Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Virginia Tech again bobbles a bowl breakout

NEW ORLEANS -- The image that endures isn't Michigan racing onto the field after the winning kick in overtime. It isn't anybody hoisting a trophy or giving a speech.

No, the image that endures from Tuesday night's 23-20 Michigan victory over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl is that of Danny Coale walking along the sidelines moments after the officials had determined his potential touchdown catch wasn't so.

He held his helmet in his hand. His eye black was smudged. All around him, teammates had their mouths agape, disbelieving the call of the replay officials. Coale just shook his head once, ever so slightly.

That close.

The Hokies poured everything into this game, from the moment they touched down in New Orleans last week until the moment Brendan Gibbons split the uprights from 37 yards out for the game winner.

They played outstanding defense on one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the nation.

They drove 83 yards in the final four minutes to set up the game-tying field goal.

And the donation of sweat and effort was never encapsulated better than by Coale's sprawling, one-handed catch in the left side of the end zone in overtime.

For a few minutes, it gave the Hokies the lead. It had potential to be one of those legendary plays, the signature moment befitting Coale's brilliant four-year career.

But officials reviewed it and determined Coale didn't have control of the ball in bounds.

"I thought it was good," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "When I saw that it wasn't, I was a happy man."

The Hokies, meanwhile, were stunned. Shock turned to desperation on the following play, when third-string place-kicker Justin Myer - 4-for-4 until that point - missed a 37-yard field goal wide right to set up the Wolverines for the winning score.

That close.

The loss, though, had its roots much earlier in the game than overtime. There's a reason nobody writes big magazine pieces or does glowing ESPN features on "BeamerBall" anymore. It doesn't exist.

Special teams have become a liability in Blacksburg, and the gaffes on Tuesday night had nothing to do with kickers on suspension.

The Hokies seemed to have control of this one twice in regulation. Both times, special teams let them down. In the first half, Tech was poised to build on a 6-0 lead until James Hopper committed a roughing-the-punter penalty that gave Michigan hope. The Wolverines capitalized with a go-ahead touchdown pass six plays later.

Michigan tacked on a field goal just before half after another special teams blunder - this on a fumble by Tony Gregory on the ensuing kick return.

The other special teams failure came midway through the fourth quarter, when Tech faced a fourth-and-1 from the UM 45. The Hokies called a timeout and, rather than opting to go for it or punt it away, Coale was given the option to run it or kick it. If he saw a seam, he was supposed to make a break for it. If not, he was to kick it away.

Neither happened. Coale saw defenders approaching, and before he could drop the ball to his foot, he was overrun.

So much for game plans.

The most important thing the Hokies had to do defensively, they did. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson had nowhere to run. Oh, he tried, but there was Tariq Edwards or Alonzo Tweedy or J.R. Collins there to wrap him up after a gain of two yards - or worse.

That forced Robinson to the air, and we saw then why he keeps it on the ground so much. Robinson threw a pick and had another potential interception overturned by replay.

Even his touchdown passes looked like prayers. Both times, Tech defensive backs had a shot at the ball but got outdueled by Michigan receivers.

The first came late in the second quarter, when Robinson kept a play alive with his feet and, on third-and-17, he waved it down the right sideline for Junior Hemingway. Eddie Whitley went for the interception and came up with air; Hemingway made the catch and broke free for the score.

Hemingway's other touchdown catch was a brilliant individual effort in the back of the end zone - a boundary play not unlike Coale's.

Hemingway got his. Coale didn't.

That close.

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