When Virginia Tech’s team plane touches down at Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta on Friday night, it will have been six weeks to the day since the Hokies took the same aircraft to the same city.
But the football team that lands in Atlanta on Friday will be much different than the one that touched down there back on September 4, the day before the season opener against Alabama. It may be the same players who walk off that jet, but it’s a much better team.
“The biggest difference now can be summed up in one word – confidence,” Hokies’ offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring said following Tech’s 48-14 win over Boston College on Saturday. “Our guys know what they can do and know what it takes to get it done.”
Since losing to Alabama in Atlanta, Tech has won five straight games, vaulted to No. 4 in the polls and is coming off one of its most impressive games in recent seasons. How is Virginia Tech so much better in just six weeks? Here’s how:
- The competition. By having played Alabama, Nebraska, Miami and Boston College, Tech has played four little-margin-for-error games. Each of those teams has the ability to make big plays on both sides of the ball, has exceptional talent and has in their own way, really tested the Hokies. According to the Sagarin NCAA football ratings, Virginia Tech has played the second-toughest schedule in the country to this point, and Frank Beamer’s team has clearly played some outstanding defenses. High-speed, violent collisions and some serious in-the-trenches, slobber-knockers have been a weekly occurrence.
- We know who Ryan Williams is now. On September 4, Williams was getting ready to play his first college game replacing a guy who was a record-smashing tailback in 2008 (Darren Evans). Six weeks later, Williams is averaging 122.3 yards per game, which is tops in the ACC and sixth nationally. He’s run for 739 pretty tough yards this year, and none of them have been during stat-padding time in blowout wins over Marshall or BC. Rookie of the year? If the season ended today, Williams would be the ACC Player of the Year.
- When the Hokies took the field against Alabama without Macho Harris, Orion Martin, Brett Warren and Purnell Sturdivant, they were not only losing the talents of those four players who graduated last year, but some great leaders on defense as well. Now, through six weeks, we’ve seen new leaders emerge on defense. The Hokies have a lot of ‘difference makers’ on that side of the ball and they’re improving each week. Tech just played a game in which it did not allow a first down in the first half. Not to sound like Dick Vitale, but ‘Are you serious?’ Yeah, BC started a rookie quarterback, but he played very well in wins over Florida State and Wake Forest, and BC has two terrific running backs in Montel Harris and Josh Haden. But zero first downs? That just doesn’t happen.
- Tyrod Taylor of 2009 is not the Tyrod of ’08. “The conversations we have (during games) on the phone now are nothing like the ones we had last year,” Stinespring said. “He’s totally different in his awareness of the defense and what the other teams are doing. He’s vastly advanced from before.” On the stat sheet, you can see the improvement in Taylor’s passing numbers (8 touchdowns, one interception), but its more than just numbers. “You can see in the way he plays that he’s a winner,” Raycom television analyst Rick ‘Doc’ Walker observed in a conversation we had last week, which Doc then repeated during the telecast. “You could see it at the end of the Nebraska game, and the way he played against the ’Canes. He’s just a winning player.”
- Receivers are making plays. That might be the biggest improvement Tech has made since week one. Think of the catches that Danny Coale, Dyrell Roberts, Jarrett Boykin and Xavier Boyce have made in recent weeks. Taking balls away from defenders for a touchdown (Boykin at Duke), leaping while getting a foot inbounds to connect on a third-and-21 play (Boyce against Miami), clutch end-zone scrambles to win a game (Roberts against Nebraska), and Coale outrunning safeties (Nebraska and BC) and using his body to screen defenders (Duke) for touchdowns. You have to give receivers coach Kevin Sherman and those guys a lot of credit. Tech is averaging 18.2 yards per completion in 2009. Last year, Tech averaged 10.8 yards per completion with basically the same guys. Seriously, that’s a huge increase in yards-per catch and the Hokies’ highest since 1999 when Tech’s unbeaten team averaged 18.6 yards per reception.
So you don’t really need a lot more evidence to be convinced that the last six weeks have been a tremendous period of growth for Frank Beamer’s 23rd Tech team. The Hokies are the ACC’s highest-scoring team, the league’s highest-ranked team and the conference’s best hope to be a November player for the title hunt. The question now is: can this team take the next step?
At a Hokie Club function in August, someone asked if the Alabama game was the most important game in coach Frank Beamer’s career. The answer back then was pretty simple – “No, it’s not even the most important game this year’s team will play in Atlanta.”
The winner of the Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech game has won the ACC Coastal each year since the ACC split into divisions five years ago. The Hokies won this game – and the division – in 2005, 2007 and 2008. The Yellow Jackets won the Coastal title after beating the Hokies at Lane Stadium in 2006. So in that regard, this has been a key regular-season ACC game each year and we expected that 2009 would be no different.
But the stakes are higher now, and every Hokie from Alexandria to Abingdon knows it.
That certainly will be the case this Saturday night in Atlanta. The Hokies are playing a red-hot Georgia Tech team on the Yellow Jackets home field and we all know what’s on the line.
Are the Hokies ready for it?
It’s been six weeks since the Hokies left Atlanta with the taste of bitter defeat in their mouths.
This week, a much-improved Virginia Tech squad returns to Atlanta hoping for a much different result.
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