Sunday, October 07, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hokies' eventual disappointing season has arrived

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Frank Beamer peeled off his headset with 2:48 remaining, conceding defeat. He stood on the sidelines with his hands on his hips and his eyes fixed on something he hadn't seen in years: an utterly ordinary team.

The down year for Virginia Tech has arrived. It was overdue. Still, that makes it no more welcome in Blacksburg.

The question now is not so much the ceiling but the floor: How bad will it get for the -Hokies, and how well can they minimize the damage when they have to face the best in the ACC?

"I never thought," cornerback Antone Exum said, "that we would be considered an average team by any means."

But that's what they are right now. And at times on Saturday, as North Carolina steamrolled the Hokies for 533 yards in a 48-34 victory, the word "average" seemed generous.

Defensive coordinator Bud Foster used words like "atrocious" and "pathetic" and "unacceptable" to describe his unit's tackling. All appropriate. Players described the locker room as one part angry and one part stunned.

"It's tough," linebacker Bruce Taylor said. "I've never been on a losing team before. Right now we're at .500, and it's definitely tough. ... We've just got to try to fix it before it's too late."

The approach on defense will be to strip away the frills and return to the meat and potatoes of football: taking better angles to the ball, breaking down when the ball carrier breaks down, and, most of fall, finishing tackles.

Those things didn't happen Saturday, and it wasn't the first time we'd seen that this year. UNC running back Giovani Bernard ran like he was back in high school, having things any way he wanted them. Quarterback Bryn Renner seemingly had an eternity to survey the field, set his feet and throw.

"I think that's what we need to get back to," Taylor said of simplification. "We've got a bunch of younger guys, and I feel like their minds are kind of tying up their feet a little bit, with all the different schemes we have and all the things we do.

"I feel like next week we probably need to get back to fundamentals, tackling drills, stuff like that. Go back to the basics. That's what I feel like our problem is."

If that seems like taking a step backward, well, so what? At least they get it. This wasn't just a bad day; this was the latest in a series of bad days.

No unit can be blamed alone. No unit can be trusted completely. This year's Hokies are fractured in a lot of places, and the only thing to do is patch up as many things as they can and compete to the best of their limited ability.

The one positive that you take from Saturday is that the Hokies appeared to understand this. Gone was the usual deflection or circumvention, the notion that one play here or there would have made all the difference.

"We don't need to make excuses," Beamer said when asked about youth and depth. "We need results."

Expect some changes on defense - fewer nickel packages, more of Tech's base looks. Trying to mask the lack of depth with schemes has not worked.

"Our personnel kind of takes us out of our blitz package, and I just don't like it," Foster said. "I feel like we're kind of tying one hand behind our back, so to speak. รข?

"We've got to eliminate the big plays. That's what's killing us right now. And every one of those big plays comes down to technique and fundamentals. Those things can be corrected, but we've got to get 'em right."

Meanwhile, future opponents such as Clemson, Florida State - yes, even Duke - look at Tech and see opportunity. The down year has come. And they have been waiting for it.

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