Monday, September 29, 2008

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hokies causing fewer groans

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Before the boos, there came the groan. The long, miserable, incredulous groan produced by a record number of throats at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium, relenting a critical fourth-quarter mistake by the home team.

Virginia Tech knows that groan. Heck, Tech fans could sue Nebraska backers for trademark infringement on that groan.

"Hey!" they could say. "Isn't that OUR noise?"

Not anymore. As much abuse as Tech players and coaches received -- and deserved -- for the rash of boneheaded personal fouls several years ago, it's only fair to acknowledge what's happening here.

This team, and particularly this defense that prides itself on aggression, has shown remarkable discipline through the first five weeks.

Ill-timed personal fouls are still deciding games. But this year, it's the opponents who are committing them.

"We used to have them when we had some selfish guys," Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said late Saturday night, after his Hokies capitalized on an opponent's late personal foul for the third straight week while defeating Nebraska 35-30. "Now you've got guys where the team's more important, and we're playing very smart, aggressive football.

"That's something that we've really emphasized. A few years back, it cost us a couple games. Like maybe tonight and maybe a couple [other] games where we've kind of squeaked by."

Such as the North Carolina game. Or the Georgia Tech game. Both were three-point victories that featured drive-extending penalties by the opposition in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, the Hokies entered the Nebraska game as the second-least penalized team in the ACC.

On Saturday, they committed just four infractions for 30 yards. That's a superb total considering the pressure applied to a young team by more than 85,000 fans.

"I can't say what [other teams] are doing right now," Foster said. "I just know that we emphasize it -- playing smart, being heady. Especially with how they're calling the game right now. If you're close to the sideline, let the guy go."

On perhaps the biggest play of Saturday's game, Nebraska didn't.

With Tech nursing a 28-23 lead late in the fourth quarter, quarterback Tyrod Taylor scrambled for a 2-yard gain on third-and-4. The Hokies looked like they would have to punt until Huskers defensive end Ndamukong Suh rolled on top of a fallen Taylor near the right sideline.

That prompted a flag -- and the stadium groan.

Suh's hit wasn't a malicious play, but it wasn't smart. And it proved extremely costly to the Huskers.

Taylor said he agreed with the call, as you might expect. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini didn't agree, and his vehement expression of that disagreement on the sidelines drew -- what else? -- another huge flag in Tech's favor.

"I have to be smarter than that," Pelini said.

The crazy thing is how often we used to hear such utterances from Beamer after his team would lose its cool. It got so bad in 2005 -- with lowlights including the hanky-filled meltdown against Florida State in the ACC title game and the unpenalized yet egregious Marcus Vick stomp in the Gator Bowl -- that Beamer instituted a fining policy for players who committed personal fouls.

That at least created more accountability, but problems persisted. Tech came unhinged again in Boston in 2006, prompting ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit -- long a Beamer admirer -- to lambaste the team's lack of discipline on national TV.

We're not seeing any of that stuff now. Not even a trace.

"We play fair football," cornerback Macho Harris said. "Hard-nosed, fair football. That's all we do.

"Penalties will kill a team," he added. "As you've seen in the past few weeks, they've killed a team. The team that causes the least penalties more than likely is going to win."

If you look for the horseshoe long enough, you ultimately might find it somewhere on Beamer's person. In taking down three straight legitimate foes, the Hokies have enjoyed their share of luck.

But luck can be a by-product of discipline, too. Something the Hokies have shown thus far and vow to maintain as they move forward.

"What will rattle this team? Nothing," Harris said. "I don't care if we come out [trailing] 34-zip in the first quarter. This team won't get rattled."

Personal fouls are going to happen. But if what Harris is saying is true, they'll continue to happen less frequently for Tech than they once did.

That welcome sign of maturation in Blacksburg sounds a whole lot better than groans.

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