Sunday, October 02, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Tech fails big test on dreary night

BLACKSBURG -- Lane Stadium hasn't emptied this early in a game in years. Virginia Tech gets beat here, yes, but blown out? Dominated?

Not like this.

A sellout crowd showed up looking for answers - and got them. Just not the ones Virginia Tech fans were hoping for.

No, the Hokies weren't ready. No, they could not flip the offensive lever and keep up with a high-quality team.

This one was cold, wet, ugly -- and over early in the fourth quarter, when Clemson scored its final touchdown in a 23-3 victory.

The margin could have been even worse. The Tech defense forced three straight second-half punts while this game was still in doubt, gave the offense the ball †and watched it do nothing.

There's nowhere else to lay this loss than at the feet of the offense. Tech's six first-half possessions ended in interception, fumble, punt, punt, field goal (after a first-and-goal at the Clemson 5), punt.

Too many third-and-long situations. Too many Logan Thomas passes that didn't give the receivers a chance.

Not enough capitalizing on a Clemson defense that ranked 90th in FBS.

The temptation is to blame Tech's pillowy nonconference schedule for this result. Don't. There have been times in the past where the Hokies have gotten overconfident by fattening up on cupcakes, but this year wasn't one of them.

The difference? Nobody inside or outside the program bought the schedule. Nobody saluted the wins. Everyone treated those four games as what they were: glorified scrimmages that presented an opportunity for development.

A chance to sharpen themselves for this night.

The ranking moved only modestly, from 15th in the preseason to 11th this week. The Hokies actually dropped two spots in the polls after one of the wins (East Carolina).

The players understood that outside perception, or at least they should have. Motivation wasn't a problem here.

The Hokies just played poorly. So poorly that Tech could probably use a few more easy opponents to try to fix all that went wrong.

The punting has gone from troublesome to disastrous. Tech coach Frank Beamer doesn't seem to know quite what to do about it, either. ("We need to get settled," he said. "We got what we got.") There might not be anything he can do about it except practice it and cross his fingers.

That's scary. This team might punt a lot.

We'll learn a lot about Thomas this week. This is the first time he's suffered major adversity as an athlete.

The redshirt sophomore quarterback has been bigger, stronger and better than everybody he's faced as long as those who know him can remember. He's won in sandlot ball, high school ball, football, hoops - everywhere. He's lost games, sure, but never the kind that have everyone wondering, "Will he be OK?"

And now this: 15-for-27, 125 yards, an interception and no touchdowns. Clemson sacked him four times. Afterwards, he said Clemson's defensive front knocked him out of rhythm and "didn't give me a chance to get a good feel for the game."

Thomas, like the others, talked a lot about moving forward. Beamer told his players to remember 2007, when Boston College stunned Tech with those two late Matt Ryan touchdown passes, and then the Hokies came back and beat Boston College in the ACC title game.

One distinction: The Hokies dominated that first meeting with BC, too.

They never had anything close to command of this one.

Fireworks went off at Lane Stadium when Cody Journell kicked a 24-yard field goal late in the second quarter. Yes, fireworks after a field goal. Everybody got a good laugh out of it at the time -- a bit much, maybe? -- but the joke was on us.

Those would be the last points the Hokies scored.

Yes, the answers came. Harsh ones, all.

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