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January 9, 2009

The final destination was great, but the 2008 journey should always be remembered

By: Jimmy Robertson

Tech fans will certainly remember this bowl game. You’ll remember the opponent. You’ll probably remember the score.
You’ll remember Darren Evans, who was unbreakable; Tech’s defense, which was unbendable; and Tyrod Taylor, who was unflappable.

Hopefully, that’s not all you’ll remember. Because Tech’s 2008 season deserves better than that from our all-too-abbreviated attention spans.

The Hokies closed a season unlike any other when they methodically disposed of Cincinnati to capture the Orange Bowl. It marked Tech’s first “major” bowl victory since 1995. It concluded their fifth straight season of at least 10 wins. And it reeled in the ACC from the sea of recent BCS embarrassment (eight straight losses).

Following the game, head coach Frank Beamer wasted little time in placing his 2008 version of Hokies on the pole position in the race for the crown of “best” Tech team. That might be an exaggeration, and yet, understandable given the moment.

“I like this football team and I think maybe this is the best football ‘team’ we’ve ever had,” he said moments after the game. “We had some tough losses, but no one split up. Everyone hung in there together.

“We’ve had some great, great seasons here, but I really think this is the best ‘team’ we’ve had at Virginia Tech.”

For sure, this program swallowed the sweet taste of success on New Year’s Day night in Miami, and finally spat out the bitter aftertaste of two bowl defeats. Yet this season deserves to be remembered for not only the end result, but also how it transpired.
Beamer quickly set the tone in the offseason by telling donors, alums and fans that the Hokies let one slip away with that 24-21 washout against Kansas last year in the Orange Bowl. He let it be known that change was coming.

He tired of Branden Ore’s shenanigans and booted him. Zach Luckett and Ike Whitaker eventually followed.

He firmly held the tiller, too, steadily navigating the Hokies’ ship even as it took on water following a season-opening loss, a quarterback change, three losses in a four-game span in the middle of the season and a list of injuries that kept doctors over at Montgomery Regional well-heeled this fall.

Eleven went down for the season; Brandon Dillard, Kenny Lewis, Jr., and Davon Morgan among them. Then at the end of the season, rising star Jason Worilds and gritty Brett Warren joined them, both missing the Orange Bowl.

As if that wasn’t enough, a wave of criticism, relentless at times, engulfed the program, though more centered toward the Hokies’ offense. But Tech’s hardened staff understood it came with the territory. Tech’s freshmen and sophomores were too young to know any better; and the seniors were too old to care.

“It’s not about what anybody else says,” Evans said. “It’s not about what it seems like. We know what’s going on in our locker room, and it’s really about us. We couldn’t listen to what other people were saying; that we weren’t that good, weren’t moving the ball, didn’t have any passing game – things like that.”

“We just kept working together, week in and week out,” defensive end Orion Martin said. “Even when we were losing, at our lowest points, we just kept working as a team. That’s what really helped us this year.”

Of course, it helped, too, that Beamer made an audible in regards to his bowl preparations. He delivered on his change mantra, changing virtually every single aspect of the Hokies’ bowl routine. Tech practiced more. The Hokies practiced more intensely. Beamer shackled any potential late-night mischievousness with a midnight curfew, and he moved his team to a different hotel the night before the game to eliminate any potential distractions.

The end result was a 20-7 dominance, an Orange Bowl for the ages for Tech fans and one that has this team, which returns 18 starters from the game for the 2009 season, looking for bigger and better things in the future.

“I told them to start talking national championship,” Martin said. “I don’t see why not. With Tyrod and the boys on offense, the defense has everybody back basically. I don’t see why they can’t do that. Start thinking about it because it’s possible.”

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. It’s certainly way too early to be talking about that. That’s a column for another day.

For now – and for a long time hereafter – Tech fans should treat this season as a fine wine. Smell the fragrance. Swirl it easily in your glass. Sip it slowly and savor it.

After all, this type of vintage doesn’t get made every year.