September 28, 2009
At No. 6, Hokies Back in the Hunt

Three weeks ago when Virginia Tech lost its season opener to Alabama, the Hokies plunged out of the top 10, dropping to No. 14 in the polls, and at least for a while, out of college football’s title chase.

But now after three wins at Lane Stadium and a series of losses by teams ranked above them, the Hokies actually are ranked higher today than they were going into the Alabama game.

It proves the theory that in the current BCS system, if you’re going to lose, do so early. And if you have a chance to beat ranked teams, get it done. That’s exactly what the Hokies did by beating Nebraska, ranked No. 19 at game time, and Miami, which was ranked No. 9.

Virginia Tech enters October ranked No. 6 in the major polls, including the Harris Interactive poll, which is one-third of the BCS standings formula. The first Harris Poll of this season was released Sunday night.

The AP poll, where Tech is also ranked No. 6, and the computer rankings, where Tech is ranked slightly higher (third in Sagarin and fifth in Colley Matrix) make up the other components of the BCS standings.

The first BCS standings for this year will be released on Oct. 18, and if Alabama, Nebraska, Miami and Marshall also continue to have success, Tech will get points in the computer rankings. But the Hokies have to win.

And therein, lies the rub.

The top 10 has been a land mine for teams this season, including Penn State, Ole Miss, Cal and Miami, which all lost this past week.

Virginia Tech may very well be favored to win each of its remaining games this season, and if they stay healthy, the Hokies certainly have a chance to do that. However, will the Hokies understand that the bulls-eye on their backs just got bigger? And that this week’s opponent – Duke – will play far better than it has in any game this season?

In fact, every team Tech faces is going to give a Herculean effort and that’s why it’s nearly impossible to go unbeaten or run the table in college football today. Just because a team is favored to win doesn’t mean it will be the better team on a specific Saturday. Just ask the Cal Bears.

There is no question that Cal has an excellent team – a Heisman-esque tailback, a great defense and a big-time quarterback. How does Cal lose to Oregon 42-3 this past weekend? Because Oregon’s kids just played like zombies for 60 minutes.

It’s not necessarily the pressure of being ranked that’s important for players and coaches of teams ranked near the top, but understanding how well your opponent is going to play when it has the opportunity to knock off a top-10 team. Cal’s experience in Eugene was much like Miami’s trip to Blacksburg. The rankings and point spread didn’t mean a thing to the underdog home team or a deafening crowd, one hungry like a rabid dog to witness an upset.

Stepping aside for a second, Virginia Tech was much more prepared to play its conference opener than teams such as Ole Miss or Penn State because of the non-conference foes the Hokies had faced. It’s not that the Rebels or Nittany Lions didn’t deserve their lofty rankings, but the first time they got punched in the mouth was in conference play and both succumbed to tough, rugged defenses.

Ole Miss crushed Memphis and Southeast Louisiana, but was totally shut down by South Carolina in its SEC opener. Penn State feasted on Akron, Syracuse and Temple and looked sensational in doing so. But in the conference opener, Iowa’s defense was just overpowering at State College. The Nittany Lions turned the ball over four times and had a punt blocked for a touchdown in a 21-10 loss.

Those games with Alabama and Nebraska really paid off for the Hokies when Miami visited.

The questions now for Virginia Tech are: can the Hokies improve each week as a football team while remaining in the present? Can they bring the intensity, focus and hunger they had at practice leading up to the Miami game to the practice field each week? So much of what we see on Saturdays is determined in meeting rooms and on the practice field Monday through Thursday. The mental part is just as important as the physical, if not more so.

There are a lot of pretty good teams in the top 15, including Virginia Tech. In nine weeks, the teams at the very top might not necessarily be the most talented squads, but the ones who consistently improved and handled that bulls-eye on a weekly basis.

Will the Hokies be a mature team that can handle life in the high-rent district on a weekly basis?

Or will they be like Cal, which suffered a puzzling El-Foldo on the road?

We’ll get our first hint this Saturday in Durham.

Being a part of history

Walking through the puddles outside of Lane Stadium following Virginia Tech’s win over Miami this past week, I chuckled to our ISP radio crew and remarked that the Hokies just finished off a week in which they beat Nebraska and Miami in back-to-back games.

That’s a remarkable accomplishment, especially for those of us who consider the 1984 Orange Bowl game as one of the greatest games in football history. That was the game that No. 1 Nebraska could’ve won the national championship by going for a tie and simply kicking an extra point in the final seconds. Husker coach Tom Osborne, however, went for the two-point conversion to win the game. The pass fell incomplete and the ’Canes won 31-30, giving coach Howard Schnellenberger and Miami the national title. That game drew a 23.5 national television rating, which launched the Cornhuskers and Hurricanes into orbit as the beasts of their sport. (For comparison’s sake, this January’s BCS national title game between Oklahoma and Florida did a 15.8 national rating).

Miami, of course, would go on to win four more national championships, and Osborne got his as well in future seasons, meaning the last two visitors to Lane Stadium had won a combined 10 national championships – five for the ’Canes, and five for the ’Huskers.

In flipping through the record books, it was impossible to find a team that had played those two schools back to back, let alone beat them both.

Back in January of 2007, Tech’s basketball team beat Duke and North Carolina in the same week. Lost in the euphoria of that team’s NCAA Tournament push, it was easy to lose the perspective of how unusual and truly remarkable that accomplishment was for the group of young men who played for the Hokies.

Now, two years later, the football team has accomplished a similar feat.

Beating Nebraska and Miami back to back?

That’s a pretty good week.

Some other thoughts on the game

• Ryan Williams is truly an exceptional running back. Yes, he is a freshman who has played just four college games, but he has the skills – speed, power, vision and savvy – to be a great one. He’s also a good learner. Check out the block he threw on Miami’s linebacker on Tyrod Taylor’s 48-yard touchdown pass to Jarrett Boykin in the second quarter. Williams scored two touchdowns against Miami, but he played a big role in a third.

• Cody Grimm might be the toughest and smartest football player we’ve seen in Blacksburg in decades. He just knows how to play the game, and understands the nuances and schemes as well. The strip he made on Miami’s Dedrick Epps in the back of the end zone turned a sure Miami touchdown into an incomplete pass. The kid flat out understands how to play the game. “Pound for pound, the best player on this team,” is how defensive coordinator Bud Foster describes Grimm. Head coach Frank Beamer has been singing Grimm’s praises to NFL scouts, who are skeptical of his size. But the kid simply makes plays. And if he doesn’t make it as a player, he has the understanding to make it in the NFL as a coach, just like his father, Russ Grimm, of the Arizona Cardinals.

• Jason Worilds played his best game of 2009 against Miami. Worilds played well last year in Miami, too, but had shoulder injuries throughout that game and eventually was shut down for Tech’s return trip to Miami when the Hokies faced Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl. Following surgery, Worilds shoulders are healthy now, and combined with his non-stop motor, he has the chance to be the disrupter up front that Tech needs from its defensive ends. We saw that in a big way against the ’Canes on Saturday.

• You’ve got to give credit to both offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring and defensive coordinator Bud Foster for the job both did in what was a ‘circle-the-wagons’ week around the Tech football office.

On the offensive side, the Hokies added some nice counter plays and unleashed Taylor’s running game against the ’Canes. Taylor can be a good thrower, but to be a winning quarterback, he has to run the ball, too, and he did that this week. The misdirection stuff worked great and is something we’ll no doubt see as the season progresses. Tech also attacked Miami over and over where starters Andrew Smith (DE) and Marcus Fortson (DT) were missing from Miami’s defensive line. Just a relentless assault on the point, with Ryan Williams powering his way on the ground.

On defense, Bud and his staff devised a great scheme in which they basically took away the second and third receivers from Miami’s quarterback Jacory Harris. Miami’s offensive line is too good, and its pass-protection schemes are so solid that the key to getting pressure on Harris was to take away his second and third reads. So, Tech changed the way it did some things in the secondary. “We had to get him to hold onto the ball for just another second or two,” Foster said. “We took away his checkdowns. We just got him to hold onto the ball for another second.”

• For the second week in a row, Tech did a great job in its ‘quick change’ situations, stopping the other team after a turnover. “You find out about yourself when you face adversity,” Foster said. “You learn about your team in situations like that where you have to make a stop. We’re not close to being as good as we can be. We can get better.”

They’ve been pretty good, actually.

Consider this: Virginia Tech’s opponents are a combined 13-3, with all three losses coming to the Hokies. Even Marshall is now 3-1 after its win at Memphis on Saturday in which tailback Darius Marshall ran for 203 yards and three touchdowns. Nebraska has scored at least one touchdown in every quarter this season … except for four. Those would be the four quarters in Blacksburg. For the sake of reference, check out how Tech’s defense has done against the first four quarterbacks it has faced this season. The numbers are surprisingly good.

Alabama Greg McElroy Completions-Attempts (Pct) TD INT
vs. Hokies: 15-30 (50 percent) 1 1
vs. other 3 foes: 46-61 (75 percent) 6 0
Marshall Brian Anderson Completions-Attempts (Pct) TD INT
vs. Hokies: 15-31 (48 percent) 0 0
vs. other 3 foes: 48-75 (64 percent) 4 2
Nebraska Zac Lee Completions-Attempts (Pct) TD INT
vs. Hokies: 11-30 (37 percent) 0 2
vs. other 3 foes: 57-75 (76 percent) 7 1
Miami Jacory Harris Completions-Attempts (Pct) TD INT
vs. Hokies: 9-25 (36 percent) 0 1
vs. other 3 foes: 41-59 (69 percent) 5 2

The four teams the Hokies have played this season are getting exceptional quarterback play. All four are amazingly efficient. McElroy (75 percent), Anderson (64 percent), Lee (76 percent) and Harris (69 percent) have great numbers, except when they faced Tech. When you look Tech’s defensive numbers, you also have to compare how the opponents are doing against other teams, such as Harris vs. Florida State or Georgia Tech, or McElroy against Arkansas. We’ve seen some very good offenses so far this season and a few really exceptional quarterbacks. By the end of the season, it would be surprising if McElroy, Lee and Harris weren’t among their respective conferences’ passing leaders.

This week – Duke

The weather forecast for Saturday’s game at Duke looks better than this past weekend (can it get any worse?) and that’s good news for traveling Hokies who are looking to make the trek to Durham. The Hokies seemingly always have a great turnout in Durham and we expect the same on Saturday. Our radio coverage begins at 10:30 on Saturday morning with the kickoff scheduled for noon. You can hear the Virginia Tech ISP Sports Network’s broadcast in Durham at 92.1 on the FM dial.

For updates on Virginia Tech Athletics, follow the Hokies on Twitter (@hokiesports).

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