Virginia Tech football shows that it’s still the class of the commonwealth
By John Feinstein,
At 3:35 p.m. on an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon, Kim Kirschnick raced out of the Scott Stadium tunnel aboard a horse named Sabre as a majority of the 61,124 in attendance turned the place into a cauldron of noise.
Almost 30 years ago, when George Welsh became Virginia’s coach, the thought of more than 61,000 people in what was then a 41,000-seat stadium (with plenty of tickets available) and an atmosphere like the one that greeted Kirschnick and Sabre and the Virginia team that followed them onto the field, was unthinkable.
But once Sabre exited and the jumping around on the sidelines was over, the game for the Commonwealth Cup — and the ACC’s Coastal Division title — was pretty much the same as it has been throughout this century. Virginia Tech defeated Virginia, 38-0, and yes, the score did reflect the difference between the two teams.
It wasn’t that the Cavaliers didn’t have chances. Six times in the first three quarters they crossed midfield. Three times they had the ball inside the Virginia Tech 20 and produced nothing. In fact, the only Virginia representative who crossed the goal line was — you guessed it — Sabre.
“We just didn’t finish and we pride ourselves on being finishers,” Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco said. “It was a little thing here, a little thing there. A mistake on third down — a sack or a fumble. It’s a shame. We prepared hard and thought we were ready to play well. We just didn’t.”
They didn’t because Virginia Tech routinely plays in games like this one and isn’t likely to be blinded by the spotlight or get caught up in any pregame hype. In fact, the Hokies clearly used the pregame hype — much of it focused on the upstart Cavaliers — to prepare themselves.
“We knew there was going to be a lot of emotion on their side, but there was also a lot of emotion on our side, too,” Hokies offensive captain Danny Coale said. He smiled. “We just don’t show it as much. We’ve been in these games before. It’s kind of a protocol when you get here that you’re supposed to play for championships.”
And you’re supposed to beat Virginia.
The victory was Virginia Tech’s eighth straight in the series and 12th in 13 years and sent a very clear message to Virginia: not just yet, ’Hoos. It was a message that was delivered on the Hokies’ first drive, when quarterback Logan Thomas went right at Chase Minnifield, the Cavaliers’ all-ACC defensive back, on the first play from scrimmage. Minnifield was called for pass interference, but it was declined after Marcus Davis hauled in the pass for a 36-yard gain. A moment later, already frustrated, Minnifield was nailed for a face-mask penalty, setting up Virginia Tech with a first down at the 14-yard line. When Thomas practically walked into the end zone two plays later, the tone for the day was set.
“That’s a good football team,” Virginia Coach Mike London said. “I don’t think the stage got to us. We’ve been on big stages at Florida State and Miami. Everything they did today worked well for them. We just didn’t play very well.”
This was a different stage than Florida State and Miami. Virginia has made remarkable strides this season by winning road games against those two teams and by playing its way into a bowl game for the first time since 2007 with an 8-4 record. But Virginia Tech has been the class of the ACC with only a few hiccups since it arrived in 2004. The Hokies may struggle when they step up in class outside the league, but they are the clear-cut class of the conference and — almost as importantly — of their commonwealth.
“All week long we heard people picking them,” said running back David Wilson, who gashed the Cavaliers for 153 yards on 24 carries. “That irks you when you hear that. It’s like an undefeated boxer and people are saying his wins don’t really count. We wanted to make sure people knew our wins count.”
Saturday clearly counted. But in just his second season, London has turned Virginia in the right direction. After the Cavaliers’ stunning win at Florida State last weekend raised Saturday’s stakes even higher, the atmosphere here was euphoric enough that the Hokies heard it 146 miles away in Blacksburg.
That may explain why Coale, in his pregame captain’s speech to his teammates, let them know what he expected to happen once they left the locker room. “He told us that Virginia made one big mistake,” Wilson said. “They invited us to their campus.”
Coale grinned when asked if Wilson description was accurate. “That’s not exactly how I said it,” he said. “I won’t repeat it here exactly the way I said it. But we heard all the hype. I just wanted to remind the guys that they’d left the door open for us.”
If the door hadn’t been open, Virginia Tech would no doubt have sent it flying off its hinges. Virginia’s mistakes hurt: London’s decision to go for it on fourth and two at the Virginia Tech 7 late in the first quarter backfired when tailback Kevin Parks was brought down a yard short by linebacker Jack Tyler.
It was “the opportunity to send a message to our guys up front that if you’re going to win championships, if you’re going to win games, you’ve got to be able to knock people off the ball and gain a yard, particularly on your favorite run play,” said London, who repeatedly talked about needing only a yard on the play as if trying to convince himself that was the case.
There were also three Virginia turnovers, a couple of crucial third-down sacks of Rocco and a total of 30 rushing yards. Not exactly a formula for victory against anyone.
That said, there wasn’t a shred of doubt about who the better team was and, perhaps surprisingly, who was the more motivated team. As the final seconds ticked off, the Virginia Tech players and coaches celebrated on the sideline with hugs and one repeated phrase: “Who’s the best program in this state?”
And as Virginia’s players walked slowly to their locker room, Sabre was nowhere in sight. Like a lot of the fans who had been so euphoric a few hours earlier, he had apparently left early to beat the traffic.
For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.