Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Are the Hokies legit? We'll know this weekend

BLACKSBURG -- They'll know before we do. Maybe five snaps in. All this talk about whether Virginia Tech is adequately prepared to face a high-quality team? All this discussion about what they've learned and what they haven't?

All of it will disappear shortly after the bodies start crashing.

"It doesn't take long to realize, Hey, I'm ready or I'm not," Tech left tackle Andrew Lanier said. "I can pick up the blitzes or I can't. I can read the defense or not. It really just takes a few plays, and then you pretty much have a good idea."

Lanier's right. Anything else is pure speculation now. From everybody. Players, media, fans - everybody. Because the truth is, we just don't know.

It's been 10 years since the Hokies started the season with four games that demanded less of them than this year's nonconference schedule did, a decade since we knew less about this team as it prepared to enter the critical portion of its schedule.

In 2001, the Hokies opened with Connecticut (making its transition from FCS to FBS), Western Michigan, Rutgers and Central Florida. That's bad. The Hokies pounded that feckless foursome by a combined count of 179-24 - as well they should have.

Still, we knew nothing then, either. Not until they showed up in Morgantown the following week and put a defensive whipping on West Virginia that sent many fans home at halftime. Final: Tech 35, Mountaineers 0.

OK, so maybe that team was ready.

This one says it is, too. But with Tech facing a Clemson squad that has beaten ranked teams in back-to-back weeks, only one of these programs can say with confidence that it has proved anything.

"They're for real," Tech coach Frank Beamer said of the Tigers. "They're a legit team. People might, at this point, question how legit we are. ... I think we've made enough good plays to give us hope that we can be a good football team. That's kind of where we are right now."

Here's another example of what Lanier was talking about. You remember that play last Saturday against Marshall? The third snap from scrimmage of the game?

That was the one where, facing a third-and-7, Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato hit a wide-open Aaron Dobson on the right side. Dobson had space to run. He looked like he might even have a chance to score.

And then Tech's Jayron Hosley caught him from behind and punched the ball out, and the Hokies recovered.

Just three snaps in, and you knew: Marshall couldn't keep up. Even when the Herd did something well, its players were so physically outclassed, it probably didn't hurt the Hokies at all.

"Missing a detail against a lesser opponent might be a five-yard gain," Beamer said Tuesday. "Not taking care of a detail against this [Clemson] crowd is probably six points on the board. So I think that's the challenge for us: getting the details worked out."

And that's the right approach for the coach to take. Think small. Preach wrapping up in open space, communicating in the trenches, controlling the things you can control. Because then, even if the other team is physically superior, you'll have a good shot - especially in a night game at Lane Stadium.

For his part, Logan Thomas says he feels "extremely comfortable" heading into his first big game as Tech's starting quarterback. The first two contests were a "feeling-out process," he said, and the other two allowed him to gain some confidence.

Defensive end James Gayle isn't shy about saying this is "a huge step up in competition," but he's anticipated it for a while.

"It means a lot to me," Gayle said. "This is probably the biggest game of my life. I just can't wait. I know 10 other guys on the defense just can't wait, either."

The wait will be over soon. That's when they'll discover whether they were ready.

Shortly thereafter, so will we.

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