-year-old coach unable to adapt to the modern, 24/7 recruiting cycle, Virginia Tech’s talent level has fallen in recent seasons. The calls for Beamer’s head have poured in since the season-opening, 42-24 drubbing at the hands of Ohio State.
Even amid all the turmoil swirling around its coach, Virginia Tech should have enough talent to remain competitive against a reeling BC team, losers of four straight and owners of an offense that sports the worst offensive efficiency in the FBS, per Football Outsiders.
Last week against Duke, senior QB Michael Brewer returned for his first start since breaking his left collarbone in the OSU game. The gritty pocket passer provides a steady veteran presence at the helm of an offense that struggled at times during his absence. Redshirt junior Brenden Motley filled in admirably as the starter for six games, even boosting the ground game with his running ability, but threw seven interceptions and completed just 56 percent of his passes.
Brewer made an immediate connection with his 6-foot-7 tight end Bucky Hodges, throwing three touchdowns to the imposing red zone target. Virginia Tech also boasts sophomore receiver Isaiah Ford, who has amassed 564 yards and seven TDs this season, as a reliable target on the outside. While the running game hasn’t exactly struggled this season, averaging over 170 yards per game, it has risen to a new level recently with the emergence of freshman Travon McMillan. Over the last three games, McMillan has rushed for 337 yards and averaged a robust 6.02 yards per carry. With a full complement of players, the offense looked excellent in the 45-43 quadruple-OT loss to Duke. It showed a new ability to execute sustained drives, with three scoring drives of over 10 plays, including a touchdown drive that lasted 20 plays and almost 10 minutes. While such lengthy drives are not likely against BC, the Hokies should at least have elevated confidence in their offense’s sustainability.
The tandem of McMillan and Brewer figure to lead the offense on Saturday. Though BC allows just 1.9 yards per carry to opposing running backs, look for Beamer to stick with McMillan to build at least some semblance of an offensive balance. The run game will likely not be more than a diversion for the BC defense, with Brewer using the threat of runs to open up play action passing. These passes should create throws down the middle of the field to Hodges, who figures to generate mismatches against the Eagles’ man defense. Expect Brewer to focus on minimizing turnovers, accepting some short drives as opposed to gifting BC’s offense a short field. Beamer can put Brewer in the shotgun to give him more time to read the defense before the rush gets to him, aiding in the effort to produce safer throws. Without this concerted effort, Brewer might be exposed to the pass rush frequently, as his line has surrendered 21 sacks on the season.
While the offense figures to hold its own, the defense looks poorly positioned for a matchup against such a run-heavy team. Beamer’s defense ranks 85th in rushing defense, allowing 177.8 yards per game, along with 11 TDs. The advanced numbers on how methodical run offenses, like BC, fare against the Hokies are misleading. Football Outsiders’ defensive rankings show that Virginia Tech has allowed just 8.2 percent of opposing drives to last at least 10 plays, a seemingly impressive 11th in the FBS. This ranking is rendered less impressive by considering that they have allowed 4.65 yards per carry. With such a high average, opponents don’t need 10 plays to reach the end zone against the Hokies. The strength of Beamer’s defense is the secondary, which has allowed opponents to complete just 49.8 percent of passes. Even this number comes with a caveat, as these completions have gone for an average of 14 yards, the seventh worst mark in the FBS.
On Saturday, look for Virginia Tech to load the box against BC with eight or nine defenders, looking to stop the run game. Even with such an intense commitment, they will still likely give up a fair amount of rushing yardage. More concerning for the Hokies are BC’s play action passes. While Troy Flutie, starting for the injured Jeff Smith, has been far from impressive this season, he has shown an ability to hit long passes on play action throws. Most of these plays develop because a defense has overcommitted to stopping the run, leaving a free receiver. Even Flutie can make these throws and these plays provide the main avenue for BC to quickly move the ball. With its penchant for surrendering lengthy completions, Virginia Tech must remain disciplined in the secondary, not helping too much against the run game. Otherwise, it might allow BC’s offense easy chances to keep the Eagles in the game.
A loss in this game could further increase the cacophony surrounding Beamer. Perhaps, for the sake of both his reputation and his beloved program, now would be a convenient time to step away, before Harvey Dent’s prophecy comes true.
Featured Image by Chris Petersen / AP Photo