Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hokies' D loses much more than just game

PITTSBURGH - The lunchpail got thrashed here Saturday. Sledgehammered, kicked, slammed and thrown into the Ohio River.

Virginia Tech can try to fish it out, repair it, move on. The Hokies vow that they will, because there is no other choice. But there's also no denying that at least for one day, their identity of toughness, great defense and physical play was commandeered by their opponents.

The result was Pittsburgh 35, Tech 17, and it could have been worse than that. The Panthers missed two short field goals. They yielded the second-longest punt return in Tech history, a 94-yarder, and the game still wasn't that close.

"This loss," linebacker Ronny Vandyke said, pausing. "This is serious now."

It is serious, because how it went down calls into question the very tenets of Tech football.

Pitt didn't just stop the running game and force Logan Thomas into mistakes. In bludgeoning the Hokies for 537 total yards - more than Tech allowed in its first two games combined - the Panthers broke numerous tackles and consistently won the line-of-scrimmage tussle against Tech's vaunted defensive front.

"You've got to be physical in this game," said Pitt running back Ray Graham, who ran for two touchdowns and caught a scoring pass. "You've got to be a mean running back. You've got to know when to put a move on 'em, and you've got to know when it's time to get that yard and just run downhill. ... We definitely went out there and made noise today."

Plenty of Tech fans surely did, too, as they watched this mess unfold on their TV screens or from the upper deck of half-empty Heinz Field. The team they know -the one that hits hard, wraps up and puts opposing offenses in reverse - wasn't out there.

In its place was a defense that looked timid, confused, unsure. As the big gains kept coming, the Hokies felt the same sensation everybody else did: This isn't them.

"Definitely," linebacker Bruce Taylor said. "Especially after we've shown in the first two games - especially against Georgia Tech - that we're a good-tackling group. We just came out today and I guess weren't as focused as we needed to be."

The biggest surprise was the performance of freshman Pitt running back Rushel Shell - a 215-pounder who bullied his way to 157 rushing yards. The Hokies hadn't seen much of him on film, but they were impressed with what they saw in person.

Still, there were opportunities to hold Shell to half that total, had the Hokies done a better job finishing their tackles.

"It's more mental than it is physical," Tech rover Kyshoen Jarrett said. "Once that person gets the ball in their hands, it's all about getting them down. Me personally, I should have been wrapping better instead of just trying to knock out some legs. You get what you give, and it wasn't 100 percent."

Several Hokies mentioned something similar - that the emotional edge that they had in the opener against Georgia Tech just wasn't there Saturday. The coaches know that's on them; whatever the pep talk was heading into this one, it need not be retained.

But there will need to be plenty of different pep talks in the coming days, reminders to the players of their capabilities and their history of sound, fundamental defense. It started in the postgame news conference, when Frank Beamer uttered a simple truism: "We know how to win."

And they know this wasn't the way.

"We lost," Jarrett said. "We lost in a fashion we didn't want to lose in. But we're all going to rally together and we're going to do what we have to do to come back stronger. ... We hang our heads, it's going to be a long season."

So they'll strap on the flippers and the goggles and dive into the rushing waters. The Hokies have an identity to retrieve, and fast.

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