Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Virginia Tech's losses a team effort in 2012

CLEMSON, S.C. - The immediate reaction is a familiar one: The offense blew it. The special teams helped them do it. The defense did all it could, gave Virginia Tech every chance to win this game, and got sabotaged by the offense's poor execution, costly mistakes and head-scratching play calls in critical moments.

That is, in fact, what happened here Saturday, as No. 14 Clemson defeated the Hokies 38-17 in a game that was there to be pilfered. This has been the recipe for a large percentage of Tech's (infrequent) losses over the past decade.

But to call this a trend in 2012 isn't accurate; it's reaching too far back into the archives to support a stance.

Anybody think the offense lost that North Carolina game, when the Hokies scored 34 points and gave up 48? Or how about that Cincinnati game, when Tech's offense drove for the go-ahead score with under two minutes remaining only to watch the Bearcats whiplash 85 yards the other way and win it?

No. Tech's units are taking turns losing games for this team. Or perhaps it's better phrased this way: Tech's units are taking turns preventing the team from winning games it MIGHT have a chance to win.

Lest we forget, the Tigers are pretty good. It takes a lot to beat them, particularly on the road, and the Hokies had only a fraction of it. Tech's defensive line was terrific, as the Hokies recorded five sacks for the second straight week. Tech's secondary held up well against two of the best receivers in the ACC.

But that's not enough. Not this year, not with this team.

The bottom line is that Tech's margin for error is as thin as it's been in at least a decade.

Typically, if the Hokies get stuffed on a critical fourth-and-1, they have enough talent to overcome it.

Typically, if the ball slips out of the quarterback's hands and the other team intercepts it and returns it for a touchdown, it's not a death blow.

Typically, if the team gets jobbed on a couple of key calls - like, say, the quarterback being "sacked" when he never hits the ground - there's a what-are-you-gonna-do mentality that pushes through it.

Not this year. All those things are potential crushers, and they were on Saturday.

"I think the momentum kind of changed from there," quarterback Logan Thomas said of the third quarter play where he was called down despite throwing a completion that would have picked up a first down. "Instead of having a big play, we were called down for a sack. Then right after that, we had the fumble - what we thought was a fumble - and they went on to get a touchdown. It changed the tides right there, but we can't do anything about it now."

They can't. But what they can do - or at least you'd hope so - is block better on a fourth-and-1. Or, barring that, at least use their short-yardage backs (Martin Scales or Thomas) instead of Michael Holmes, who hadn't had a chance to get into the flow of the game.

And they can scrap that wide-receiver pass that iced the game, that ill-conceived blooper that fell hopelessly into the arms of a Clemson defender.

Stuff like this drives fans crazy, and rightfully so. They see this team's limitations. The coaches need not exacerbate those limitations with strategies that have little chance.

Defensively, the Hokies have played very well for the past seven quarters. That's perhaps the lone positive to come from this one, and the track record of those guys indicates they can keep getting better.

Tech's offense has a track record, too. We all know it, and it deserves to be questioned, critiqued, challenged.

But when discussing 2012, it's unfair to say Tech's 4-4 record should be shouldered by the offense alone. It's taken a team effort to get the Hokies to this unfamiliar place.

And if they hope to get somewhere better in the last four games? It'll take all the units for that, too.

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