Sunday, December 04, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Another one gets away from Hokies

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- This kick was a clear touchback. It was going to hit somewhere near the back of the end zone and bounce out, no doubt about it.

No returner was close. No return was possible.

Yet there the orange shirts came anyway, all 11 of them, fanned out across the field like William Wallace's inspired soldiers. The Clemson Tigers were engaged in an all-out sprint. They kept right on sprinting even after the whistles blew. They raised their fists to salute the band as they reached the end zone, then made a left turn as one and headed to the sideline.

Right there. Did you feel it? The Tigers led by only seven points at that moment, but they were going to win. If you couldn't sense that, then you hadn't been watching them.

More importantly, you had not been watching their opponent. Virginia Tech wasn't running like them. The Hokies weren't hitting like them.

This ACC championship game resembled the 2005 event so much it was almost absurd. The score this time was more lopsided. Clemson torched the Hokies in the second half Saturday to win 38-10. Six years ago, Florida State had to hold off a late rally to beat Tech by five.

But all the other elements were there, right down to the dumb penalties as things got away.

Both times, the Hokies came in as the hot team with the vaunted running game. And then they couldn't run it.

Both times, the opponent had sagged at the end of the season. And then that opponent came out and seized control.

Both times, Tech failed to set the emotional and physical tone, allowing a team with little to lose to start feeling like its old self again.

How do you measure emotion? Granted, it's not easy. Nobody doubts that the Hokies wanted to win this game, but they didn't come in here playing like bullies. Meanwhile, the Tigers came out delivering hits that looked like they hurt.

The Hokies' first play from scrimmage was a lost fumble that Clemson soon turned into a touchdown. Their third play was a pass to Danny Coale, who somehow held onto the ball after he was leveled by Clemson's Rashard Hall.

Three plays later, quarterback Logan Thomas dumped one off David Wilson, who got destroyed by defensive back Xavier Brewer for a loss of 1.

Suddenly, the Tigers were dancing and chirping and jumping into each others' arms, just like that Seminoles team of yore. A sellout crowd that was at least 50 percent Clemson fans (probably more) started to roar.

Sometimes, that's all it takes -- a break, then a few devastating licks -- before a team that seemingly could do nothing right suddenly feels like the one that started the year 8-0.

Tech's approach seemed to be one of finesse rather than one of power. Wilson only had six carries for 21 yards in the first half. Yes, THE David Wilson, whose brilliance this season netted him ACC Player of the Year honors and has him on the cusp of setting the school record for yardage.

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