Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: After closer inspection, all's not lost for Hokies

BLACKSBURG -- You're dry now. Warm. You've had a few cups of coffee, a few days to digest Virginia Tech's offensive debacle against Clemson.

Maybe you're starting to look ahead a little bit. Maybe, if you're a Tech fan, you're seeking a few reasons for optimism.

Then here's what you need to do: Go watch the game again.

No, not the whole game. That would be nuts. I'm not advocating torture here.

Just watch Tech's first two offensive possessions. Watch the Hokies' linemen fire off the ball and move those Clemson defenders. Watch David Wilson dart for six yards, then 14, then five.

Watch Logan Thomas throw a sensible screen pass on second-and-10, picking up six yards and creating a manageable third-down situation. Watch Tech move up and down the field essentially at will.

I promise you'll feel a little better.

This is not an "all is well" column. All is far from well, as the final score (23-3) on Saturday clearly illustrated.

But all is not lost.

The Hokies had a good game plan going into the night, and it was working. Unfortunately for Tech, those two drives ended with turnovers.

On one, Tech's best player fumbled. It happens.

On the other, Tech's first-year starting quarterback threw high on a well-designed play that would have been at least a first down, maybe a touchdown. Clemson picked it off. That happens, too.

But the bottom line is, as poorly as that offense performed overall, the Hokies showed they could move the ball on those first two drives. Two possessions don't make a game, but two possessions like that can at least generate some hope.

The rest of it? Well, that's a problem. The Hokies appeared to panic as the game progressed. Thomas admittedly felt uncomfortable in the pocket. The coaches got outfoxed, the offense got stagnant. We've seen it before.

Improving scoring this year could require a fundamental shift in strategy. You're familiar with Tech coach Frank Beamer's strategy. If he were a baseball manager, he'd be the kind who bunted in the first inning and banked on two-out hits. The fans would love that when it worked, hate it when it didn't - just like they do now.

He likes to pin teams deep, let the defenders be the attackers. But his special teams personnel this year is not allowing him to do that - at least so far.

Consider Tech's opening drive of the second half against Clemson. Facing a fourth-and-3 from the Clemson 45, Beamer opted to punt. This is a move that typically works for him. Maybe Clemson, leading by a touchdown, takes over at its own 8. Maybe Lane Stadium starts rocking. Maybe the Tigers feel the pressure, Tajh Boyd throws a pick-six and the game is suddenly tied.

Or maybe the punt goes 11 yards and Clemson starts at its own 34. That's what actually happened.

At Tuesday's news conference, Beamer acknowledged that the punting struggles will make him evaluate fourth-down situations differently moving forward. He'll weigh his options, he said, and perhaps go for it more often.

That's a start. As an offense in general, the Hokies need to be sharp and aggressive early in the game. Considering where Thomas is in his development, this team is not built to play from behind.

Thomas will get more comfortable, but it might take longer than anticipated.

In the meantime, he needs to at least do enough in the passing game to keep defenses guessing. The coaches need to put him in a position to succeed (and stay upright). Then the Hokies can ride this year's playmaker, Wilson, to yards and points.

Wondering if they have the muscle to do that? Check the tape. The raw material is there. Beamer's challenge is making it all work.

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