Florida State and Virginia Tech met on a steamy Monday night in Tallahassee during college football’s opening week. The primetime ACC matchup, a 24–3 Hokie shocker, featured the two FBS programs with the longest-active bowl game streaks: Florida State has been to 36 consecutive bowls (the longest-ever streak), while Virginia Tech has played in 25 in a row, the second-best active streak.
Virginia Tech is 4–5. Florida State is 4–6. Both teams’ streaks appear doomed. But after the opening Virginia Tech rout, the two sides seemed destined for opposite paths.
In one corner, there's a blindsided and depleted Seminoles squad under first-year head coach and Florida native Willie Taggart. Disaster. Fiasco. Catastrophe. Debacle. Tragedy. Farce. Embarrassment. Thoseare the words that described opening night—after the Seminoles were shellacked at home to start the season. And those harsh descriptors were spot-on. The ‘Noles have since limped to their 4–6 record, including the worst home loss in program history—a 59–10 Clemson clobbering—right before Halloween. To make their 37th consecutive bowl, the Seminoles need to take down the AP’s No. 17 Boston College and in-state rival, No. 15 Florida.
For the Hokies, success, validation and toughness were the buzz words after their first win at Doak Campbell Stadium in four decades. "In Bud We Trust," they shouted, referencing vaunted defensive coordinator Bud Foster, whose “Lunch Pail” defense yielded just three points in the opener. Flash forward to November, and the Hokies are broken. They’ve lost four of their last five games, giving up 39 points per contest during the stretch. Last week, they ventured to Western Pennsylvania, where Pitt romped all over them, 52–22. At 4–5, they need to win each of their last two games—against Miami and Virginia—to be bowl-eligible. Virginia Tech has just 11 games on the docket this season after a Sept. 15 date with East Carolina was canceled because of Hurricane Florence.
So what went wrong for two of college football’s most consistent programs? After the Monday night matchup, Florida State’s demise seemed inevitable, but not so much for Virginia Tech. Let’s start with the Hokies.
What’s the biggest problem?
The run defense. It stings that starting quarterback Josh Jackson has been out since week four with a fractured fibula, but the defense is what has strangled Virginia Tech. This season, the Hokies have allowed a startling 212.7 yards on the ground per game. And over the course of their three-game slide, it's been 392 rush yards, as they yielded 450 to both Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh. A sample of the Red Sea-parting Hokie run D:
To be fair to Virginia Tech, injuries have decimated the roster—and it’s not just Jackson’s fibula. Third-year head coach Justin Fuente recently confirmed defensive end Houshun Gaines is out for the year. Trevon Hill, another end, was dismissed from the team in September. Defensive lineman Xavier Burke and defensive back Bryce Watts headline a slew of serious or season-ending injuries up and down the defense.
Regardless, poor front-seven play has put Virginia Tech in its current pickle. Pundits unanimously praised the Hokies’ defense just two months ago, but the unit has since fizzled to a bottom-feeder, and it’s chock full of inexperience. For this weekend’s date with Miami, Foster’s defensive depth chart features 10 freshmen and seven sophomores, plus just two juniors and a pair of seniors. That’s 81% underclassmen.
Who can save them?
Ryan Willis. In the absence of Jackson under center, redshirt junior QB Ryan Willis has shouldered the load of a defense apt to giving up quick stores and forcing the offense to play catch-up. Under that pressure, Willis has been streaky—but efficient.
In each of Willis’s five starts, he’s tossed for 200-plus yards and at least two touchdowns. His 16:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio is sparkling—of ACC starting quarterbacks with at least 200 passes, he’s tied with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence for the fewest picks in the conference. A shifty QB, Willis also has nearly 300 yards on the ground and three scores.
The junior’s downfall has been maintaining his precision for longer stretches. For example, in a Nov. 3 loss to Boston College, Willis completed 16 of his 19 first-half passes for 212 yards and two scores, including five connections of 20 yards or more. In the second half of the 10-point loss, he threw for just 69 yards on 9-for-23 passing.
With such a porous defense, nearly-flawless QB play is about all that can salvage the Hokies' bowl streak in their all-important final two games. If Willis can replicate some of his dynamite stretches—with throws like this—the Hokies will rack up points in a hurry, especially if he creates space for explosive weapons like wideout Damon Hazelton and running back Steven Peoples.
Will they make a bowl?
No. Virginia Tech will be an underdog in each of its final two games, against struggling Miami and 7–3 rival Virginia. The Hurricanes' tailback, Travis Homer, must be salivating as he watches game tape. And even if Virginia Tech schedules a makeup game for Dec. 1 to replace a cancelled game against East Carolina, as Fuente alluded to Wednesday, the Hokies might not even be at five wins by then: Virginia’s two-headed rushing attack of quarterback Bryce Perkins and running back Jordan Ellis will pose major problems for the Hokies. The bowl streak that began back in 1993 will fall off the road in 2018.
What’s the biggest problem?
The offensive line. The Florida State O-Line is abysmal. Only 13 teams nationwide have given up more sacks than the Seminoles, who have been sacked 29 times. Look how embarrassing the line was to start the year:
Both of Taggart’s QBs, Deondre Francois and James Blackman, are constantly under duress. And Florida State’s two workhorse backs, Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick, are dealt no space to operate. The Seminoles rank in the bottom ten of FBS teams for rushing S&P+, which measures explosiveness and efficiency, among other factors. As a team, Florida State averages 2.5 yards per carry—and its porous offensive line is to blame.
Like Virginia Tech’s defensive front, the Seminoles O-Line has been decimated by injury. Early in the season, a slew of injuries forced Taggart to play some young linemen who weren’t ready, and others out of position. True guards like Derrick Kelly (seen above escorting a Syracuse rusher to the quarterback) have played at tackle. Arthur Williams, the Seminoles’ starting left guard this coming Saturday, is a converted defensive lineman. One prospective starter transferred to Toledo and another was removed from the team.
The point: Florida State is paper-thin on the offensive line, and the guys in there now are laughably ineffective. Sure, some of the blame is pinned on Francois, who too often is a sitting duck in the pocket—which leads to the next question...
Who can save them?
James Blackman. In Blackman’s one start this season, on Nov. 3 at NC State, the sophomore passed for more yards than the elder Francois has in his last two games combined. Blackman completed 29 of 46 passes for 421 yards, four touchdowns and an interception.
The explosion against NC State earned Blackman ACC Quarterback of the Week honors, and the QB activated the powers of wide receiver Tamorrion Terry, whose five catches for 142 yards resulted in winning Receiver of the Week. Blackman played against NC State because Francois was banged up, but after the stellar performance, Taggart went back to Francois.
Under Blackman, the offense seems more sure—less confusion, fewer desperate timeouts and much more moxie. He has commanded the respect of his line and weapons. He started 12 games last season after Francois injured his patellar tendon in Week 1 against Alabama, so he has plenty of reps with the upperclassmen. Meanwhile, under Francois, the offense has been in shambles.
Reporters in Tallahassee have probed whether Taggart is keeping Blackman from starting so that he can stay eligible to redshirt the season. Taggart hasn’t addressed the questions. Either way, Blackman clearly offers the most pizzazz to the offense. He’s a dynamic playmaker who is fluid in the pocket, can avoid blitzers and throw in the face of pressure—requirement No. 1 for a Florida State QB in 2018. Here’s an example from the NC State game of Blackman’s prowess in throwing a missile under duress:
Francois has recorded career lows in passer rating in his last two starts, and Florida State seems destined to finish 4–8 with the junior calling the shots. A spark via Blackman represents the Seminoles’ best hope.
But Taggart has maintained that Florida State’s struggles aren’t a result of Francois, who has “played well,” according to the coach. Barring a last-second change, Francois is still the starter. Cue eye roll.
Will they make a bowl?
No. And that will sting. This week, Taggart addressed the bowl streak: “It's important to us. It's important to our players, it's important to our fan base. It's important to the teams that came before us that we keep it going and we talked about it as a team and our guys understand what's at stake,” he said. “It’s important for our seniors to leave here and not be that senior class that didn't go to a bowl game.”
Unfortunately for Seminoles fans, the 36-year bowl streak will end this year. Florida State needs to beat Boston College and Florida, two top-25 teams. Nothing about this season has indicated the Seminoles are remotely able to beat either team, let alone both of them. For the first time since 1981, Florida State football can pack up after Thanksgiving weekend.