Thursday, December 04, 2008

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Much on the line again

BLACKSBURG -- A clemency grant is what they're after.

And a clemency grant is what they'll deserve if they produce.

All will be forgiven -- or at least should be -- if the Virginia Tech offensive linemen can win the key battles this week and lead the Hokies to another ACC championship.

Those five guys up front have been blistered with criticism this year any time things have gone wrong, and much of it has been fair. After all, on a team loaded with youth, these were supposed to be the veterans. The pillars. The leaders.

Ed Wang, Nick Marshman, Ryan Shuman and Sergio Render all had starting experience coming into this season. Shuman took more than 700 snaps at center last year and started at left guard the year before. Wang's emergence at left tackle in 2007 allowed Marshman to play guard, his more natural position. Render is a hulking NFL prospect who was in for more offensive snaps than any other Tech player last season. Blake DeChristopher, the lone newbie, was supposedly ready to step in.

An offense in transition could at least feel confident about one unit.

Or so it seemed.

But beginning with the loss to East Carolina in the season opener, this line has been wildly inconsistent. Solid against Nebraska, awful the next week against Western Kentucky. Dominant against Maryland, overrun the next game against Miami.

The O-line played well last week against Virginia, but there's no way to ensure any kind of carryover based on what we've seen so far. The Tech trenchmen understand the skepticism, and they know where the onus lies Saturday against Boston College.

"Yeah," Shuman said. "It's on us."

And they ought to love it. This ACC title game is a grunt's paradise.

For an O-lineman, there is no bigger challenge in the ACC than facing Boston College. Strong, tough defenders everywhere you look. A pair of all-conference picks glaring at you in the middle. The league's top-ranked rushing defense closing in from all sides.

A bit intimidating? Sure. But also thrilling for the true competitor.

Because if you run the ball effectively against those guys, you've done something special. And the Hokies have made no secret that they'll try to do just that.

"You've got to be able to run the football," Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "That's certainly a challenge for us against them."

It was last time. In Tech's 28-23 loss at BC in October -- in which the Hokies scored two defensive TDs -- tailbacks Darren Evans and Josh Oglesby combined for just 40 yards on 23 carries.

Even more alarming was the rushing futility on first down. The first nine times Tech tried to run the ball on first down, the offense gained a total of eight yards. Two plays were stopped for negative yardage, and two others went for no gain.

Pretty lousy. But it could have been worse.

One BC defensive lineman "power-bombed the Notre Dame guard into their running back for like a 6-yard loss," Shuman said, referring to film he'd watched. "They're the best guys we see year in and year out, the best guys I've seen in three years."

No tricks are planned, the Hokies tell us, although it's doubtful they would inform us if there were. Instead, they plan to win the trench fights, something they did so well against the Terrapins but couldn't do against Miami and BC.

"It's two very stubborn schemes," Shuman said. "You know we want to run the ball first. They want to stop the run. We want to be physical. They obviously want to be physical. It's always a battle."

It's a battle the Hokies will have to be at their best to win. And if they do, all of the struggles of this season will fade.

"The past is the past," Shuman said. "We're going to try to win, and it's going to happen. It's going to happen."

Clemency wouldn't even matter much at that point.

They'd be too busy celebrating.

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