Hokies send resounding message to nation in their first season in ACC
The Roth Report
December 6, 2004
By Bill Roth

Days later, the echoes can still be heard on South Beach, reverberating up and down Collins Avenue.

The biggest party of the year in Miami occurred Saturday night when the most popular art deco colors in this town became burnt orange and Chicago maroon.

This past Saturday afternoon, Virginia Tech fans turned the Orange Bowl into a tropical version of Lane Stadium as the Hokies out-rushed, out-played, and out-hit Miami 16-10 to capture the ACC Championship.

By Saturday night, Miami was Blacksburg-south. Close your eyes and imagine for a moment that the Clevelander Hotel has replaced the Lyric Theatre and that swaying palm trees line Blacksburg's College Avenue. That's what Miami was on Saturday.

And now a new legend is born. If you pick up a sea shell on Miami Beach and hold it close to your ear, you'll hear the roar of the Hokie Nation. This week, that's more fact than fiction.

From a wild post-game celebration that started at the Orange Bowl and made its way to the beach, to the sensational pep rally in Cassell Coliseum Saturday night, Virginia Tech football fans can sense they've got their team back.

After struggling in 2002 and 2003, Tech finished the 2004 regular season in the top 10 and will return to the Bowl Championship Series. After playing back-to-back bowl games in baseball stadiums (Pac Bell Park and Bank One Ballpark) the Hokies will actually play their bowl game on a football field this season, the one at the New Orleans Superdome.

The fans are rejoicing not only because their team won the ACC during its inaugural season in the league, but also because they were concerned the magic had died.

Michael Vick was long gone. The ESPN Gameday crew wasn't coming to Blacksburg anymore. The skeptics suggested Frank Beamer's team was destined to be a middle-of-the-pack ACC program for years to come.

Well, the Hokies shattered that myth before the paint on the ACC logos in Blacksburg had a chance to dry. Tech won its final eight games, including a triumphant win over Miami to win the league title and serve notice that it would be anything but an also-ran in its new conference home.

"We didn't come into this league just to be a member. We came here to win it," Tech cornerback Eric Green said.

That attitude and confidence spread throughout the team. So much so, in fact, that when the Hokies broke the huddle at the Orange Bowl, they did so by barking "One, two three, Takeover."

"We did that because our goal is to take over the ACC," Tech quarterback Bryan Randall said. "We started that last week (in the Virginia game) because we felt we needed to play with a 'take-over' attitude.

The Hokies won an outright ACC championship during their first year in the conference. That's a feat Tech's in-state neighbor to the north has never accomplished in 52 seasons. For the record, it took Tech 12 weeks.

"We knew we could do it. We believed in each other," Tech tailback Cedric Humes said after rushing for 110 yards in the Hokies' clinching win over the Hurricanes.

The winds have changed direction in the ACC, a conference that Florida State has dominated over the years.

And in 2004, the team that pulled out a miraculous turnaround just to get into the conference, ended up winning the league.

That's something to cheer about for sure. So pick up a seashell, hold it close to your ear and listen closely.

You'll hear the cheers of a confident and giddy Hokie Nation.

Hokies finish strong to put past behind them
It's been a familiar refrain for Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer during his tenure in Blacksburg. An axiom that reflects his coaching philosophy.

"It's not how you start, but how you finish that's important," Beamer has said countless times since returning to his alma mater to build the school's football program.

And while Tech surged to championships with strong finishes in the mid-1990's, his most recent teams struggled in November and therein lies the rub.

Tech jumped to a quick start before struggling down the stretch over the past two seasons. As a result, even the most avid Hokie fan was withholding judgment as the 2004 calendar turned to November and ultimately December.

"We'll be judged by how we play down the stretch," Beamer said after his team's win over then sixth-ranked West Virginia in October. "The story of this season will be how we play in November. That's how we're gonna be remembered."

Well, they'll remember this team for a long time.

To Beamer's liking, Virginia Tech's 2004 team played its best football down the stretch, improving as a team as the season progressed. Tech won its last eight games, including all four ACC road games to finish 10-2.

The genesis might have occurred on a late October night in Atlanta when Tech rallied for 25 points in the fourth quarter to win at Georgia Tech. The Hokies proved that night that they could win a close game on the road, something they'd have to do in Chapel Hill and Miami later in the season.

"This group reminds me a lot of our 1995 team," Beamer said in a jubilant locker room after his squad clinched the ACC championship at the Orange Bowl. Tech's 1995 team started 0-2 before winning 10 consecutive games, including a win over Texas in the Sugar Bowl.

The Hokies' 2004 team started 2-2 before winning eight straight. Again, New Orleans will serve as the team's bowl destination with SEC champion Auburn serving as the opponent. And like the 1995 Tech team, this year's Hokies squad claims chemistry and team unity are at the root of its success.

Not that they are void of great talent. These 2004 Hokies have a sensational pass rush, a talented secondary that led the ACC in interceptions, and - as a group - the most physically gifted linebackers in the Beamer-era.

"And they did get better as the season progressed," Beamer said. "They trust each other. They play unselfish football, but boy, do we have some playmakers out there or what?"

That they do, especially at quarterback where the steady Bryan Randall has made play-after-play. "He's at his best when things looks their worst," Beamer said.

And they have them on the defensive line, where Jim Davis, Jonathan Lewis, Darryl Tapp, and Noland Burchette have been dominant. Beamer found a terrific kicker, too. Brandon Pace made 21 field goals, one shy of the school record, and made 10 of his last 11 attempts. And he's pleased with that secondary that led the ACC in interceptions.

Where this squad ranks among the all-time Virginia Tech teams is certainly open to debate, but it might be the most beloved. Beamer has won 10 or more games six times in the past decade, but this year's ascension to the league championship was sweeter because it was unexpected.

They were unranked and unknown in August. But they left Miami with a conference championship, a top-10 ranking, and Sugar Bowl berth.

That's a pretty good run, and you sense they're not done yet.

Defensive turnaround key to championship run
Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster walked off the field and down the dugout steps at Bank One Ball Park in Phoenix with his head down, frustrated, embarrassed, and disheartened.

It was December 26, 2003 and Foster's defense had just allowed 530 yards to the University of California in the Hokies' 52-49 loss in the Insight Bowl.

Foster knew Cal's quarterback Aaron Rodgers was good, but was he that good?

He knew his Tech defense was struggling at the end of last year, but it wasn't that bad.

Foster heard the criticism. Opposing coordinators had caught on to his defense, some said. Tech's defensive backs weren't good enough to play tight man coverage. The eight-man front scheme wasn't working any longer.

Foster, however, remained committed to his scheme and his players.

"USC is playing this exact same defense and they won the national championship," Foster said on numerous occasions last winter. "The defensive principles are solid, but our execution isn't where it needs to be."

So, the architect of Tech's defense went to work, and 11 months later, Tech has - once again - one of the nation's best defensive units.

After adding a few new faces to that defense, and tweaking some responsibilities of the whip linebacker, Foster is once again smiling about the play of Virginia Tech's defense, a unit that led Tech to the 2004 ACC championship. Tech allowed just 12.6 points per game this season and held Miami to just seven first downs and 10 points in the championship-clinching victory at the Orange Bowl. The Hokies finished the season ranked in the top-10 in nearly every national defensive category. The 12.6 points per game allowed ranks third in the country behind Auburn and USC.

Incredibly, after watching USC's Reggie Bush score three touchdowns on opening night at FedEx Field, the Hokies' defense allowed a total of just 12 touchdowns in the final 11 games.

Before the season began, Foster had a hunch his 2004 defense had a chance to be special. He predicted - correctly - that Tapp and Burchette would be effective pass rushers. He knew the return of Davis would be a big plus to Tech's pass rush.

And he had a hunch that his two freshmen linebackers - Xavier Adibi and Vince Hall had the chance to be true stars. Foster was right on all three occasions.

But Foster also made several key defensive switches. He flipped the positions for Vince Fuller and Jimmy Williams. In 2004, Fuller became a terrific safety, while Williams excelled as a run-stopper and shutdown corner. And he moved linebacker James Anderson to whip linebacker, where he became perhaps the most improved Tech defender in the Beamer-era at Virginia Tech.

By mid-season, Tech was playing lights-out defense, harassing quarterbacks, returning turnovers for touchdowns (six times) and looking like Tech defenses of previous seasons. And by the end of the season, in wins over Maryland, Virginia, and Miami, Tech's defensive unit had improved to the point where long-time observers were comparing it to the best defenses since Beamer took over his alma mater.

At Miami, Tech held a powerful Hurricane offense to 190 yards, its lowest output since a 1997 game against Florida State. Tech held UM to 1-of-12 on third-down conversions. A look at the drive chart showed the following incredible statistic: Of 13 Hurricanes' possessions, only two netted more than 20 yards for Brock Berlin and Company. With the game on the line in the second half, Tech's defense was remarkable. Want proof? Here are the stats for Miami's last six possessions:
3 plays, 2 yards, punt
3 plays, minus-7 yards, punt.
3 plays, 5 yards, punt.
5 plays, 12 yards, punt.
5 plays, 13 yards, punt.
4 plays, 8 yards, three batted passes, ball game.

That's not just solid defense, that's dominance, folks.

And so 11 months after that forgetful night in Phoenix, Foster walked off the field at the Orange Bowl teary-eyed and overcome by his emotions again. Proud of his players and their tremendous accomplishment, Foster knew that his Tech defense had turned a 180, and in the process, had brought another league championship to Blacksburg.

Sound bites
This Friday, William & Mary faces James Madison in the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs. It's also a match up of two former Tech players and graduate assistant coaches. Former Tech defensive tackle and graduate assistant J.C. Price is the defensive line coach at JMU. Former Hokie Greg Shockley serves as tight ends coach at William & Mary. It's an exciting time for both, but an uncomfortable situation as well. They're best of friends who spent hours working on film cut-ups in the GA's office in the Merryman Center, and almost as many hours munching on chicken wings at PK's in downtown Blacksburg.

The teams met during the regular season, but now will face each other with a trip to the NCAA I-AA championship game on the line. Both understand how coaches Frank Beamer and Ralph Freidgen felt when Virginia Tech played Maryland a few weeks ago. Both Price and Shockley are fiercely competitive guys, but they'd rather not compete against each other.

  • Where does Tech's win over Miami rank among the greatest wins in the Beamer-era? While Miami was ranked ninth in the country, the 'Canes finished 8-3 and certainly did not have the talent of their 2003 team that lost six first-round NFL draft picks. The Hokies, of course, beat that Miami team 31-7 last year in Blacksburg. That victory, over then-No. 2 Miami, is still probably Beamer's biggest win.

    Last Saturday's triumph at the Orange Bowl, however, was likely Tech's best defensive effort since the 1995 Sugar Bowl when the Hokies shut out Texas in the second half during a 28-10 victory. That Longhorns team featured tailback Ricky Williams, who went on to become college football's all-time rushing leader - although that record has since been broken.

  • A Miami talk show host asked an interesting question: "Why does Virginia Tech give Miami so many problems year after year?" Tech has beaten the 'Canes seven times in the past 10 years. In 2001, No.1 Miami escaped Blacksburg with a 26-24 victory.

    "Even when they manage to beat Tech, it's more of an escape than a win," he said.

    Well, Beamer's philosophy has a lot to do with it.

    "I really enjoy playing at the Orange Bowl," Beamer said last week.

    Now think about that for a minute. How many opposing coaches say they enjoy facing Miami's Hurricanes at the Orange Bowl? It reminds me of something Beamer said earlier in his career about playing in front of the fans at West Virginia in Morgantown. "It seems the louder they cheer, the better we play," Beamer said.

    That confidence rubs off on his team, and in this instance, has made the Hokies immune to the Miami mystique and aura. So many teams are intimidated, not only by Miami's speed and talent, but by the Hurricanes' swagger. Beamer's Virginia Tech teams have been immune to that over the years. He has tremendous respect for Miami's players and raves about the job Larry Coker has done in Miami, but he gets his kids to believe that they can out-run, out-hit, and out-play the 'Canes.

    Beating Miami seven out of 10 times stands out on anyone's resumé. But Beamer's the only coach who can make that claim.

    The Roth report appears weekly in hokiesports the newspaper and is posted for the general public on hokiesports.com.

    The opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Virginia Tech Athletics Department, hokiesports.com, or it's advertisers.