Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hokies must stop slow starts

LANDOVER, Md. -- You want to talk about the end. Makes sense. The end was crazy, exciting, uplifting and heartbreaking. The end put the W on Cincinnati's ledger and the L on Virginia Tech's.

Plenty of interesting stuff happened at the end: The teams combined for 31 points in the fourth quarter, the lead changed hands four times, Michael Holmes might have emerged as the top tailback option through his performance on one team-carrying drive.

But think about it: If Cincinnati's Damon Julian doesn't make that spectacular diving catch in the end zone with 13 seconds left, we're not talking about a 27-24 Hokies loss. We're talking about a 24-20 Hokies win. The fourth quarter was that volatile, that uncertain.

That's why the end is secondary. The beginning is where it's at, because the beginning is an undeniable trend.

This offense can't start a game worth a darn. Five games, five brutal opening salvos. That's a problem that has a much bigger impact on where the rest of this season goes than one diving catch.

And the worst thing? Coach Frank Beamer seems to be in denial about it.

Asked about yet another slow start by his offense, Beamer deflected.

"I thought we played good defense," Beamer said. "I thought we had 'em scouted out pretty good and played good defense."

Not much to go on there. So a different reporter gave him a chance to revise that answer by asking almost the exact same question several minutes later.

Slow starts, Frank?

"What I look at is I thought we got better as an offense tonight," Beamer said. "I thought we made some plays and were sharp in the second half. I'm going to take that and build on that."

But the starts, Frank. Does something need to change in the preparation?

"No," Beamer said. "We prepared hard. Our players did, our coaches did."

Well then. Nobody expects Beamer to bash his players or his staff, but at least an acknowledgement that the starts are unacceptable seems appropriate.

If he won't, though, allow me. Something has to change. Something in the game planning, something in the play calling, something in the blocking scheme, something in the pregame warmups. Something, whatever it is, that Beamer is paid to diagnose and cure.

The Hokies didn't get a first down until the 5:17 mark of the second quarter. Read that sentence again, and ask yourself whether "I thought we played good defense" shows a proper perspective on the Tech's performance in the first half of this game.

The blocking was woefully ineffective. The Hokies ran the ball to start five of their first seven possessions and each of their first four. I actually like that strategy - they have to establish the ground game to have success, and the field position wasn't advantageous - but either they picked the wrong holes to attack or got beat physically.

Only one of those runs went for more than three yards. One went for none, one went for one and two went for three.

The result was a bunch of second-and-long situations against a team with a good pass rush and cornerbacks who like to press.

"Now you're in their wheelhouse, so to speak," Tech play-caller Mike O'Cain said. "You're playing right into their hands."

The result was no first down until almost 25 minutes in.

Tech has good coaches. Frustrated fans keep telling me they don't, but I don't believe that. I've seen this team get better over the course of seasons. I've seen the team get better over the course of games, as it has most of this season and did on Saturday night. I've seen this team ranked in the final AP poll for eight straight years, when no other program in the country has a streak of longer than five.

That's good coaching. But their weakness is clear.

"We'll get it going," quarterback Logan Thomas said. "You don't gotta worry about that. We've made a couple mistakes in every game in the first couple quarters that have killed us. Once we correct those mistakes, we'll be fine."

He may very well be right. But the biggest mistake would be for Beamer to keep acting like it's not a problem. It is a problem. And fixing it is the only way to ensure that in 2012, we'll talk positively about the end.

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