Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: What's up with these slow starts, Virginia Tech?

BLACKSBURG - Well, this beats the alternative.

Virginia Tech could be a great first quarter team and then implode. That'd be a lousy, frustrating formula.

The Hokies could start seasons by destroying opponents, generating massively unrealistic expectations, then fall apart toward the end. They've been that team before. Remember 2003? It wasn't fun.

Or the Hokies could never be any good. That'd be the worst scenario.

They're none of those things. Instead, they're a program that typically starts slow and gets better. Have been for several years now.

It happens in seasons, it happens in games, and it happened again Saturday in Tech's 30-14 victory over Boston College at Lane Stadium.

Credit the coaches and players, yes, for making the adjustments necessary to gain command of this one and ultimately pull away from a struggling team. But we've still got a right to ask: What's up with these slow starts?

BC led this game 7-6 at halftime. Before you say, "Well, the Eagles always play Tech tough," let's remember a few things.

These are the 2011 Eagles, who've yet to beat an FBS foe.

The Eagles, whose one win in seven games now was against lowly UMass.

The Eagles, who came into this game ranked 95th in total defense, 105th in total offense.

So the sluggish start isn't something the Hokies want to shrug off. Especially when it came one week after Tech went three-and-out on its first four possessions against Wake Forest. The Hokies faced a 10-0 deficit in that one before coming back to win.

Aren't they concerned that this kind of thing will bite them eventually?

"Yeah, we definitely think that," quarterback Logan Thomas said. "Nobody wants to start slow. We want to get off to a quick start. I think it's all on us.

"We've been kind of feeling them out like two boxers in the first round, just seeing what they're trying to do. And then once we get there, we start throwing [punches]. I think we just need to go out there and attack a little harder."

In Saturday's case, that meant using David Wilson more. Nobody - including Wilson himself - could quite figure out why the ACC's rushing leader got only three carries on Tech's first four possessions, or why he finished the half with only six totes.

Tech's offensive coaches made the adjustment at halftime. Turns out that was early enough to take down BC. But it's fair to wonder if a team with better personnel and more confidence will allow Tech to do the same moving forward.

Every offense is rhythm-driven to some extent, but Tech's this year seems to be remarkably streaky. The Hokies dominated Wake Forest once they got going in the second quarter. Likewise, they went on a 21-0 tear against BC to start the second half.

Thomas, who struggled with his accuracy in the first half, connected on all but one of his 11 throws in the second.

"I'm not sure what it is," Thomas said. "You know, it kind of starts up front with [the linemen]. Once they catch their groove, I think the whole team catches their groove and we're good from there on out."

A word here about the defense. Those guys were solid throughout, despite a seemingly endless amount of injuries. Without their effort in the first half, Tech easily could have lost this game.

The challenge now is to become a four-quarter team. That means not drawing a penalty on the first play from scrimmage, like the Hokies did Saturday for an illegal formation. That means drafting a more effective game plan during the week to facilitate a few early first downs.

And if that still doesn't work? Well, then they can fall back on their new reputation. But the less often they have to do that, the better.

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