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.