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September 9, 2013

Despite loss, Hokies get off to a solid start to 2013 season

By: Jimmy Robertson

When Demitri Knowles caught the opening kickoff from Alabama kicker Cade Foster, the green flagged dropped on the 13-week race that is the 2013 football season. Unfortunately, 60 minutes worth of game time later, the Hokies stumbled across the finish line at the first segment on the wrong end of a 35-10 defeat to No. 1 and two-time defending champion Alabama.

Yet, to be completely counterintuitive, the Hokies actually got off to a solid start to this season.

The statistics certainly bear this out as Tech out-gained the top-ranked team in the country 212-206, out-rushed them 153-96, recorded 12 tackles for a loss, had four sacks and picked off a pass. The Hokies lost by nearly four touchdowns because special teams count, as we know, and the Crimson Tide got a touchdown on a punt return and a kick return and also got one on an interception return.

They also got the win. Those were the differences.

The telling analysis of this game came from Alabama coach Nick Saban.

“They [the Hokies] out-played us up front, if you want to know the truth,” Saban said.

Therein lies where Tech comes out feeling great about its performance.

Defensively, most Tech fans expected that type of performance from a front seven that returned six starters – six really good ones, too. Tackles Luther Maddy and Derrick Hopkins owned the interior of Alabama’s front line, and as a result, Tariq Edwards and Jack Tyler were everywhere making tackles. In addition to sacking Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron four times, the Hokies harassed him on eight other occasions.

The pressure helped Tech’s young corners, who held up well against Alabama receiver Amari Cooper, a consensus freshman All-American last season. Cooper caught just four passes. McCarron completed only 10.

“Defensively, we played one of the best defensive games we’ve ever played around here,” head coach Frank Beamer said. “We were flying around. I thought we were physical. We were tackling some good backs and explosive wide receivers, and we did a good job of that. I felt good about that.”

The surprise performance came from the Hokies’ much-maligned offensive line, which held up well against Alabama’s front. Logan Thomas was sacked once, and Trey Edmunds made history, rushing for more yards than any Tech running back in a debut game at the school. He ran for 132 yards on 20 carries.

Only three of Edmunds’ carries lost yards (1 yard on each carry). Skeptics might say his numbers were skewed by a 77-yard touchdown run in which he out-ran Alabama’s defense after getting great blocking at the point of attack. But really? That run doesn’t count?

Tech broke in two new tackles, including freshman Jon McLaughlin, who became the first freshman to start at left tackle under Beamer. That Alabama got one sack – which offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler actually pinned on Thomas – speaks volumes.

“I think we proved a lot with some young guys on the offensive line,” said Andrew Miller, Tech’s lynchpin on the offensive line. “I can’t speak from the other positions, but I think we’re going to learn from this game and improve greatly from it.”

Beamer got a lot of what he expected out of this game. He knows the Hokies are going to play great defense, and that they have two good kickers. He knows Thomas, though he suffered a subpar passing performance, is a tremendous leader and a good quarterback.

But Beamer got so much more out of this. The offensive line showed potential, and the Hokies found a tailback in Edmunds. Plus, the 20 Tech players who saw their first collegiate action, including nine true freshmen, held up well for the most part.

“You kind of get a reading for where you are,” Beamer said. “You see if people can handle the biggest of big situations, how they handle it and how they react to it. In college football, the first time you play for real, you’re playing a regular opponent. It’s regular season, not preseason games or scrimmages.

“That first ballgame, I think you get a great evaluation. You can see how kids respond to those types of situations.”

Beamer said that in a news conference before the game. During the game, he found out how his team responded to that type of situation. Needless to say, he was pleased.

“I think we have a chance to be a really good football team,” he admitted. “We’ve got some work to do. We’ve got some execution to do. But I think the essential parts are there to be a really good football team.”

In the end, the Hokies didn’t land on the throat of college football’s premier program and take a giant leap forward. But they did take small steps.

They should be optimistic that bigger ones are yet to come.