Monday, September 03, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Season on the line for Virgina Tech

For Virginia Tech, tonight is all about halting some negative recent trends - and perpetuating a positive one.

The idea that the Hokies don't start seasons sharply? Time to slay it.

The notion that the deafening noise of Lane Stadium makes for good TV but not necessarily a more formidable host? Time to feed off the voices.

The perception that, for whatever reason, the Hokies struggle to "reload" along the offensive line? Time to put a stop to it.

Like every game against Georgia Tech, tonight's will be about who can control the flow. The teams run vastly different offenses but share the same goal: to assert themselves on the ground, eat the clock, win the field-position battle and wear the other guys down.

Deep shots are rare; smashed mouths are common.

So to see where the game will be won, you have to force your eyes to do something they aren't trained to do: Watch the line of scrimmage.

You've probably already heard plenty about Georgia Tech's offensive line. It's the first one recruited entirely by coach Paul Johnson, one that has potential to be among the best in the nation, one that, in "Lord of the Rings" parlance, has been bred for a single purpose: to destroy the world of men.

They will be here by nightfall.

The good news for the Hokies? They have the forces on the defensive front to create a stalemate - or better. Quarterback Logan Thomas is great, and Kyle Fuller and Bruce Taylor are big-time defenders, but the strength of this Tech team is its deep, experienced defensive line.

In practice, they would call this "good on good." Your best, their best. That scrum should be fun to watch.

Still, that matchup is only half the equation tonight. The other crucial battle will pit center Andrew Miller and Tech's four new offensive linemen against defensive coordinator Al Groh's most massive weapons, a group led by three-year starter Izaan Cross at defensive end.

Virginia Tech's O-line should be pretty good this season. The question is, how long will it take to get there? Quick and effective communication, an oft-overlooked aspect of O-line play, will be vital tonight.

The word out of practice is those guys are jelling. They're more athletic than past versions, which creates opportunities to try more things on offense - misdirection and the like. We'll see.

The cancellation of the spring game brings an extra sense of mystery to this night and this season. The faster-paced Virginia Tech offense - how much of that will we see? New running back Michael Holmes - how good will he be? New punter A.J. Hughes - can he boom the big one when it matters most?

We don't know yet. But we do know that the team that controls the flow has a terrific chance of winning.

Neither team is much inclined to share the football. Virginia Tech ranked third in the nation last year in average time of possession, as David Wilson and chains-moving receivers Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin thrived around a veteran offensive line.

Georgia Tech was ninth nationally in time of possession. One of the reasons the Jackets weren't higher on that list is the game they played in Atlanta against the Hokies. Virginia Tech owned the TOP matchup in that one, holding the ball for more than 34 minutes in pulling out the 37-26 victory.

Since Johnson took over the Jackets in 2008 and installed his option offense, the winner of the Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech game has prevailed in TOP every time. The Hokies are 3-1 against Johnson, with all the games being tight. When the Jackets won in 2009, they held the ball a whopping 38:22.

So it matters. A lot. For the Hokies, the key to halting their troubling trends is to be on the right side of that one.

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