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STEVE DeSHAZO: In winning with interim coach, Hokies exposed Cavaliers' staff issues
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hokies exposed cavs’ staff shortcomings

STEVE DeSHAZO: In winning with interim coach, Hokies exposed Cavaliers' staff issues

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Virginia Tech Virginia College Football

Virginia Tech interim head coach J.C. Price (left) bested Virginia’s Bronco Mendenhall on Saturday.

VIRGINIA TECH was the school that entered Saturday’s Commonwealth Cup with a major decision pending, as athletic director Whit Babcock seeks a new football coach to replace the departed Justin Fuente.

After the Hokies extended their dominance with a sometimes-bizarre 29–24 victory, though, it’s the Cavaliers who must make some hard choices.

First, let’s stipulate that Babcock would be wise to recommend to his new head coach that he retain J.C. Price on his staff.

Price, a former standout defensive lineman, took over in difficult circumstances and kept his players engaged and motivated when they could have mailed it in. He’s a rare link to the successful Frank Beamer era, and he maintains state recruiting ties that were largely ignored as Fuente floundered. “I bleed maroon and orange,” Price said last week.

That said, Tech’s new coach has a lot of work ahead. The Hokies could use talent upgrades almost everywhere, and they especially need to find a strength and conditioning coach of the same caliber as Dennis Gentry, Beamer’s lieutenant. When Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong ran through three Tech defenders on a second-quarter touchdown run, former Hokie players lit up social media with their disgust.

That’s Babcock’s decision. Virginia’s Carla Williams likely will be having her own conversation with Bronco Mendenhall as well about the makeup of his coaching staff, especially on the defensive side.

There’s no sugar-coating it: the Cavaliers were as bad defensively as they were good in the offensive passing game.

They allowed 31.8 points per game during the regular season. Factor out shutouts of William & Mary and Duke, and that number rises to 38.2, a figure Virginia has exceeded only twice since 1946.

The Cavaliers ranked dead last in the Atlantic Coast Conference against the run at 226 yards per game. They allowed the Hokies 320 yards on the ground, including runs of 71 and 50 yards, as well as an untouched 20-yard touchdown run by Raheem Blackshear.

“You’ve got to be more consistent to play assignment-sound football when it comes to these kinds of games,” Mendenhall said. “We were inconsistent.”

Actually, the Cavaliers were consistently porous. Their three-man front got pushed around all season, and the lack of a pass rush exposed a secondary that lacked speed—and even worse, often took poor angles to the ball. That suggests coaching deficiencies.

Mendenhall brought most of his staff with him from BYU when he arrived in 2016, including co-defensive coordinators Nick Howell and Kelly Poppinga. Their relationship is as much familial as professional, which could complicate hard, honest assessments.

The fact is, something has to change. In recent years, Virginia has almost always had at least one dominant defensive player, be it Chris Long, Micah Kiser or Charles Snowden. This year’s team had none.

Unless Mendenhall and his staff can suddenly recruit substantially better defensive players for 2022, it seems a coaching shakeup is in order. Mendenhall inherited a program in disrepair and make steady progress for his first four years, reaching the ACC title game in 2019.

But the Cavaliers have plateaued or even regressed over the past two seasons. They dropped four straight to end this regular season at 6–6, a record that could easily been 4–8 if Miami and Louisville had converted last-second field goals.

They were mediocre in spite of a record-setting offense led by Brennan Armstrong, who, when healthy, put up staggering numbers with the apparent effort of a dart tosser at a local pub.

Even in a winnable division, the Cavaliers can’t contend with this kind of defensive dysfunction. Williams and Mendenhall will need to have frank conversations about the direction of that half of their program if Virginia wants to reach “The Standard” that Mendenhall preaches.

Coaching decisions in the Tech game should also be reviewed, including Mendenhall’s ill-fated choice to go for it on fourth and 2 from his own 16 with 3:17 left and three timeouts, or offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s play-call of a lateral to offensive tackle Bobby Haskins on Virginia’s penultimate offensive play.

Once that’s done, Williams (a former basketball player) can turn her attention to Virginia’s staggering women’s program, which was 1–5 entering Sunday’s game against Richmond and 26–46 in three-plus seasons under Tina Thompson.

But that’s a conversation for another day.

Steve DeShazo: 374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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