Sometimes, the most unlikely championships are the sweetest.
Virginia Tech has been down the road to the Sugar Bowl or Orange Bowl before, as we know. Great teams delivered conference titles, followed by BCS bowls and glitzy rings.
But this year is different, and in a way, sweeter than the others.
Virginia Tech’s 2008 team had too many holes to fill to make a BCS game, didn’t it?
The Hokies had too much attrition, too many injuries and too much inexperience to win it all again, no?
And even as late as November, during an ugly, sluggish win over Duke, the Hokies didn’t really look the part.
Another ACC title? We just should’ve listened to Tech defensive end Jason Worilds way back in August.
Sitting on Tech’s practice field, watching his teammates throw the ball around on a humid summer day, Worilds suggested the 2008 Hokies would ‘shock the world’ by winning the ACC. When reminded that many preseason magazines were picking Virginia Tech as one of the league’s preseason favorites, Worilds smiled and offered a reasonable response.
“Well, they have to pick someone,” he suggested.
“This is one of the closest groups of guys I’ve ever been around,” he continued. “We lost a lot of players from last year, but there’s something about this team. You’ll see.”
Four months later, we all know what Worilds was talking about.
Whatever that somewhat hard to describe yet very real intangible is — that thing that makes a difference between an average season and a winning season, between a mediocre team and a championship one and between losing and winning – this 2008 Tech team had it.
Being frank for a moment, Virginia Tech has had more talented rosters in recent years. Heck, the Hokies sent 13 players from last year’s team to NFL camps.
But has Tech had a better ‘team’ than its 2008 group? Has Tech had a closer group of guys who valued chemistry and camaraderie over playing time and statistics?
At the Hokies’ second preseason scrimmage at Lane Stadium, John Ballein, Tech’s associate AD for football operations and not a guy to volunteer faint praise, suggested this was “the best group of guys we’ve had here in 20 years.”
What Worilds and Ballein saw in August doesn’t show up in stat sheets. There is no column for heart or toughness or self-sacrifice, but in the end, that’s why the Hokies brought home another ACC championship trophy.
When he separated his shoulder during the game at Miami, Worilds insisted doctors pop it back in place so he could return to the game, which he did.
When Kenny Lewis, Jr., and Davon Morgan suffered season-ending injuries, the two remained involved, attending practices and meetings. Lewis, in fact, became running backs coach Billy Hite’s new assistant.
And when media members and talk-show callers trashed the team, it just motivated the coaches and players to work even harder.
The improvement was dramatic.
Wide receivers who couldn’t even line up correctly in Chapel Hill (remember Tech taking consecutive time outs?) were making drive-extending, clutch, diving grabs in the championship game. Defensive ends who lost containment on option plays against East Carolina were hammering quarterbacks and fullbacks by season’s end. And a tailback who rushed for only 27 timid yards on 17 carries at BC in October ended up smashing school and league records, as well as Eagle defenders, in the rematch in Tampa.
Head coach Frank Beamer promised his team would improve as this season progressed, and while it took a while longer than Beamer, or any Hokie fan, would’ve liked, one third-down play in the second quarter in this year’s ACC championship game showed how far this team has come.
Tailback Darren Evans picked up blitzing linebacker Mark Herzlich, the league’s defensive player of the year, and knocked him off his feet. That play allowed quarterback Tyrod Taylor to deliver a key completion to Dyrell Roberts. The drive continued, and Hokies scored to take a 14-0 lead.
The play probably doesn’t happen in Chestnut Hill in October. It might not have happened two weeks ago against Duke.
They believed they’d get better, and they believed they’d win.
“No one on the corner have swagger like us” – it’s become the Hokies’ late-season theme.
T.I., Jay-Z, Kanye West, L’il Wayne and M.I.A might be singing that song, but Virginia Tech’s football team is living it.
From pregame warm-ups to the postgame locker room, ‘Swag’ has been the word for the Hokies since the song was released in September. It shows a confidence and a belief this team has in itself.
Maybe the media doubted. Maybe even some fans. But in the locker room? Too much swag to lose, baby.
On the surface, the story of Tech’s 2008 season looks similar to the 2007 campaign – Tech struggles on offense for much of the season, finds its form late, avenges a regular-season loss to BC in the ACC championship game, sees its defense score a clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter, and sees the Hokies’ QB is named MVP.
But 2008 was much different and that’s why the reaction in the locker room was more emotional and tearful and together.
Last year’s team might have had the bigger names, but this year’s team is tighter and together and committed.
It’s a real team, one that brought the Hokie Nation one of its sweetest titles ever.
Keys with FG – and season – to remember
A year ago, Dustin Keys didn’t even get to dress for the ACC championship game. But as he has all season, he made the most of his opportunities.
Keys, a fifth-year senior from Stafford, Va., nailed a career-long 50-yard field goal in the third quarter that gave the Hokies a 17-7 lead. It marked the longest field goal in ACC championship game history.
Keys now has made 21 of his 26 field-goal attempts this season. He has one game left and needs just one field goal to tie the Tech single-season record set by Chris Kinzer in 1986 and tied in 1998 by Shayne Graham.
Though not young, Keys’ improvement has resembled that of a lot of the Hokies’ younger players. He just kept getting better and better.
Tech ‘D’ closes strongly
In a critical home game against Georgia Tech back in September, the Hokies managed to escape with a three-point victory even though Tech’s young defense allowed 278 yards rushing and 387 yards of total offense.
The Hokies, however, did not come close to allowing those numbers the remainder of the schedule, as this Orion Martin-led group shut down opponents, particularly in the second half of the season.
BC finished with 308 yards of total offense, snapping Tech’s string of six straight games of allowing 250 total yards or less. Still, it was a strong performance by Bud Foster’s unit, which forced four turnovers and recorded five sacks.
Tech ranks in the top 20 in the four major defensive categories – total defense (7th, 277.08 ypg), scoring defense (13th, 17.5 ppg), rush defense (19th, 107 ypg) and pass defense (15th, 170.08 ypg). That’s a pretty strong accomplishment for a group that saw Brandon Flowers, Xavier Adibi, Chris Ellis and others depart after last season.
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