Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Virginia Tech gets true sense of identity from win

Correction (Oct. 16, 2011: 10:52 a.m.): In an earlier version of this story, the final score of Saturday's Virginia Tech-Wake Forest game was incorrect | Our corrections policy

Virginia Tech 38, Wake Forest 17

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - We need to start with the punt. We could start with David Wilson's dazzling run, or that long drive that put this thing away, or the defensive replacements stepping in and contributing well. But no. The punt it is.

Because if Virginia Tech's first seven games have taught us anything, it's that we can't forget about the punts.

This one came late in the second quarter. Freshman Michael Branthover booted it. It was a good one, bouncing near the left sideline, rolling forward and settling at the Wake Forest 5-yard line, where it was downed by the Hokies.

Fifty yards.

That might seem like such a small thing, but it's the field-flipping grease that makes the Tech gears go. That punt launched the key sequence in Tech's 38-17 victory: the J.R. Collins pressure, the Tariq Edwards pick, the Logan Thomas touchdown run that gave the Hokies control of this game right before halftime.

In hindsight, Wake coach Jim Grobe called his decision to call a passing play in that spot "stupid." After all, his team only trailed by four points at that stage. To think the Demon Deacons were going to go 80 yards in less than 40 seconds was a little ambitious.

Grobe's anything but a stupid guy. But even the best judgment can be clouded when a team applies pressure in all three phases. And for the first time since the season opener, the Hokies can say they did that on Saturday.

Tech leaves here with a true sense of identity. That had been lacking. Thrilling as last week's win over Miami was, it had a foreign feel to it. Un-Tech like.

OK, they showed they could score, but could they defend like they're accustomed to with a banged-up defense? Could their special teams cease being a liability and actually contribute in a positive way?

The answers against Wake were yes.

Branthover averaged 42 yards on seven punts, including a career-long 58-yard boot. Cody Journell nailed his lone field goal attempt.

Defensive end Tyrel Wilson, whose undersized frame was a topic of discussion all week, made two key plays filling in for the injured James Gayle: a sack, and a critical third-down stop of Wake quarterback Tanner Price that helped set up Tech's go-ahead touchdown drive.

Linebacker Alonzo Tweedy made six tackles (one for a loss) in place of Jeron Gouveia-Winslow, who was lost for the season early in the Miami game.

Tech's defense wasn't perfect, but it was solid, holding Wake Forest nearly 100 yards under its season average. And despite the injuries, the unit operated the way Tech's defense typically does, by pressuring the quarterback relentlessly and playing tight man coverage in the secondary.

Collins had a much bigger game than his stats (three tackles, one-half sack) would have indicated. With Gayle out, he needed to lead and did. He got no statistical credit for hitting Price's arm on Edwards' interception, but the pick doesn't happen without it.

The offense, meanwhile, began to purr after a dreadful beginning. Four straight three-and-outs to open the game brought back memories of the Clemson debacle, but Tech adjusted.

Quarterback Thomas played a turnover-free game while throwing for two touchdowns and running for two more. Jarrett Boykin had a monster day, catching seven passes for 149 yards, while Wilson churned out yet another 100-yard rushing performance.

The offense showed it could strike quickly - as it did after the interception - and that it could grind out a long drive. The march that put this game out of reach began at the Tech 4 late in the third quarter. Fourteen plays, four third-down conversions and more than six minutes later, it ended with Marcus Davis celebrating with Tech teammates in the Wake end zone.

Everyone in that Tech locker room had reason to feel good after this one. No single unit had to dominate for the team to earn a comfortable road win.

And in the end, this team kind of resembles that punt. It's looking better than it did. It's got some forward momentum. And it's going to put a lot of pressure on the rest of the ACC.

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