The Hokie Pokie
Virginia Tech danced past Miami and closer to the national title game
As coach Frank Beamer spoke to his Virginia Tech players after practice last Thursday, the 8-0 Hokies, ranked second in the polls, had every right to be distracted from their upcoming showdown with Big East archrival Miami. For three days they had endured questions about the BCS rankings, which had once-beaten Tennessee at No. 2, one spot ahead of Virginia Tech. Beamer, however, insisted that his team focus on the Hurricanes, who were 5-3 overall but unbeaten in conference play and eager to break a four-game losing streak against the Hokies.
"It's all about handling pressure," he told his players of the challenge the Hurricanes would present "At [Big East] media day in August, Miami was talking about how they had marked this day. It was almost like a threat. You know what they are going to bring. It's about what you are going to bring."
Pressure is one of the hallmarks of Beamer Ball—not handling pressure but applying it relentlessly to the opponent. For three quarters last Saturday night, Miami withstood all that Virginia Tech could muster. Then the Hurricanes collapsed as if they had been dynamited by a demolition crew. Miami, which had jumped to a 10-0 lead and was down only 20-10 when the final quarter opened, gave up two touchdowns in a 24-second span and watched the Hokies pull away to a 43-10 victory.
Typical of Virginia Tech, the game-breaking touchdowns didn't come from the offense, but rather on a 64-yard punt return, by Ricky Hall, and a 51-yard fumble return, by Ike Charlton. The Hokies have dominated the Big East over the last five years through defense and special teams. This season, however, the offense has been giving opponents fits too. "I always wanted to play this way," Beamer says of Tech's more wide-open attack. "We never had a quarterback quite like this who could complete the formula."
The quarterback is redshirt freshman Michael Vick, who ran for 46 yards and threw for 151 against the Hurricanes. Vick seems never to lose his composure. In the third quarter, with the Hokies clinging to a 14-10 lead, he rolled right on third-and-nine, dropped the ball, circled back to pick it up, sprinted to his left and completed a 15-yard pass to tight end Browning Wynn. Vick had thought he would have to fight his nerves this fall after drawing preseason comparisons with former Syracuse great Donovan McNabb. "I felt that I had a lot on my shoulders," he says. "I was thinking about it the whole summer. I stepped out on the field for the first game and forgot all about it."
Virginia Tech continues to trail Florida State in the BCS rankings, but whether a team is first or second in those rankings doesn't matter—what counts is not being third, which is where the Hokies found themselves after their 22-20, last-play escape at West Virginia on Nov. 6. When the BCS rankings came out on Nov. 8, Beamer refused to succumb to the temptation to discuss Tennessee with his team. Now the Vols are a moot issue: Tennessee lost at Arkansas on Saturday afternoon.
By the time the Hokies gathered in the locker room before the Miami game they knew that their road to the Sugar Bowl, home to this season's national championship game, had smoothed out like a Blacksburg accent. Beamer didn't talk about that, either. Instead he continued to preach about not losing focus. "The bigger it gets," Beamer told his players before the game, "the smaller you've got to think. What you want to think about is what you can do something about. Think about that next play. Put all your effort into it, and then go on to the play after that." That's the way to get to New Orleans on Jan. 4.
For a year Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner patiently answered questions about The Fumble, his late-game gaffe last season at Tennessee that enabled the Vols to drive for a touchdown, win 28-24 and go on to the national championship. Last week, with Tennessee coming to Fayetteville, Stoerner's scab was ripped off anew. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette printed a frame-by-frame photo sequence of the play. Television continued to air what must be a disintegrating videotape. Then Stoerner led the Razorbacks on two fourth-quarter touchdown drives, the latter—capped by a 34-yard pass to senior wideout Anthony Lucas with 3:44 to play, to give Arkansas a 28-24 victory, and...well, redemption rarely comes in so tidy a package.