Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hokies' D shined, and the other parts will be fine

GREENVILLE, N.C. —- Tie game. Getting late. Virginia Tech offense going nowhere. East Carolina taking over at midfield.

This should have felt like the nightmare scenario for the Hokies on Saturday, but it didn't. By that point in the third quarter, against an explosive offensive team, Tech's defensive players had shown more than most of us expected to see.

They were eager to show us a little more.

"I was amplified," linebacker Tariq Edwards said.

The next three snaps told the story of how a Tech team that played sloppily on offense and special teams still came away with a 17-10 road victory.

Play 1: Defensive tackle Corey Marshall sacks ECU quarterback Dominique Davis for a 5-yard loss.

Play 2: Edwards sniffs out a screen pass and drops Reggie Bullock for a loss of 1.

Play 3: The Pirates call for one of those short passes over the middle, the kind they count on for big yardage after the catch. Michael Bowman makes the grab but is dropped by Eddie Whitley after a gain of three.

Marshall is a freshman. Edwards is a sophomore — the same class as Kyle Fuller, who recorded a key interception in the third quarter.

They all played like veterans on this day, and they had to.

"The defense played a spectacular game," Tech quarterback Logan Thomas said. "They won that game for us. Held them to less than 125 yards of total offense, negative yards rushing. What more can you ask for?

"We did escape, but rode on the back of our defense."

There are a million ways to view this game if you're a Tech fan. I think the level of concern you'll have about this final score is inversely proportional to the amount faith you have in Thomas becoming a great college quarterback.

If you're a bit skeptical this morning, that's understandable. By his own admission, Thomas looked rough. He completed just eight of 20 passes for 91 yards and threw a costly interception in the end zone.

"We dominated them in the statistics, but too many turnovers," Thomas said. "Too many penalties. I wish we could have those back. I wish I could have a couple throws back, but I think it's going be a learning experience."

If you believe what I do — that this will be the worst game Thomas plays in a highly successful Tech career — then you are to be encouraged by the final score. Tech played 33 percent like an elite team, and it was the 33 percent that most needed to shine. The other 67 percent will be fine in time.

Frank Beamer looked at the total package and didn't love what he saw. He said he apologized to his team after the game for not having them mentally prepared.

"We came out and played so well last week, one of the best opening games we've ever played," Beamer said. "If you're not careful, you figure that's just going to happen again. ... Well, it didn't happen again."

Here are a few other things you can be confident will not happen again: The Hokies will not lose the penalty battle 12-0 like they did to ECU. The Hokies will not have a negative average on punt returns like they did against the Pirates. Thomas will not be held to eight completions against another opponent this year.

Those should be areas of strength for this team. And now this defense might, too, after an outstanding display of open-field tackling against the Pirates.

"Every week, I tell the defense: Look, if we come out there and do what we're supposed to do, nobody should be able to play with us," linebacker Bruce Taylor said. "We've got a great defensive coordinator in Bud Foster. He's going to put us in the right game plan to go out there and win."

He did this week. He will again next week. When you look at it that way, the Hokies shouldn't be disappointed in this unsightly, seven-point win on the road.

They should be amplified.

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