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December 9, 2008

ACC championship obviously worth celebrating, but the biggest game of the season lies ahead for the Hokies

By: Jimmy Robertson

Following Tech’s precise dismantling of BC in the ACC title game, league commissioner John Swofford stood tall in the Hokies’ noisy locker room and gave the commonplace congratulatory speech to the winning team.

Then he delivered a pointed message to the group related to the approaching Orange Bowl game.

“Go to win,” he said rather strongly.

Perhaps Swofford’s reasoning was partially selfish. After all, the league’s record in BCS games stands at 1-9, the worst among the six conferences in the BCS. So he wants to see the Hokies reduce the heat on his own hide.

But amidst all the celebration following the game, Tech head coach Frank Beamer wasted about less than 60 seconds before echoing Swofford’s message. He brought up the bowl game and told his charges that he plans on some changes in the Hokies’ bowl preparation.

“We’ve lost the last two [the Chick-fil-A Bowl and last year’s Orange] and I thought we had a great chance to win the last two,” Beamer said to the media shortly after the game. “The thing I’ve learned is that those things stay with you for a little while. The alumni don’t forget those things quickly. We didn’t either.

“It’s very, very important that we not only represent the ACC well in this Orange Bowl, but also that we make the preparation we need to go and win this Orange Bowl.”

This column isn’t meant to diminish what this team accomplished. Quite the contrary, Tech won the ACC title despite having more than 40 percent of its roster as underclassmen, despite going through a rigorous road stretch in which it played one home game in a 53-day span, and despite season-ending injuries robbing the team of a couple of starters and several key integral parts.

This season was exhilarating and excruciating. It was formidable and fortunate. It was everything in between. And it certainly deserves to be celebrated. For a couple of weeks, too.

But the biggest game of the season for Tech lies ahead for the Hokies.

Tech gets set to take on a Cincinnati team that won the Big East, the Hokies’ old home. The Bearcats enter the game with a sporty 11-2 mark and looking to make a name for themselves after earning their first major bowl bid in school history.

Sound familiar? Kansas, maybe? Last year, the Jayhawks played in the Orange Bowl for the first time since 1969 and knocked off the Hokies. It marked Tech’s second straight bowl loss and their fourth in the past five bowl games. Hence, changes are in order.

“We’re probably going to practice a couple more times, and not have as much window in between practices,” defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “We’re just going to do some things to just keep our timing going. We’ve given the kids in the past a break. We’re going to probably practice a few more times on the weekend — go more of a Friday, Saturday, Sunday instead of just maybe a Saturday.”

Following the ACC title game win over BC, Tech’s senior leaders seemed receptive to the idea.

“I guess we’re going to practice a little harder than we have been. That doesn’t sound too good to tell you the truth,” center Ryan Shuman joked. “Nah, it’s been a while since we’ve won one [a bowl game]. We need to go out there and put on a good show.”

“I think the guys have been enjoying the bowl too much and the game’s down the list [of priorities], maybe third or fourth on the list,” defensive end Orion Martin said. “The game needs to be top priority and I think that’s what we’re trying to get back to.

“We need a big win in the bowl game. Whatever we need to do, we’re willing to do.”

“It’s time for a change,” cornerback Macho Harris said. “Definitely, if you’re losing, it’s time for a change.”

Shuman, Martin, Harris and the rest of the seniors have two ACC championship titles under their belts. That obviously is something in which to take much pride.

But they could go down tied as the winningest class in Tech history with a victory (last year’s class went 42-11; this year’s is currently 41-12). They could lead the Hokies to 10 wins for the fifth straight year, something only Texas and Southern Cal can claim. They could close their careers with an Orange Bowl victory, the perfect ending.

Go to win. Sounds like the perfect motto for this team in the coming weeks, doesn’t it?