Friday, October 30, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: No excuses for Hokies' latest loss

BLACKSBURG -- So now North Carolina has done it. This wasn't Alabama. This wasn't Georgia Tech. This didn't happen on the road, or even at a neutral site.

This happened in Blacksburg, on a Thursday night, against a team that arrived here winless in the ACC.

Excuses? There aren't any. There can't be. No need to send any game tapes to the league offices after this one. No need to wonder what might change when the team gains some experience.

Virginia Tech's players and coaches tell us this last-second, 20-17 loss to North Carolina had nothing to do with a lack of effort. It had nothing to do with coming out flat, or worrying too much about a game that had already been played and the chop blocks that came with it.

You can believe that. Because tailback Ryan Williams fumbled to set up the game-winning field goal, and nobody on this offense plays harder than Ryan Williams. Linebacker Cody Grimm got burned on UNC's second touchdown pass, and that kid never takes a play off.

So if it's not effort, then what's missing here? Simple: Too much of everything.

Let's start with the offense. Great teams don't drive inside the opponent's 40-yard line five times on six first-half possessions and come away with zero points. Even bad teams at least boot a field goal.

Somehow, Tech couldn't even do that. The Hokies forged first-half paths to the 27-, 38-, 34-, 37- and 35-yard lines. And then they stopped. Sometimes it was play-calling -- too many first-down pass attempts when the running game was working just fine, for example. Other times it was a lack of a protection by the offensive line or the quarterback holding onto the ball too long -- Tyrod Taylor was sacked three times in the first two quarters.

The Hokies finished with 256 yards of offense, a dismal total. But blaming offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring for being too conservative this time would be misguided. He was exactly the opposite.

The Tar Heels have an athletic defense, but they're better against the pass than they are against the run. So how come Williams -- one of the most explosive offensive players in the conference -- carries it just eight times in the first half (while averaging a solid 4.9 yards on those totes, by the way)? How come Taylor is putting it in the air 16 times in the first two quarters? Why are they running 12-yard pass patterns on fourth-and-3?

Still, you can't put it all on play-calling. And you can't put it all on the offense, either. Sometimes you've just got to block somebody better, hit somebody harder, defend a play when it matters most.

The Hokies couldn't do those things. The biggest hit of the night came from UNC's punter, of all people. And when the Hokies had chances to get off the field, they failed too often. The Tar Heels converted 10 of 19 third downs -- a crippling statistic.

But Tech's biggest defensive miscue of the night came on fourth down. With the clock winding under 5 minutes and UNC trailing 17-14, the Tar Heels decided to go for it on fourth-and-7 from the Tech 36. And they got it. Easily. Receiver Greg Little found a soft spot over the middle, and quarterback T.J. Yates hit him for a 19-yard gain, setting up the tying field goal.

That doesn't happen to Tech last year. Or the year before. Or just about any time since 2003.

But it's happening now.

As the UNC players celebrated their win near midfield. Tech's players came over one-by-one to console Williams. It was the right thing to do, but nobody needs to worry about Williams moving forward. Williams is tougher than an UFC fighter. Williams is going to be fine.

His fumble was a fluke. The rest of the game? Well, that wasn't. That's the real reason to worry.

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