Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Virginia Tech's defense finally enjoys success

BLACKSBURG - These guys are not robots. Sometimes, we need to remind ourselves of that. Virginia Tech defensive end James Gayle is not a 6-foot-4, 269-pound cyborg you line up via an instruction manual, then guide to the ball with a remote control. Nor is anybody else.

There's more to playing defense than schemes, alignments and leverage.

Sometimes, you've just got to enjoy yourself.

"This game was the most fun I've had probably since I've been at Virginia Tech," Gayle said, after the Hokies rallied to beat Duke 41-20 on Saturday. "Just because I felt like everybody was out there playing like we needed to be playing. I don't know. Just something about this game, I like."

Sequences like this might be why: Midway through the third quarter, Gayle and fellow defensive lineman Luther Maddy created a quarterback sandwich out of Sean Renfree, hitting the Duke senior just as he released an incomplete pass.

On the next play, there were three Hokies converging on the QB instead of two, with Maddy bringing Renfree down.

The trio of Hokies rose in unison, congratulated each other, then stuck their hands in the grass to try to do it again.

Joy. For a defensive lineman, that's what that is. And that's what's been missing for what was supposed to be the strength of this Hokies' defense.

After recording eight sacks in the first six games combined, Tech's defensive line racked up five against the Blue Devils. Maddy had two of them. Gayle, Tyrel Wilson and Dadi Nicolas each had one. And each member of this defense - whether he plays in the trenches or not - relished a half of football in which Tech finally put its opponent on high alert.

"Man, you can just feel it when everybody's hype," said linebacker Bruce Taylor, who made eight tackles and was as exuberant on the field as he's been all season. "The intensity, the crowd getting loud and stuff like that? That's the best part, especially on third downs when we're able to get off the field. That's the best."

Is there anything in his non-football life that compares to that feeling?

"Nothing," Taylor said, after mulling the question for a moment. "Nothing. It's something else. I've only got a few more games in this stadium to enjoy that. I'm going to cherish it and enjoy this ride."

That's why these guys play football. It's not for titles or for gaudy win totals - at least not nearly as much as those things matter to coaches, media and fans. I guarantee you there are players on this team - veterans, even - who haven't looked at the ACC standings once since they stepped on campus. They've never considered Coastal scenarios or looked up tie-breaking procedures.

No. Most play for the hits, the noise in the stands, the collective energy in the huddle, the visceral sensations.

For Tech - and presumably any other college team - those all intensify or dim based on one aspect more than any other: the defense's ability to make big plays.

The Hokies haven't had that most of the year, and they certainly didn't have it in a first quarter that found them trailing 20-0. But interceptions by Michael Cole and Detrick Bonner provided hope, Kyle Fuller and Ronny Vandyke forced fumbles, and suddenly a program that has feasted on turnovers for years felt whole again.

"I was thinking the very same thing," Beamer said. "How many times have we been out there and the defense makes a play and all of a sudden the game turns around?"

Saturday was the latest example, with Bonner's pick just before the half being the catalyst. That set up Logan Thomas' long touchdown pass to Marcus Davis with 17 seconds left that had the Hokies running off the field to cheers despite still trailing 21-17.

The quarterback pressure arrived in earnest in the second half, when everybody knew Duke had to throw. And don't think the defensive backs are ignorant to how important that up-front push is.

"It completes us," Bonner said.

Sounds close to a touchy-feely quote from a touchy-feely scene in a movie, but it's appropriate. The Hokies won no titles or ensured no future success on Saturday. They simply got back in touch with their reasons for playing.

In a season like this, that's a critical step to take.

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