Distance Between Two Rivals
CHARLOTTESVILLE For a moment, as he bore down on Sean Glennon, forcing Virginia Tech's part-time quarterback to fumble, Chris Long had a 'Hoo or two believing.
The Cavaliers scored off that turnover to get within 23-21 late in the third quarter, and this state's axis of college football supremacy was beginning to tilt toward the University of Virginia and its oft-criticized coach for the first time in four years. Most of the 61,711 who jammed Scott Stadium on Saturday stood and roared for Al Groh and their once-woebegone Wahoos.
Gone was the memory of 5-7 a year ago, along with the five losses in six games Groh had suffered to Frank Beamer. In a showdown that meant more competitively than any between the in-state rivals, Virginia Tech finally looked fallible, beatable even.
But just as Virginia's dream was beginning to materialize here, the Hokies made it clear that they still have too much for the Cavaliers: too much Tyrod Taylor around the end; too much up the middle; too much team speed; too much history and certainly too much heartbreak.
For Virginia, yet again, too much Vahhhh Tech.
The Commonwealth Bowl, which caused quite a ruckus in these parts, was won, 33-21, by a faster, more accomplished program that showed real resilience when challenged. The Hokies came back from a 14-13 deficit and snuffed out the hope Virginia had in the second half.
If their head-to-head matchup is indicative of where the state's college football power lies, so too are their postseason ledgers.
Since the Bowl Championship Series began in 1998, Virginia Tech has been to two Sugar Bowls, playing Florida State for the national title in 2000. They also played in the Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl, pre-BCS. The Hokies are headed to their 15th straight bowl under Beamer.
The Cavs will be going to their fifth in Groh's seven seasons, but those include two Continental Tire Bowls and something called the MPC Computers Bowl in Boise, Idaho. That, by the way, was a loss to Fresno State.
Five years since Virginia beat West Virginia in one of those tire games in Charlotte, Rich Rodriguez has built the Mountaineers into a potential national champion, and Beamer has been close with the Hokies. In the same amount of time, Groh has treaded water. He was 5-7 a year ago, lost his opener this season to Wyoming and held on tight for a wild ride. Five of Virginia's nine wins came by two points or less.
Is it fair to knock Groh when his team is 9-3 and headed for his most prominent bowl game to date, perhaps the Champs Sports Bowl? This was, after all, the coach who lost tailback Cedric Peerman, who was leading the ACC in rushing, to injury earlier this season. He was smart enough to give converted wideout Mikell Simpson a shot at running back, and all the underclassman did was run over Maryland and a host of other ACC teams. So is criticism justified?
Well, yes and no. What Virginia brought to the table Saturday was hope, something the Cavaliers had little of the past three years when they were outscored 93-24 by the Hokies. Saturday was not a formality; there was real drama until the fourth quarter.
Scott Stadium was a sea of howling orange. This pit in the ground was one of the top five college football places to be in late November, somewhere beside Arrowhead Stadium (Missouri-Kansas), Tiger Stadium on the Bayou (LSU-Arkansas), Mountaineer Field in Morgantown (West Virginia-Connecticut) and, lest we forget, Aloha Stadium on Friday night (give unbeaten Hawaii some respect for its win over Boise State).
Groh's ability to get this group of seniors to rebound from a 5-7 season was the reason this game mattered.
But of the 121 players from the state of Virginia who suited up, 75 were from Virginia Tech. Groh admitted in his postgame news conference that he recruited Glennon and Hokies flanker Eddie Royal hard but to no avail.
When Davon Morgan was asked whether Virginia recruited him, the Virginia Tech free safety nodded and added, "They tried but it never got to an offer," before Morgan had committed to the Hokies.
Morgan is another freshman, another one who got away from the Cavs. He blocked a punt Saturday that helped swing the axis back toward Virginia Tech, and afterward he waved a Virginia Tech flag toward the stands where the Hokies fans had jubilantly gathered.
There are nice pieces for the future in Charlottesville, such as Simpson and sophomore quarterback Jameel Sewell. Sewell can throw and run with aplomb and Simpson's legs churn like bat wings.
But the harsh truth: There is a big-time team in Virginia, and there is another where the kids try hard and win enough to keep the coach his job.
In truth, Groh is signed through the 2010 season to a contract virtually too rich to buy out. So unless things truly go south, Groh has at least three more seasons to find a way to beat that team in the southwestern part of the state that is quicker, better and keeps on building more of a football tradition than the one here.
Groh, now 1-6 at Virginia against Beamer, said it didn't matter who beat him, that the "disappointment today would have been the same no matter who the opponent was; it was the doorway to the championship game."
Still, in a turnaround season for Virginia and their high-strung coach, it has to hurt a little more knowing that the door to their dreams was slammed shut by Beamer and the Hokies.