Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Virginia Tech's defense finally arrives

BLACKSBURG -- The directive was brief but packed with purpose.

"Get me over the top," Virginia Tech cornerback Rashad Carmichael told his safety, essentially handing off deep-route responsibilities to his teammate. "Because if he throws it short, I'm going to make a play."

Right there. THAT'S IT. That's what had been missing from Tech's defense: the anticipation, the creativity, the quick and decisive communication.

The control.

You know what happened after Carmichael said that, of course. The East Carolina quarterback did throw short. Carmichael did jump the route. And then he was off, rolling 68 yards the other way, fighting off pursuers with every stride and finding the end zone for the most critical play in Tech's 49-27 victory Saturday.

Their identity was at stake here. You knew the Hokies would put up some yards and points against ECU -- who doesn't? -- but the real question was on the other side. Could those Tech defensive players finally start looking like the nasty groups that have defined this program for more than a decade?

It took them 10 quarters this season before they did it. But when it happened, you knew.

So did they.

"You could just see it in guys' eyes," linebacker Bruce Taylor said. "It was just different."

After committing many of the familiar mistakes in the first half -- sloppy tackling, missed assignments, general confusion -- Tech's defense morphed in the third quarter. The Pirates gained only 83 of their 361 yards after halftime. They scored just three points after the break. Carmichael outpointed them alone with his pick-six; he added another interception later to set up the final touchdown.

But as much as anything, there seemed to be a shift in attitude. A transfer of power. After two weeks of chasing, lunging and looking lost, the Tech defenders enjoyed their first sustained period of ... well, being Tech defenders.

"That's been Tech defense since I've known it: score on offense, score on defense, score on special teams," Taylor said. "I feel like that pick that 'Rock' had, the first one, really got guys settled, allowed us to just pin our ears back and play."

It's fitting that Carmichael snagged it for two reasons. For one, he's the leader. He was the guy in the preseason who best explained the challenges ahead for this defense. It's going to take time, he promised. The younger guys might think they know what they're doing now, he said, but just watch. Games are different.

Oh, boy, how they were.

The second reason this was fitting? Carmichael looked absolutely overmatched in the first half. His third-down pass-interference infraction set up ECU's initial touchdown. On ECU's next drive, fabulous Pirates receiver Dwayne Harris made a leaping catch over Carmichael in the end zone to give ECU its biggest lead, 17-7.

On both plays, Carmichael had his back turned on the quarterback. Isn't that how it's been for Tech? Always a step slow, turned askew -- and ultimately beaten.

When Tech's defenders are at their best, they step on the field with a purpose. They don't want merely to stop you; they want you going backwards. They expect to gain ground for the team, and they want to cause bruises while doing it.

ECU's no-huddle offense did not allow that early. Quarterback Dominique Davis did an outstanding job of distributing the ball to his receivers in space with an array of quick passes, and Tech exacerbated the problem by whiffing on several tackles.

The Hokies didn't make many schematic changes for the second half. The game plan, they figured, was sound. It was more a matter of getting some pressure on Davis and addressing those receivers more personally.

"We had to go out there and let those guys know," defensive back Eddie Whitley said, "if you catch this ball, trust me, you're going to feel the thunder afterwards."

We can't be sure this wasn't a flash storm. We can't be sure about anything this year, and neither can they. But at least they've seen it, felt it, done it, if only for 30 minutes.

They now know who they can be.

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