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September 2, 2008

Young Hokies learn tough lesson in season opener, but should get better as season continues

By: Jimmy Robertson

As we compile this issue of the magazine, the students have been back a week, backpacks heavy with textbooks and notebooks. The classes started, the syllabi got handed out, professors updated Blackboard and young men and women began a rather monotonous semester-long routine of reading, writing and research, with tests and quizzes, both planned and unplanned, sprinkled in.

After roughly three weeks worth of classes (coined ‘practices’ in football speak), the Virginia Tech football team took its first test of the season on Aug. 30th and the results were not pretty, a 27-22 loss to East Carolina. During the grading of this one, Frank Beamer’s pen bled plenty of red ink.

For those who watched, you know the story. Tech’s errors were comprehensive. Some were minute, such as the missing of numerous tackles. Others were large, such as an ill-timed interception that resulted in an ill-fated (for Tech) ECU score right before halftime. Others were egregious; such as having a punt blocked that led to the Pirates’ game-winning touchdown with less than two minutes remaining.

“There’s no excuse for that,” Beamer stated afterward.

Students who logged on to message boards related to Tech saw them spinning out of control not long after the defeat. Players and coaches became punching bags for those eager to relieve their frustrations.

Yet here’s a novel idea – take a deep breath and a long-term approach when analyzing this team. After all, isn’t there a semester’s worth of assignments and tests left on this team’s syllabus?

When studying this team, we knew coming into this season that the Hokies just wouldn’t be quite as good as last year’s squad – they lost 22 seniors, most of them tremendous players, including eight who got drafted in April’s NFL Draft. Statistically, 1,400 tackles, 59 sacks, 32 interceptions, 409 receptions, 6,139 receiving yards and 43 touchdowns left. Not to mention, they lost leading rusher Branden Ore, who for all his shenanigans, possessed NFL-type ability.

We knew going into this season that the Hokies possessed a bunch of youngsters. They only returned 14 seniors and 10 starters. The team’s resident professors – the coaching staff – spent a lot of time teaching, all the while trying to get this class up to speed because the course material – their opponents – comes quickly.

Beamer and the staff dressed 10 true freshmen and played eight of them. Thirty-one players who dressed for the ECU tilt had yet to play in a collegiate game. Ten different players made their first collegiate starts against ECU.

Even a lot of Tech’s upperclassmen lack experience. Guys like Purnell Sturdivant, Cordarrow Thompson, Dorian Porch, Kenny Lewis, Jr., Demetrius Taylor, Greg Boone and others have been in the program a while, but played only a little. And making matters worse, the Hokies played the game without arguably their most talented athlete – Macho Harris – who missed the game with a foot injury.

This opening game wasn’t Intro to College Football 101, a gimme course to ease one into college academia. Playing football at Tech is like taking an upper level course. You better spend time working and studying, or else.

So what should we have expected? Well, anything because that’s what you get with the unknown. And like a bunch of freshmen taking their first college exam, they typically struggled.

“It just takes time,” Beamer said. “We knew that going in. We knew we had a young crowd, and it’s just going to take some time. What I like from our crowd is that I thought our effort was great. It’s just that our execution has to get better – and I think it will.”
And it’s not as if there weren’t some positives to come out of the game. Stephan Virgil played extremely well in his first career start. Dyrell Roberts made a nice catch of a beautifully thrown pass by Sean Glennon that went for 62 yards and set up a score. Lewis and Darren Evans ran hard and showed the ability to break tackles. Plus, the Hokies committed just one penalty, showing discipline for a young team.

“Certainly, we’ve got areas to improve in, but I was pleased with our effort on both sides of the ball,” Beamer said. “We had only one penalty. We played with discipline. I’m encouraged that we were only one block away on several plays from breaking them. We’ve just got to get a little better there. Defensively, the effort was outstanding. The missed tackles and a couple of missed alignments, we can get those corrected.

“This is a young football team that wants to get better, and we’re going to work hard to get better.”

East Carolina doled out a tough lesson in the opener. But now Tech’s younger players know what to expect. They played a good team in an NFL stadium in front of 70,000 or so fans, and they led for 56 minutes of the game. The great teams find a way to finish those types of games, regardless of how they play. The Hokies learned that painfully.

And you know some of Tech’s better players will play better. Guys like Kam Chancellor and Sergio Render and Ed Wang are too good not to play better. You know Glennon will respond – no one works harder or wants to win more than that guy.
Following the game, Tech’s coaching staff remained upbeat. The coaches know this team possesses a lot of good, young talent. The message was simple – keep your head up, we’ll be alright.

The Hokies will be back in the classroom – their practice field. After this loss, they’ll take better notes and study more efficiently. We all know what that equates to – success in future tests.

So Tech fans need not get disheartened. After all, consider this. The past two times the Hokies lost a season opener, they responded and won conference championships (1995, 2004 – a note courtesy of athletics communications czar Bryan Johnston). That goal remains attainable.

Yes, this group faired poorly in the first test, and they may struggle at some point down the road.
But just remember, the final grade isn’t in yet.