Hokies earn respect from 'Canes, nation after two-point loss
December 3, 2001

We've all had a couple of days now to sit back and reflect on what we saw - either in person or on television- this past Saturday at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg. And even after taking pause, and a few deep breaths, it's no exaggeration to call this one of the greatest games ever played at Lane Stadium. Perhaps, if you will, the greatest loss in Virginia Tech history.

The emotion, the effort, the toughness, the teamwork Ě it was a day folks who follow the Hokies - and college football in general - won't soon forget.

Moral victories don't mean much, but Virginia Tech's football program may have gained more national respect in a two-point loss to No. 1 Miami than it got in any victory during the 15 years that Frank Beamer has coached this football team.

"One of the last ovations in our dressing room was when one of our players said, ╬Hey, let's give Virginia Tech a hand,'" Miami head coach Larry Coker said. "And our players gave a standing ovation to Virginia Tech."

When's the last time a bunch of Miami players even offered a positive comment about Tech, let alone applause?

This wasn't just No. 1 Miami. This was a team that had run Washington and Syracuse through the Cuisinart to the tune of 124-7.

But there were the Hokies, down 26-24 with six minutes to play, with the ball on Miami's 49. They had shown remarkable toughness, outscoring Miami 21-6 in the second half. And they had a chance to score the greatest triumph in school history.

It didn't happen, of course. Miami held and escaped with a two-point victory, but there was no Rose Bowl celebration on the field for the Hurricanes. There were hand shakes and hugs and back-pats. A larger than normal postgame prayer seemed to last longer than usual.

There was more relief than jubilation from the gang from Coral Gables, and for good reason. They had escaped Blacksburg - but just barely. And as a result, there was some increased examination of the Hokies by the visiting media and those who had seen the game on their televisions nationwide.

When Tech lost to top-ranked Florida State at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, most of the postgame talk was about Michael Vick's performance, and perhaps rightly so. This past Saturday, the focus was on the entire Tech program.

Following our Tech network broadcast, I was invited to join ESPN Radio's Mel Kiper, Jr. and Dave Revsine on their stage for about 15 minutes to talk about the Hokies. When I returned home, Sporting News Radio's Chet Coppock called, asking if I'd be willing to join him for an interview on his national radio show. He wanted to talk about the Hokies as well.

Tech, it seemed, had gained more admirers because it had played so well against a team deemed invincible by just about anyone who had seen them play. Coming so close and losing made it perhaps the toughest loss for the Hokies since the Sugar Bowl defeat to the Seminoles. There were tears on the sidelines - from coaches and players alike.

What if Cols Colas had not committed a personal foul in the second quarter than led to a Miami field goal?

What if Ernest Wilford had caught the two-point conversion attempt in the fourth quarter?

What if Grant Noel hadn't come up with the worst big-game performance in Tech history, committing five turnovers against the ╬Canes?

"We're not looking to blame here," Beamer said following the game. But in a sport where the focus is on the quarterback, the Tech coach didn't mince words in his postgame interview with Mike Burnop when asked about recruiting needs.

"We're going to sign two quarterbacks this spring," he said.

For the season, Noel completed 146 of 254 passes (57.5 percent) and threw for 1,826 yards. He had 16 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions (four against Miami).

I'm not sure you could ask much more out of a guy who was a third-stringer last year and had never seen much playing time before this fall. As we mentioned following the game, Noel averaged more passing yards per game (166.0) than Michael Vick last year (123.4). Numbers, though, can be deceiving.

Noel's a smart, tough, hard-nosed, honest kid who accepted blame for his bad game against Miami. Coupled with a sensational defense and a strong running game, he's an adequate quarterback for a top-25 team. That's what Tech is this season.

However, to beat top-ranked Miami or contend for national titles, a team needs more than adequate quarterback play, and Beamer recognizes that as much as anyone.

You need superior play, like what we saw from rover Kevin McCadam, linebacker Ben Taylor and defensive tackle David Pugh. Tech's secondary covered Miami's wide receivers step for step, never once allowing the big play. They stood toe-to-toe with this team and "kept hitting them in the mouth," Pugh said.

Tech didn't earn the win, but will finish the regular season ranked in the top-20 for only the sixth time in school history. And unlike some other seasons, nobody will question Tech's worthiness, or its strength of schedule, or its toughness after what we saw here Saturday.

"They played us tougher than anybody all year," cornerback Markese Fitzgerald said. "Hats off to Virginia Tech."

Indeed.

Jones explodes in front of nation
Well, let's see. Kevin Jones started three games this season for the Hokies.

1. 155 yards vs. Temple
2. 181 yards vs. Virginia
3. 160 yards vs. Miami.

That's pretty good for three starts, don't ya think?

For the season, Jones rushed for 957 yards, which was fifth in the BIG EAST. He scored five touchdowns and averaged 5.5 yards per rush. There will be some interesting decisions to make next fall for Tech running backs coach Billy Hite if Lee Suggs - as expected - makes a 100 percent recovery from his knee surgery. You can't have enough talented running backs, and the Hokies - when you throw in Keith Burnell and Cedric Humes - will be quite potent in the backfield next fall.

The BIG EAST will have some of the best backs in the nation in 2002. Tech has its stable. William Green says he is coming back to BC. Clinton Portis at Miami and Avon Cobourne at WVU all will be back next year.

I like Green big time, but wouldn't you like to see Suggs and Jones run behind Miami's offensive line? In terms of size, speed, and overall talent, those three are probably the top three runners in the league.

More on the Gator Bowl decision
This story has been rehashed ad nauseum over the last week, but the Gator Bowl's decision to take Virginia Tech over Syracuse was - as you know - a direct result of SU's inability to bring fans to Jacksonville.

Gator Bowl officials saw that Syracuse finished sixth in the BIG EAST in attendance this season. Teams that don't draw well at home aren't likely to bring fans to bowl games a thousand miles away and SU's track record isn't great. The Orangemen sold roughly 7,000 tickets the last time it was invited to Jacksonville.

While the Gator Bowl's decision wasn't really a big surprise, the reaction from the SU Hill was. SU administrators vowed there would be changes in the way the Gator selects BIG EAST teams and that the Orangemen were robbed.

While nobody will deny that Syracuse deserves to play in a New Years Day bowl, the Gator selection process will remain the same. BIG EAST assistant commissioner John Paquette, in town for the Tech-Miami game, confirmed that the league and the bowl have already extended their current arrangement, which allows the Gator to select a second BIG EAST team as long as its overall win total is within one of the second-place team. Notre Dame is also in the mix.

That means 8-3 Virginia Tech can be selected over 9-3 Syracuse. And next year, if Syracuse is 8-3 and Notre Dame is 7-4 under its new coach, expect the Irish to be picked for the Gator.

The negative reaction from the SU campus is surprising for two reasons.

First, Syracuse signed off on this deal and knows why it's put in place. The Gator pays big bucks to the BIG EAST and that money comes primarily from ticket sales.

Second, Syracuse is getting its second-place money ($1.8 million) even though it's going to the Insight.com Bowl. The Orangemen will gladly take this money, which is coming in part from the Gator Bowl's payout to the BIG EAST.

Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni, his assistants, and the administration are getting bowl bonuses out of that $1.8 million. Do you suspect they'd decline those bonuses and that extra cash just to play in the Gator? Of course not.

Why SU expects the Gator Bowl, which assumes all financial liability here, to take a huge loss on this game is mind-boggling. The financial responsibility of the various bowl games is set in stone. Their payouts to the various conferences are not negotiable.

The leagues, conversely, have a responsibility to provide teams which will provide a good match-up and hopefully fill a stadium. In the case of the Gator, they are allowed to bypass the second-place team to assure the best possible attendance at their game.

Does Syracuse deserve better? Absolutely. That team won nine games against a tough schedule and defeated the Hokies in Blacksburg.

But the BIG EAST office and the Gator Bowl staff deserved better than the harsh words coming out of Syracuse last week.

Hey, the BIG EAST needs the Gator Bowl. Rick Catlett, who runs the Gator, and his crew could easily get an SEC vs. ACC match-up down there and let the BIG EAST send its second team to somewhere like the Motor City Bowl in Detroit.

This is one of those ╬you can't have it both ways' issues. If you want the big bucks, you better pack the stadium.

Tech is fortunate to have such a terrific fan base, so it will get the edge on many other teams for bowl bids. That's a big plus in recruiting and exposure for Beamer and his program. Also, it makes you appreciate the way Virginia Tech administrators have reacted in recent years when Tech was snubbed.

In 1998, Virginia Tech finished second in the BIG EAST and went to the Music City Bowl, which was the slot reserved for BIG EAST team No. 4. You didn't hear a peep out of Blacksburg crying about Notre Dame taking the Hokies' Gator Bowl bid. The Irish played Georgia Tech that year.

Last year, Tech was 10-1 and fifth in the BCS rankings, yet was left out of the Fiesta Bowl. Notre Dame got the at-large bid to face Oregon State. There was some disappointment, obviously, but nary a negative word about the Fiesta Bowl staff. Tech, instead, happily went to Jacksonville and helped sell out the Gator Bowl game.

In public, bowl officials praise Tech fans.

Behind closed doors, those same officials offer even more praise for Tech's administration.

The Voice's Mailbag
Bill and Mike,
We had nothing to lose and everything to gain. However, you can't stop thinking what could have been if we hadn't turned the ball over - four interceptions and 2 fumbles is pathetic. We need at least average quarterback play and we didn't get it. I hope Grant Noel doesn't start next year because if he's the best quarterback we got, we are in for a long season. Do you think there's any chance we'll see some split time at quarterback in the bowl game? Dave in Richmond

Dave,
I think there will be tremendous pressure on Coach Beamer and Coach Bustle to play Bryan Randall against Florida State. However, their primary goal and focus is to win the football game and - unless something changes between now and January 1st - they feel Grant Noel gives them the best chance to win. They have felt that way since the season opener and have not changed their minds.

Mr. Roth:
Grant is not a good quarterback. The numbers say he completes so many passes for many yards, I know. But the reality is that he is a liability. And his failures deflate the team. You could see the difference in the defensive effort immediately following Grant's last turnover. He hurt the team's spirit - because his mistakes come at critical points in the game and are completely unforced. That is unforgivable for the leader of the team's offense. The comparison to Grant Noel that comes to mind is Al Clark. Al didn't have an arm. And once he injured his leg (I can't remember whether it was his ankle or knee or what have you), he lost his ability to scramble. But he almost never turned the ball over. He knew when to "eat" the ball, when to throw it out of bounds, when to try to run for a yard or two, how to slide. In other words, he kept the offense on the field long enough to give the defense a rest.
And most important, he gave the defense decent field position to hold the other team on the field until the offense could get back out there and try to win the game. He had true game smarts. And that makes him look better and better to me as I look back on his tenure as our quarterback here at Va. Tech. He was the best we had. And he made the most of his own skill and everyone else's on the field, on offense and defense. Linda.

Dear Linda,
Grant Noel had a bad game, it's true. But he's had some good games for the Hokies this season too, so don't remember his season based solely on the Miami game. I thought one of the best things about Al Clark was his ability to throw the ball away and not make third-down mistakes. He understood the strength of the team was its defense, and that as long as he didn't throw interceptions, Tech's chances of winning were very good. He had a great deal of football savvy and was an underrated quarterback here.

Dear Grant:
Congratulations on a great season. While yesterday wasn't your best performance in terms of numbers and timing, you have much to be proud of in terms of your efforts this year. I'll be rooting for you at the Gator Bowl and next year. You're a tough and well-adjusted guy, a real credit to VT.
Funny, but I was more frustrated last year with MV's sophomore effort than I was this year with yours. Go figure. Don't let the fan frustration and out-of-perspective comments get the best of you. I'd bet that the experience has made you a better QB today than you were two days ago. Hang in there. Steve

Steve,
All you can ever ask out of a kid is for his best effort. Nobody will ever question Noel's effort for the Hokies.

Dear Bill,
What a second half! If Tech played like that against Syracuse and Pittsburgh, with that emotion and focus, we would be 10-1 and in the Orange Bowl or Sugar Bowl. We have an average quarterback (and that's being kind) but still, this team should be 10-1. They had André Davis, Kevin Jones, and an amazing defense. Will Va. Tech ever have a better WR, tailback and defense at the same time? I doubt it! Hope we play with emotion against FSU. When we play flat, we are very beatable. Sally.

Sally,
They'll be fired-up for the 'Noles!

Dear Bill,
I am a season ticket holder. I am a Hokie Club Member. I have been going to games for years at Lane Stadium. I am respectful of Coach Beamer and his staff and I have enjoyed seeing the growth of this program. However, that performance by Grant Noel yesterday was pathetic. If you think Virginia Tech can beat Texas A&M, LSU, Syracuse, Miami or even BC next year on the road with that type of quarterback, you are mistaken. And if you think you can fill 12,000 more seats in Lane Stadium with that kind of quarterback, GOOD LUCK! Harold.

Harold,
If Grant Noel is Virginia Tech's quarterback next year, he will be better for what happened Saturday in Blacksburg. Grant had a terrific game against Boston College this season and I think had some pretty good games throughout this season. But you are right. To win against top-10 teams, you can't have turnover-filled games from the quarterback position regardless of who is taking the snaps.