Friday, November 02, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Difficult decisions ahead for Beamer

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. - The rabbit will stay in the hat this year. No miracle runs are coming, no how-did-that-happen winning streaks are going to get this Virginia Tech team an ACC title game berth that it doesn't deserve.

Long term, that might be a good thing for the Hokies. But only if they're willing to abandon the excuses, face the problems head-on and make the appropriate changes.

Tech's 30-12 loss to Miami on Thursday night did much more than destroy the Hokies' Coastal Division chances and officially end the streak of 10-win seasons. It also reframed the rest of 2012. The last three games (or four, if Tech makes a bowl) are all about clear-eyed introspection and evaluation, and Frank Beamer can't be afraid to make bold moves when the campaign ends.

The idea that Tech is a play or two away is false. Cracks have formed in the foundation. Things Tech used to do so well -- power running game, sure tackling, great special teams -- have been maddeningly inconsistent this year, as Thursday's game underscored once again.

We really should start with special teams. They must be overhauled. Special teams blunders -- first a blocked punt, then an 81-yard kickoff return -- facilitated the Hurricanes' first two touchdowns Thursday, putting Tech in a 14-3 hole in the first quarter.

Unlike the running attack and the tackling, special teams troubles are not a one-year issue. We can't write this off as a 2012 fluke. Mistakes in the kicking game have been undermining the Hokies for several seasons now. Beamer either needs to modify his own approach or bequeath those duties to somebody with a better plan. Otherwise, a huge part of this program's identity dies completely.

Identity is the problem on offense, too. The Hokies just don't seem to have one. Four times, they forged into the red zone. They turned it over twice and kicked two field goals.

Tech simply can't line up and overpower anybody any more. Not even a Miami team that entered the night ranked 119th out of 120 FBS teams in rushing defense. Oh, Tech got its ground yards -- 222 of them, a more than adequate total -- but when it mattered most, the Hokies lacked the muscle to exert their will.

Tech's offense set the tone in the first quarter, when the Hokies faced a first-and-goal at the Miami 5. On first down, tailback Michael Holmes had nowhere to run and was dropped for a loss of two. On second down, Thomas ran back to the original line of scrimmage.

Third down incompletion. Field goal.

Missed opportunity.

Blame play-calling if you want. But when the field shrinks, the passing options become less attractive. You've got to be able to run the ball even when the opponent knows you're going to do it.

For years, Tech could. The old Hokies would have been in the end zone in two plays or fewer. Beamer has to decide whether this is a one-year problem - a cocktail of poor offensive line play and a stable of young tailbacks that can be fixed with personnel changes - or if it's an erosion at a deeper level, one that requires a staff shake-up to inject toughness into this offense.

That's what these final three games are for.

Despite running for 124 yards, quarterback Logan Thomas had perhaps the most trying game of his college career. He threw two interceptions. He fumbled a snap at the Miami 3. He overthrew wide-open fullback Joey Phillips in a critical fourth-and-1. He underthrew a wide-open Dyrell Roberts for what could have been a 20-yard gain.

Another high priority for the staff: Get this guy feeling good again somehow. Through pep talks. Through different schemes and play calls that can get him in a rhythm. Something. He's way too valuable, way too talented to be scuffling like this in the passing game.

The Hokies aren't playing for many tangibles the rest of the way. Pride. Keeping the bowl streak intact. Beating their in-state rival.

Unburdened by greater expectations, they're free to look toward the future. And that starts with Beamer looking in the mirror and making some tough decisions.

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