Sunday, September 06, 2009
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hokies failing to take the next step

ATLANTA -- Well, now we know.

Now the goals can be adjusted. Downsized. Returned to their usual place.

Virginia Tech will be an ACC contender, but not a national one. The season can be good -- perhaps very good -- but there will be no Shangri La.

The Hokies never looked the part of a national heavyweight here Saturday. Instead, they looked like a good team with flaws and heart. They scrapped. They battled. They no doubt earned a level of respect that Clemson did not in this same game last year, a few points for punching back.

But they also erred too much, moved the ball too little and ran a step too slow when in mattered most. Ultimately, the scoreboard rewarded the better team: No. 5 Alabama 34, No. 7 Virginia Tech 24.

Maybe next year.

The Hokies certainly don't deserve a flogging this morning. They didn't melt down or embarrass themselves or quit. They just lost, proving once again that there is a line they've yet to cross -- the one between the strong programs and the dominant.

Even when the Hokies led, it felt like they were behind. A missed field goal kept them in front. A strip from behind saved them a touchdown. And somehow, they carried that one-point edge into the fourth quarter.

Then Alabama scored 18 points in a six-minute span, finally trampling a tired Tech defense.

It's a credit to the defense that the Hokies hung around that long. Tech's offense managed only 105 total yards in the first three quarters -- an average of 2.8 yards per play -- which contributed to Alabama's 9:30 edge in time of possession heading into the final period.

Quarterback Tyrod Taylor was credited for only 10 rushing attempts in the game, and five of those were sacks. On the other five, he gained just 26 yards, an uncharacteristically low total for one of Tech's biggest threats.

Part of that can be attributed to Tech's uncertainty at the backup quarterback position. Taylor repeatedly said this preseason that he was only going to run when necessary this year, preferring not to take unnecessary risks.

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But his risks -- necessary or not -- often produce the greatest rewards for this offense. See the third-and-31 run against Florida State last season and the weaving touchdown jaunt in the Orange Bowl win over Cincinnati.

Without plays like that, Tech showed resourcefulness to stay in this one longer than it probably should have. But that's more disappointing than it is encouraging, really. Because the Hokies believed they had stockpiled enough talent to win a game like this, and they hadn't.

Maybe next year.

So while we're on the subject of the future, perhaps we should mention the biggest positives of the night. Freshman tailback Ryan Williams and redshirt freshman Antoine Hopkins.

Although Williams muffed a punt, leading to an Alabama field goal in the first quarter, he averaged 5.5 yards a carry, caught a pair of passes for 42 yards and ran for two touchdowns. That included a 32-yard scamper on which he showed terrific zip heading along the right sideline. The guy's good.

Hopkins, meanwhile, notched his first interception and chased down Crimson Tide quarterback Greg McElroy during a key third-down play in the second half. Listed as a backup defensive tackle, he was a pleasant surprise.

Unfortunately for Tech, though, pleasant surprises stopped there. The expected came to pass. The Hokies were not ready to take that next step.

At least now we know.

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