Emotional Hokies shake off slow start, beat East Carolina

BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) -- Virginia Tech charged onto the field with an enormous burden. Barely adults, these guys were playing for themselves, playing for their school, playing for all those maroon-clad fans.

Most important, they were playing for 32 Hokies who weren't at Lane Stadium.

On an extraordinary afternoon of healing and remembrance, the football game was almost an afterthought. No. 9 Virginia Tech managed to control its emotions just enough Saturday to pull out a 17-7 victory over East Carolina.

"I know I was overanxious," linebacker Vince Hall said. "Coach warned us about it, but how can you be ready for that? It was so emotional."

Indeed, the Hokies appeared a bit overwhelmed by the burden of what they'll face all year: rallying a school that is desperate to move on from the worst mass shooting in modern American history. The 32 victims of April's campus massacre were honored in a heart-tugging pregame ceremony, which was followed by a sluggish performance on the field.

"We're not magical healers or anything," quarterback Sean Glennon said. "The most we can do is go out and show that we're giving every ounce of effort for the fans, for the families, for this community."

The running game struggled. Glennon threw an interception, lost a fumble, was sacked four times and continually missed open receivers with errant passes. The Hokies offense even heard boos from a home crowd that honored a plea not to jeer the Pirates.

The defense helped turn things around.

East Carolina, a 27 1/2-point underdog that didn't have its No. 1 quarterback, was leading when Victor Harris returned an interception 17 yards for a touchdown with just over 3 minutes remaining in the first half, pushing the Hokies ahead 10-7.

The crowd breathed a sigh of relief when Virginia Tech finally put it away early in the fourth quarter. Glennon hooked up with Sam Wheeler on a 21-yard touchdown with just over 13 minutes remaining, the Hokies' only offensive TD.

Wheeler, a sophomore tight end, was Virginia Tech's most effective weapon. He caught a career-best seven passes for 81 yards.

"We fought through it and found a way to win, even when things were not perfect," coach Frank Beamer said.

But just getting through the game may have been Virginia Tech's most significant accomplishment. After all, they've heard all summer how they'll provide a much-needed catharsis for a campus that still has fresh memories of that awful day.

"It's going to be a continuous process," Beamer said. "As long as you're at Virginia Tech, you're going to remember April 16th."

East Carolina played well but didn't ruin the script. When it was over, both teams kneeled at the 50-yard line for a prayer. Then the Hokies turned toward the band in the north end zone, singing along while they played the school's alma mater.

"That was kind of a nice touch, to have our fans and our players all together at the end," Beamer said, though he had to fake it -- he forgot the words.

"I'll know the words next time," the coach said sheepishly.

The Pirates played a supporting but important role. One of the biggest cheers went up when East Carolina officials presented a $100,000 check to Virginia Tech's memorial fund during the pregame ceremony.

"It was a special day," coach Skip Holtz said. "It was neat for us to have an opportunity to be a part of it."

The crowd fell silent during a video montage of images after the shooting, the somber sidetrack provided by the song "Walk Humbly Son" from the group Eddie From Ohio, whose lead singer is a Virginia Tech alumna. Thirty-two orange balloons -- one for each of the victims -- were released into the gray sky.

Then it was time for some football.

"Let's go Hokies! Let's go Hokies!" the crowd roared, clearly ready to get on with the healing.

Suddenly, the Metallica anthem "Enter Sandman" began pumping throughout the stadium, the student body bouncing up and down with glee, the rest of the sellout crowd of 66,233 letting out a roar that must have reverberated throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Virginia Tech band assembled at one end of the stadium. The school's cadet corps lined up at the other. Both teams came on the field together, passing each other at midfield without any trash talk or taunting. In fact, Hokies linebacker Corey Gordon paused to clap for the Pirates.

"It was such as emotional day for everyone," Wheeler said. "It's just good we came out with a win."

Outside Lane Stadium, it looked like any other football Saturday beforehand as fans fired up the grills, turned up plenty of beers and got into a Hokies state of mind.

There was one major difference, however.

The handful of East Carolina fans, easily identifiable in their purple and yellow attire, were invited to join the Virginia Tech party. At one Hokies tent, they flew the Pirates flag right underneath the U.S. and Virginia Tech banners. An SUV decorated in Virginia Tech's distinctive maroon and orange colors had a huge sign draped across its windshield: "Thank You ECU For Your Support."

"We're here for our team and to support our team," said Alexis Zell, a Virginia Tech sophomore, "but we're here to support everybody else that has been there for us."

East Carolina had to go without quarterback Rob Kass, who was scheduled to make his first career start. He was suspended Tuesday after being charged with driving while impaired.

Sophomore Brett Clay, who had not thrown a pass in a game since high school, started in place of Kass but didn't last. He was lifted after completing only 2-of-6 throws, including a horribly thrown pass from his own end zone.

The ball went straight to Harris, who took off the corner, dove for the pylon and just got across before losing the ball. After a video review, the touchdown stood and East Carolina's 7-3 lead was gone.

Third-stringer Patrick Pinkney went the rest of the way at quarterback for the Pirates.

East Carolina scored its lone touchdown after Branden Ore lost a fumble near midfield. Chris Johnson capped the 52-yard drive with a 2-yard plunge over left tackle.

The Hokies know they'll have to play much better next weekend, when they travel to Baton Rouge to face No. 2 LSU.

But at least they have this one behind them.

"There was so much riding on this game, outside of the game itself," Glennon said. "There was so much attention and emphasis on things that were not related to football. Our heads were somewhere else."