Scrappy A&M team falls to Hokies in fourth quarter

To get from here to there, take one step at a time. Taking a shortcut doesn't often make sense. Most people looking for shortcuts usually end up getting blindsided somewhere along the way. Thursday night against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg the Aggies took another step.

To get from here to there, take one step at a time. Taking a shortcut doesn't often make sense. Most people looking for shortcuts usually end up getting blindsided somewhere along the way. Thursday night against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg the Aggies took another step. The weather, compliments of Hurricane Isabel, did it's best to blindside them.

At the end, the scoreboard was deceptive, reading Hokies 35 to the Aggies 19. For most of the wind-whipped, rain-soaked evening, the outcome was much more in doubt than the final score might have indicated. For the Aggies to have hung within single digits of the nation's eighth-ranked football team for most of the game certainly wasn't a leap forward, but it was a step in the right direction.

Coach Dennis Franchione took his A&M team on the road for the first time, and while the final outcome wasn't as desired, it did provide more knowledge about this work in progress. There were good moments, great moments, and several that were forgettable. The only way Coach Fran can properly analyze this young, but enthusiastic Aggie team is to put them on the field and see how they respond.

The first half began with near disaster as the Aggies did their best to self-destruct on the initial possession. After taking a delay of game on the game's first play, the offense stalled against the Virginia Tech defense and was forced to put after the quick three and out. Senior punter Cody Scates had the football almost blown out of his hand, as he stepped into the kick. The resulting 15 yard net set Virginia Tech up deep in Aggie territory.

Scates, coming off an injury layoff, couldn't overcome the strong hurricane-fueled winds, but little did he know his biggest challenge was yet to come. Later in the game, Scates was trapped by the Hokies' vaunted kick block team and somehow escaped with a 15-yard gain to convert a long fourth down. In the Aggies' long football history, not many runs more impressive than Scates' have been reeled off, and none have probably been as unexpected. Scates' effort was a little George Woodard and a little Leeland McElroy, as he used both strength and elusiveness to pull off the surprise.

Down quickly seven to zero, the Aggie offense gave the defense a chance to rest, and for the rest of the first half kept A&M in the football game. Reggie McNeal and the Aggie offense were able to consistently move the ball against the Hokie defense until the intermission.

The second and third Aggie possessions resulted in short Todd Pegram field goals. Both field goals from point-blank range put points on the board, but to that point the Ags were trading threes for sevens, as the Virginia Tech offense produced a second touchdown in the first half.

With Tech leading 14-6, Hokie punter Vinnie Burns nailed the Aggies down at the two-yard line after his 48 yard punt with 6:52 to play in the half. Over the next 5:37 the A&M offense was as effective and impressive as it's been over the past several seasons. McNeal lead the Aggies the length of the field, primarily utilizing Tim Van Zant and Courtney Lewis as his weapons. Van Zant looked every bit the scholarship player he now is in taking the lead role at receiver in the absence of Jamaar Taylor.

McNeal ran, McNeal threw. And when Courtney Lewis carried the ball the final two yards, the Ags found themselves down by only two with only seconds to play in the first half. A two point conversion attempt failed, and the two point margin stood as the first half ended.

The decision to go for two that early in the game is open to debate, as it allowed Virginia Tech to hold a two score lead after their next touchdown. Had A&M converted the placement and cut the lead to one, the following touchdown would have kept the margin at eight and made it a possible one score game.

The second half saw the Aggies succumb to the Hokies running game, as tailback Kevin Jones ran over, around, and through the defense on his way to a 188 yard night. Virginia Tech quarterback Bryan Randall was as impressive as Jones, as he foiled nearly every attempt by the Aggie defense to stop the Hokies and give McNeal and company field position.

As they had against Utah the game before, the Aggie defense could not force the opponent's offense off the field often enough to keep the game within reach. Virginia Tech converted eight of thirteen third and fourth downs. That's a rate that won't win many awards and is alarming for a team that prides itself on defense.

Randall was uncanny in his ability to elude the Aggie defense at just the right moment to keep several series alive and finally wilt the A&M defense.

A&M stayed within striking distance until Byron Jones muffed a high, into the wind Virginia Tech kick-off midway through the fourth quarter. The margin completely overtook the Aggies.

A&M took a number of chances Thursday night, including an on-side kick that might have turned the tide. When questioned about it after the game Coach Fran said the Aggies came to win, not just compete. They didn't travel half-way across the country for a moral victory. Read this loud and clear Aggie fans--Texas A&M had come to win.

Assessing this team after three games, it's obvious they've taken steps in the direction. But there are many more steps to take between here and there.

The defense is the most incomplete unit on this football team. The loss of Jared Morris hit hard at the heart of the defense, where youth and inexperience are obvious. There's talent on that side of the ball and plenty more standing on the sideline wearing redshirts. But for Aggie fans accustomed to Wrecking Crew standards, there will be long and painful moments along the way.

On offense McNeal has asserted himself and appears the clear cut number one quarterback [Editor's note: Between the writing and publication phases of this article, Coach Franchione announced that Reggie McNeal is now the starting QB]. Each week he's improved different aspects of his game. Against Virginia Tech it was his control of the offense and his calmness in the face of both a superior opponent and difficult weather conditions that were most impressive.

The running game has been inconsistent, but that's not necessarily a reflection on the running backs. The young offensive line has struggled at times and has plenty of room to improve. There have been signs of that improvement. But for a line, it's consistency that's most needed.

As McNeal grows and the line improves the Aggie passing game should be in good hands with the talent on board.

Things don't get much easier for Texas A&M with Pittsburgh up next on the schedule. The familiarity of Kyle Field should prove a boost for the Aggies, however, after the tough battle against Virginia Tech and their Lane Stadium crowd.

When the Aggies step from Virginia Tech to Pittsburgh they may find themselves wondering just what they've stepped off into. But at least the surroundings and the elements should be in their favor.

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