Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Air sucked out of 'Beamer Ball'

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Suspend it. Don't use it anymore. Don't be like ESPN, or the regional TV announcers, or the casual sports fans who know only one thing about Virginia Tech football.

You've watched the games. You know better than they do.

The phrase "Beamer Ball" needs to go away. Not forever, mind you. But for now, it needs to go the way of Nebraska's "black shirts," put on hiatus until it's earned, set aside until the Hokies can fix what's wrong on special teams.

Beamer Ball is an anachronism. The defense is still a threat to score any time it's on the field. But these days, the kicking game is just as likely to hurt this team as it is to help it. The Hokies have now lost three games this season, and special teams have been a major contributor to their demise in all of them.

When you strip away the carnage of Saturday, move beyond the fallen quarterbacks and the stalled second-half attack, Tech's 30-20 loss at Florida State turned on one play midway through the third quarter.

The Hokies led 13-10 at that point. Other than their starting quarterback getting hurt on the first play of the game, everything was going the way they wanted it. The offense, under the direction of backup quarterback Sean Glennon, was moving the ball better. And the defense had just done a magnificent job again, forcing a fourth-and-19 situation in Florida State territory.

Right there. That's where fortunes shifted.

And how it happened illustrated why Beamer Ball is no more.

Tech coach Frank Beamer called for a punt block. We could debate for ages whether that's the right call in that spot, given the inherent risk and the result we all witnessed, but at least it was an aggressive call. And Beamer has made a living identifying the perfect places to go after a punt and then watching his team demoralize the opponent by executing the block.

He thought this was one of those spots. The way Beamer figured it, Cody Grimm -- who is lined up on top of the guard -- would have a good chance to get to FSU punter Graham Gano. The Seminoles would kick out Tech's outside man, freshman Eddie Whitley, allowing Grimm to slide through the middle and change everything.

"If we get it, we probably win the ballgame," Beamer said. "And I thought we could block it."

But instead of kicking out Whitley, the Seminoles blocked down on Grimm. That left Whitley free on the outside. The freshman's angle was too wide, his momentum too powerful, and he made contact with Gano.

A flag flew.

"I knew what it was right when they threw it," Whitley said, shaking his head.

Roughing the punter. Fifteen yards.

And most importantly, an automatic first down.

The Seminoles drove the rest of the way down the field, scored the go-ahead touchdown and never trailed again.

"It still gets down to execution," Beamer said. "It's one of those plays it turned out bad. If it had turned out good, I think it would have won the football game for us."

And that's what's scary. We know they've had execution issues on offense. But since when could the Hokies not execute on special teams?

For a while now, actually. The Hokies lost the opener against East Carolina because of a blocked punt. They gave up a punt return for a touchdown last week in the loss to Boston College, their second of the year. And on top of the penalty, the Hokies experienced another special-teams gaffe Saturday when return man Dyrell Roberts fumbled on the final play of the third quarter.

To Whitley's credit, he took full responsibility for the penalty. He said he'd been taught to bend directly behind the protection, creating an angle that virtually assures there would be no contact.

"I've just got to keep working on my technique," Whitley said. "That's all I can do. Coach coaches this every week, and when it was my time to go I didn't execute like I should. Next time it happens, I'll know."

Whitley has a bright future at defensive back. But like anybody at Tech, he takes his role on special teams seriously and is disappointed that the units have contributed to all three defeats.

"Exactly," he said. "Especially when I'm on one of the special teams that potentially made us lose the game. That's tough on me. Me making that play would have changed that whole game around."

He'll get it next time, Whitley said. And here's hoping he does.

But until he does -- and other special teams players do, too -- the Hokies are just another team.

And "Beamer Ball" is just another outdated phrase with no real meaning.

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