BLACKSBURG, Va. - Getting off to a sluggish start in what figures to be an emotionally charged season, No. 9 Virginia Tech struggled to beat East Carolina 17-7 Saturday, even hearing boos from a home crowd that honored a plea not to jeer the Pirates.
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 an uninspiring performance on the field.
The running game struggled. Quarterback Sean Glennon threw an interception, lost a fumble, was sacked four times and continually missed open receivers with errant passes. The defense had to save the day.
East Carolina, a 27 1/2 -point underdog that didn't have its No. 1 quarterback, actually led until Victor Harris returned an interception 17 yards for a touchdown with just over 3 minutes remaining in the first half to give the Hokies a 10-7 lead.
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.
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.
"That Hokie spirit is alive and strong," the public address announcer said at the start of the pregame ceremony. "But we will never forget and always honor those taken from us too soon, and those still recovering from that day."
One of the biggest cheers went up when East Carolina officials presented a $100,000 check to Virginia Tech's memorial fund.
"How about a big Hokie thank you to East Carolina," the announcer asked.
"Thank you!" one side of the stadium roared on cue. "Pi-rates!" the other side followed.
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 alumnus. 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 more than 66,000 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.
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 held up well without quarterback Rob Kass, who was scheduled to make his first career start. 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 throw that 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.