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January 17, 2012

Hokies' program in terrific shape now and for the future despite bitter taste of Sugar Bowl loss

By: Bill Roth

One year ago in this very space, I suggested that we should not judge Virginia Tech’s football team, or its season, by a 40-12 loss to Stanford in the Orange Bowl game.

“The biggest danger here is to form an opinion from a single snapshot. If you judged the season by the result of the Orange Bowl, not only would you be disappointed, but you’d also be unfair to the players who won a bunch of games just to get to Miami.”

Now, 365 days later, the Hokies are coming off a heartbreaking 23-20 overtime loss to Michigan in the Sugar Bowl. And most would agree that this one stings much more than Stanford.

For the second straight January, the Hokies and their fans look back and see a final record of 11-3 and a loss in a BCS game. Another season of great wins mixed with some tough losses leave Hokie fans asking, “What are we?” and “Where are we?”

They asked themselves those questions over and over as they drove through towns like Laurel, Miss., and Gadsden, Ala., and Sweetwater, Tenn., on their way home from New Orleans. Lots of time to sit and think when you’re in a car for 15 or so hours, right?

You know, in the weeks leading up to the Michigan game, Tech head coach Frank Beamer had to defend his program over and over to the media folks who questioned Tech’s at-large BCS selection this year. He was able to use some of the negative press to his advantage in getting his team to play with a proverbial chip on its shoulder, but the negativity wore on the coach.

There hasn’t been a period in the past 20 years when Beamer had to spend as much time on defense, reminding pundits that his program had won more games than any other since 1995. He reminded everyone that his program’s graduation rate trailed just Stanford among all ranked BCS teams. He reminded them that his program, when you combine AP rankings and academics success, rates No. 1 in all of college football.

Everything – 10-win seasons, national rankings and a 19-year bowl streak – came without a sniff of NCAA irregularities. His, in so many ways, is the model program.

But in the past month, Beamer added something new. He said repeatedly, “We need to start winning BCS games to take the next step.”

So while the coach might not have been in the Skylark with you when you stopped for a drink at Stuckey’s, he was feeling your postgame pain. And that’s after he and his staff went back to the drawing board following last year’s BCS defeat.

His longtime sidekick, Billy Hite said before the Sugar Bowl, “I’ve never seen a team more prepared or focused for a bowl game than this one.” The Hokies changed their pre-bowl workouts, holding a full scrimmage as part of their preparation. They were serious about their curfew times (as we know). They were ready to play, and for the most part, executed their game plan flawlessly.

Other than the end result, the Michigan game was nothing like Stanford. The Hokies dominated the 2012 game statistically before losing in overtime. But everyone in orange and maroon walked out of the Superdome shaking his or her head.

One year later, what did we learn?

1. Unlike the Stanford game, Tech had no business losing this game to Michigan. Even as a Michigan supporter, you’d feel awkward singing, “Hail to the Victors” after seeing your team outgained 377-184. In this Sugar Bowl, Tech was like the tennis player who keeps hitting the ball into the net. At times, the Hokies couldn’t get out of their own way. They also couldn’t get a fortuitous bounce, or what they felt was a fair call from the officials on the field, or in the replay booth. At the end of the night, the No. 1 question was “How the heck did we lose that game?”

2. It’s hard to draw parallels between the 2011 Orange Bowl loss and the 2012 Sugar Bowl loss because the dynamics were so different. Stanford was a better team. Michigan wasn’t. Bud Foster and Tech’s defensive staff put together one of their best plans maybe ever. Tech held Michigan to 34 yards of total offense in the second half. No team has done that to Denard Robinson (13 carries for 13 yards) since he got to Ann Arbor. Tech defensive ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins played under control and took great angles, and the Hokies won the battle at the point of attack. Whip linebacker Alonzo Tweedy played at a very high level. Despite the loss, this goes down as one of the most remarkable defensive performances in Tech history.

3. Tech seniors like Danny Coale and Justin Myer were simply heroic in their preparation and performance for this game. There are plenty more to mention, but those two young men typify Tech’s program and rose to the occasion in this big game. To some, bowls are simply exhibitions, but if you saw the hurt on the faces of Tech’s players, especially those seniors, you’d realize these games mean a lot. Tech fans hurt, of course, but those kids hurt much worse after a game like that. You’ve got to be proud of the effort and determination this team showed. Not every ACC bowl team this year showed that type of character.

At the end of the day, other than negative media backlash, what are the repercussions of losing BCS games? Does it affect recruiting, or donations, or season ticket sales, or future bowl invites?

Aware of all of those possibilities, Beamer made staff changes after last season. He swapped some responsibilities on game day and on the recruiting trail. He tweaked and toughened his bowl preparation.

Beamer made changes after the Stanford loss, and they all seem to be positive. Tech won 11 games again, the staff is putting together a terrific recruiting class and all the seniors will graduate. Had Coale’s reception in overtime not been overturned, and the Hokies won the game, the perspective would be much different, no? Don’t let one replay official ruin your outlook on this program, this staff, or this team.

Virginia Tech has one amazingly solid program. That’s why it wins 10-plus games each year. That’s why it can lose the conference player of the year (Tyrod Taylor) and two running backs to the NFL (Darren Evans & Ryan Williams) and still end up in a BCS game. That’s why it can lose four key defensive players for the season and still deliver an off-the-charts defensive performance against a high-scoring offense like Michigan’s. This is a Tech program with a lot of good players and outstanding coaches, and that’s why it will be back in the BCS, maybe next year, for another shot.

As good as the Hokies are, they can be better.

I recall watching Penn State’s program in the 70’s when it lost three Sugar Bowls (1972, ’75, ’79) and to Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl in ’76 and recall hearing those Nittany Lion fans – who sold out Beaver Stadium for every game and traveled en mass to bowl games – question if their team would ever “win the big one.” Eventually, Penn State did break through and win it all in 1982 and again in ’86. It will happen for Tech, too.

Beamer is recruiting the right kind of kids. He’s got an exceptional staff and recruiting class coming in for next season. And while the losses sting, they keep our crew here hungry as we look forward to 2012.

Last January, Beamer felt he needed to make some pretty drastic changes after the Stanford loss. But this year, with the recruiting class Tech should sign, and with the quarterback and the defense he has coming back for this fall, there’s actually quite a bit of positive momentum heading into the 2012 season, as there should be.

Good times are on the horizon, as is that breakthrough BCS win.