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McFarling: Tech title hopes hinge on fast start

McFarling: Tech title hopes hinge on fast start

The importance of Saturday’s Pittsburgh-Virginia Tech football game can be encapsulated by one fact: The Hokies have never won an ACC championship after losing their first conference game.

Not in 2004, when they opened the league slate by thumping Duke 41-17. Not in 2007, when they lifted the ACC lid by slipping past North Carolina 17-10 at home. Not in 2008, when a late Dustin Keys field goal gave them a 20-17 victory over Georgia Tech and a 1-0 start in the ACC. And obviously not during their most recent ACC title run in 2010, when they blanked host Boston College 19-0 to begin their march toward an 8-0 conference record.

Given this context, Frank Beamer can be forgiven (at least by me) for his poor choice of words after last week’s loss to East Carolina. No, the nonconference season isn’t just a collection of “exhibition” games, as Beamer implied, but there can be no debating that the big stuff starts now. And beginning things the right way matters an awful lot.

Much like Boston College, Pitt has been an important litmus test for the Hokies over the years, mostly because of the team’s physical style of play. The Panthers either reveal your toughness or expose your lack of it.

Pittsburgh’s 35-17 home dismantling of the Hokies in 2012 was an unfortunate turning point for Tech’s program. The Hokies, who’d gone to the Sugar Bowl the previous January, were 2-0 heading into that matchup. They were ranked 13th nationally, having edged Georgia Tech and breezed past overmatched Austin Peay.

Then Pitt happened. Ray Graham and Rushel Shell — the latter now at West Virginia, the former out of football — combined to rush for 251 yards and two touchdowns against Tech’s defense. Logan Thomas threw three picks. And perhaps most troubling of all, the Hokies ran for just 59 yards.

That was much more than a loss. It was a direct assault on Tech’s identity as a power-running, defensively dominant program. And it hinted at what was to come — six losses in eight games, a 7-6 record achieved only after an ugly bowl win against Rutgers, and no further sniff of the rankings that season.

Saturday’s game has a similar bifurcate feel to it. Win — as the Hokies are expected to do as 4.5-point Vegas favorites — and Tech is assured at least a leg up on Pitt, Miami, Virginia and Georgia Tech in the Coastal Division, with possible advantages over North Carolina and Duke, as well.

Lose? Well, then fans will have every right to believe this will be the fourth straight year without a trip to the ACC championship game.

“I think we’ve learned a lot and hopefully corrected a lot, and we’ll be a better football team,” Beamer said of his 2-2 nonconference start. “And hopefully we’ll play better and play technique better, play assignment football better, tackle a lot better. Hopefully all those things, we’ll see them this weekend.”

No. 1 on that list has to be tackling, particularly with Kendall Fuller’s absence creating a great unknown in Tech’s secondary. The strength of this team, its defensive line, needs to set sacks and quarterback pressures aside in favor of wrapping up Pitt’s big running backs, providing a blueprint for every player behind them.

And yes, particularly given the wet forecast, the Hokies must be able to run the ball. Tech gained just 26 yards on the ground in last year’s loss to Pitt — the sixth-lowest total in the Beamer era. It got so bad that the Hokies simply abandoned the run late and couldn’t make enough passing plays in a 21-16 defeat.

If anything close to that happens again, the Hokies can kiss a 1-0 ACC start goodbye. And history tells us that when that happens, they lose more than just a game.

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