Saturday, December 29, 2012
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: No offense, but bowl summed up Hokies' season

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The whole crowd was holding its breath. Some fans seemed to be gasping. The ball left Logan Thomas' hand and spiraled 40 yards downfield, carrying the hopes and dreams of Russell Athletic Bowl glory with it.

The Rutgers defender set up for an interception attempt. Tech receiver Marcus Davis, pursuing with all his speed and desire, caught the ball cleanly -- about 10 yards out of bounds.

Silence at the Citrus Bowl.

That one fourth quarter play encapsulated this game: Anticipation of something big happening, and then ... well, the opposite. The Hokies won it 13-10 in overtime on a missed field goal, but only after the teams combined to set an event record for punts and almost shut down Twitter with a deluge of sardonic critiques not seen since Beavis and Butt-Head stopped watching music videos from their sofa.

So, the requisite praise first: Congrats to Tech on being the last team standing. Congrats to game MVP Antone Exum on making the game-changing interception that allowed the Hokies to tie it, completing the karma circle that began with his treating some lucky kids to a shopping spree at Best Buy just before Christmas.

Congrats to the Hokies' defenders, who held Rutgers to 197 total yards. Congrats to A.J. Hughes, who averaged 42.5 yards on his 11 (eleven!) punts. Congrats to Derrick Hopkins, whose first down sack in overtime made the final field goal attempt just tough enough to be missed.

But with the praise must come an acknowledgement of truth: This was one of the ugliest bowl games ever played, punctuating the most unsightly Tech season in two decades.

We have to hope that the first three quarters were rock bottom for Tech's offense. As in ever. Given all the speculation that sweeping changes will be made to the staff on that side of the ball, there's a good chance that at least they'll have some fresh leadership to try to ensure that's the case.

Logan Thomas would be best served forgetting this game - and much of this season - ever happened. Say this for him: He battled. He never lost his poise, not Friday night or any other time, but the confidence must be rebuilt, presumably with some new voices in his ear. If it can be, he still has a chance to come out the other side of his college career as an NFL prospect with a healthy dose of perspective on handling adversity.

The running game, a disaster all season, went out with a resounding thud. The Hokies averaged 4.5 inches on their 32 rushing attempts, further distancing themselves from a dearly held Blacksburg tradition of pounding the other team into submission.

And yet the Hokies won, beating a 9-3 team with a strong recent history of bowl success. That Rutgers defense was legit - hard-hitting, sure-tackling legit - but Bud Foster's crew matched those guys hit for hit, stop for stop. Tech will end the year ranked in the top 25 in total defense and have most of their starters coming back on that side of the ball.

This game will be remembered for everything it wasn't: entertaining, for one. A ratings bonanza, for another - or at least that feels like a safe assumption.

But the Hokies might remember it for what it should become: a transition from the old way of doing things on offense to a new era with more imaginative thinking, game-planning and executing.

And they didn't even have to lose to get there.

When it ended, the Hokies danced around in the rain before going to the podium to accept their trophy. A grinning Exum was crowned the game MVP.

And the sideline reporter wrapped it all up succinctly, congratulating "Virginia State" on its victory.

Yes, mistakes were made. On this night. In this season.

Now comes the offseason to correct as many as possible.

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