Monday, September 13, 2010
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Trying to find coherence after dizzy day

Trying to find coherence after dizzy day

BLACKSBURG -- Zombies. That's all I saw. For me, the Saturday scene at Lane Stadium was straight out of a George Romero movie.

I was the disoriented guy on a gurney being wheeled through the concourse, wondering what the heck was going on. All around me, folks in maroon were stumbling out of the tunnels. They walked slowly, sometimes muttering to themselves, reanimated corpses about to shuffle into the rain.

I can't tell you the whole story of Virginia Tech's 21-16 loss to James Madison. But I saw the parts that mattered. The last thing I saw, as they put an oxygen mask over my panic-stricken face, was Darren Evans on the press box TV, trying in vain to recover his fourth-quarter fumble.

That's it, I thought.

They're actually going to lose.

n n n

I can tell you the EMTs -- terrific men and women who treated me wonderfully -- in the first aid room were seriocomically blaming themselves for jinxing the team. I can tell you the first nurse who saw me at Montgomery Regional Hospital was wearing Hokies scrubs. She was a professional, a kind voice in my ear, but I couldn't help but think perhaps she just hadn't been bitten yet. Maybe no one had told her the score.

How long until she's a zombie, too?

This is new. I've covered teams with losing records, but most of them were expected to lose. I've covered good teams that have fallen in stunning fashion, but usually there's a stronger sense that the devastation is coming -- a list of known weaknesses longer than a 7-year-old's letter to Santa, an otherworldly player on the other side, something.

But this? This was Romero stuff. A meteor from Mars. A mutated monkey virus. A Division I-AA team marching into Blacksburg and refusing to get pushed around.

n n n

What are all these people doing here? That's what I kept wondering in the press box as the game dragged toward its seemingly inevitable conclusion.

It was midway through the second quarter. Tech led the Dukes 10-0. The Hokies' offense didn't look great at that point -- particularly the push up front -- but it wasn't going to matter. The Dukes weren't going to move the ball enough. Surely, the Hokies would finish with 30-plus points and get the win they needed.

So why were so many people here? It was raining, and a bevy of big national games were about to kick off on TV, yet still the place was packed.

I didn't get it then. Now I do.

They were here because they love the Hokies. And because you just never know.

Poor tackling sliced Tech's chin first. If one of five guys -- five! -- manages to bring down Jamal Sullivan on that third-down screen pass, we're probably not having this discussion today. Instead, in a sparkling individual effort, Sullivan eluded them all and dashed 77-yards for the score.

"Can you imagine," somebody near me said in the press box, "if they actually lost this game?"

No, I thought. I can't imagine.

n n n

This week, when Tech's coaches and players talk about needing to "execute better" -- and they will -- it's not all baloney. That Sullivan touchdown reception is one of the moments they're referring to. Tackling is fundamental. Tackling is something these guys have done since pee-wee league. They were in position to tackle; they didn't.

So don't blame the coaches on that one. But worry not; you're more than welcome to blame them for a lot of other things.

Why wasn't this team prepared? What's with the turnovers, the sloppy play, the blown assignments? How could this offensive line not steamroll JMU defenders who, as their coach pointed out earlier in the week, are recruits that Tech passed on?

Why would you choose to kick a field goal on fourth-and-1 when you seemingly have every physical advantage? Can this team not pick up a yard against JMU? Later, in an even more critical spot, why would you throw an intermediate pass on fourth-and-2? There's nothing safer in that playbook that can move the chains against a I-AA team?

How could those receivers get so open on JMU's go-ahead touchdown drive? How could the JMU quarterback, Drew Dudzik, walk into the end zone untouched on a simple play fake and keeper around left end?

And most importantly: How could a Tech offense that destroyed Tennessee in a bowl game, humiliated UVa in Al Groh's last stand and averaged 38 points in the final four games of 2009 go so limp over the summer?

How could we all be so fooled?

How?

n n n

For the Dukes, a word of congratulations here. This is unbelievable for that program. Coach Mickey Matthews has more than paid his dues.

And the JMU players -- several of whom played at Timesland high schools -- their joy has to be indescribable. They now have a moment in their careers they will never forget.

So do Tech's.

n n n

As for what happened to me, the doctors couldn't explain it. The blood tests looked fine. The EKG showed no heart damage. My potassium level was a bit low, but they didn't know why that would cause my extremities to go numb, my hands to throb, my chest to start pounding, the room to start spinning (Maybe I'm actually some distant relative of Frank Beamer's and it was one of those Time Life Mystery experiences; who knows?) Schedule an appointment with a doctor next week for more checkups, they said.

So I will. But I'm beginning to think that some things Saturday just weren't meant to be explained. I don't know how a 31.5-point underdog finds a way. I don't know the antidote for an army of zombies. And most importantly, I don't know what this means for the rest of 2010, which opened with such promise.

I'm not so sure the Hokies do, either.

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