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January 10, 2014

Considering the circumstances, 8-5 was not a bad season for Tech

By: Jimmy Robertson

In November of 1994, the former editor of the athletics department publication, Chris Colston, came up with a unique headline for the issue that capped the 1994 regular season. It said, “8-3 ain’t bad.”

Nineteen years later, the Hokies finished up their season with eight wins. While the season ended horribly, with a bad performance against UCLA in the Sun Bowl, it resembled the 1994 season – it wasn’t a bad one. It just had a bad ending.

Tech lost four of its final six games (in 1994, the Hokies lost three of their final four, including a 45-23 loss to Tennessee in the Gator Bowl). Without quarterback Logan Thomas for almost three quarters of the Sun Bowl, Tech lost to the Bruins 42-12. Head coach Frank Beamer didn’t spend a lot of time in the postgame press conference talking about the impact of Thomas’ injury. He instead expressed disappointment at his team’s overall performance in the game.

“We’re going to look at the video and learn from this,” he said. “This isn’t one of those [videos] where we’re going to say, ‘Hey, we’re not going to look at it.’ I’m going to look at it and talk about communication on defense and execution on offense and what needs to happen to play better in a big ball game to finish the year.”

Tech’s recent struggles in bowl games make for a future column topic, one to come after further reflection by the coaching staff. The performance left a sour taste in everyone’s mouths, but should not diminish what turned out to be a solid season.

Message board posters may scream at that, but the truth is most people pegged Tech at around eight wins before the season, expecting wins over Duke, BC and Maryland and losses to Miami and North Carolina or Georgia Tech. And the Hokies could have easily won the Duke, BC and Maryland games.

But Tech’s youth, particularly on offense, wasn’t going to allow for a run at an ACC title. For starters, the Hokies played 11 true freshmen overall this past season, and three of those started on offense – offensive tackle Jonathan McLaughlin, tight end Kalvin Cline and fullback Sam Rogers.

Fifteen players on the offense’s depth chart were sophomores or younger. Nine played significant amounts, and two others – Jerome Wright and Carlis Parker – played key roles in the Sun Bowl.

Getting young kids experience bodes well for future years, but this season, the Hokies struggled, finishing 101st nationally in total offense. Among ACC teams, only Wake Forest averaged fewer than Tech’s 356 yards per game.

Also, injuries played a role. Yes, Trey Edmunds breaking his leg against Virginia hurt the Hokies in the bowl game, and then Thomas, of course, going out with concussion-like symptoms left Tech without its best offensive weapon. But Ryan Malleck’s preseason shoulder injury may have been the costliest of the season.

Malleck, a tight end, gave the Hokies experience and talent. It’s not a secret that coordinator Scot Loeffler likes to use tight ends because they create matchup advantages. So losing Malleck really hurt, but getting him back, and with the experience Cline gained this season, that all really creates some excitement for the future.

Injuries also afflicted the defense. Whip linebacker Ronny Vandyke’s shoulder injury limited the staff. Cornerback Antone Exum’s knee caused him to miss the first six games and his ankle caused him to miss the final three. Kyle Fuller missed basically the final five games of the season with a core injury. Tech missed his ability to tackle in the open field, particularly in the losses to Maryland and UCLA.

Finally – and few people talk about this – it takes time for a unit to become cohesive when new coaches come aboard. The last time Beamer changed offensive coordinators came after the 2001 season – a span of 11 seasons. This season, the new coaches found out the strengths and weaknesses of players and whether, or how, they fit into the scheme.

Tech’s players on offense feel more optimistic going forward, knowing that the transition period is over.

“Last spring, you couldn’t really call it a spring because it was so basic,” receiver Willie Byrn said. “This spring, we’re going to be able to implement some new stuff and find out who else can contribute to this offense. Another six months in this offense and with the coaches and getting comfortable with our quarterback is going to make a world of difference.”

Tech fans are understandably in a surly mood because of the bowl outcome. But the bigger picture is this – a young team in an injury-filled season with new coaches on offense finished 8-5.

For sure, that ain’t bad.