Late Friday night, when the inept veered toward the unwatchable at Lane Stadium, a defining moment came for Virginia Tech’s football program amid a listless 45-10 loss to Duke.
Up by 28 points in the middle of the fourth quarter, Duke faked a punt in Virginia Tech territory and later scored following a fourth-and-7 conversion. The conversation on social media revolved around the sportsmanship of the fake punt and whether Duke was running up the score on Virginia Tech.
You want a searing mile marker of how bad things have gotten for Virginia Tech? A moment that screams changes are needed?
For the last two decades, the notion of Duke running up the score on Virginia Tech in football would fit snugly in the alternate reality files.
What in the name of Michael Vick, Bruce Smith and the Fuller brothers is going on in Blacksburg? On the 20th anniversary of Virginia Tech’s team that played in the 1999 national championship, Tech put on a jarring display of how far away they are from that level. The loss was Tech’s worst at home since 1974, further transforming Lane Stadium’s reputation from hostile to accommodating.
Athletic director Whit Babcock finds himself at a compelling crossroads with Frank Beamer’s replacement. It would cost $15 million to fire Justin Fuente after the regular season, a number that drops to $12.5 million after Dec. 15. That’s considered unlikely, as Babcock has stated publicly– on Twitter this summer, no less – that Fuente isn’t on the hot seat.
Fuente is a respectable 27-17 in his fourth season, but he’s hurtling toward a third straight season of regression. If the season ends hopeless and Tech is hemorrhaging money on season tickets, moving on Fuente is something it is going to have to consider. (It’s hard to blame Tech for extending Fuente’s contract, as Tennessee, Florida State and Arkansas all expressed interest during their recent searches.)
Tech (2-2, 0-2 ACC) projects only to be favored against Rhode Island and Georgia Tech the rest of the season. That puts the program’s 26-year bowl streak in peril, especially because Tech will play two FCS teams and will have to win seven games to reach a bowl. Fuente has gone 10-4, 9-4 and then 6-7, authoring Tech’s first losing season since 1992. The biggest indictment of Fuente in his fourth year is that the roster is both devoid of a competent quarterback and a clear identity, the alleged expertise of a coach hired from Memphis with a strong offensive background.
On defense, the issue is simple, according to an opposing assistant coach familiar with Tech. He said there’s been a precipitous drop in talent: “It’s not even close to 2016,” he said, referencing Fuente’s first season with Beamer’s players. “I bet they don’t have one NFL player on defense. In the past, those defenses were stocked with NFL guys.”
So far this season, Virginia Tech has gotten thumped on the road by Boston College, trailed Furman 14-3 at halftime and gotten the atomic wedgie at home against Duke. They also lost to Old Dominion last season, got blown out by league peers Pitt, Miami and Georgia Tech and lost to Cincinnati in a bowl game.
Some of those games, taken individually, wouldn’t be considered concerning. But collectively, they provide a reminder that Virginia Tech isn’t a blue blood in football where you can sleepwalk to 10-win seasons. The near totality of the program’s historic national relevancy can be attributed to Hall of Fame coach Frank Beamer, and Fuente’s struggles are a reminder just how anomalous his success there was. (Bill Dooley did have some solid seasons in the 1980s prior to Beamer, but a far cry from Beamer’s heydays that included eight straight double-digit win seasons.)