Virginia Tech Football Hopes to Avoid Letdown at Duke

"There's as much riding on this game as there was last game," said Virginia Tech's Cody Grimm, tackling Miami quarterback Jacory Harris. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 3, 2009

BLACKSBURG, Va., Oct. 2 -- Earlier this week, Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer carried around a handwritten note listing the upset losses to befall college football's top-ranked programs this season. It served as a reminder that the Hokies could be the next to slip up.

"I think about every day this week we'll talk about that stuff," said Beamer, whose team asserted itself as the team to beat in the ACC with its 31-7 win over Miami last Saturday.

Only four weeks into the season, 10 teams have lost while ranked in the Associated Press top 10. Last weekend alone, four top 10 teams tumbled in the rankings after defeats: No. 4 Mississippi, No. 5 Penn State, No. 6 California and No. 9 Miami. As the No. 6 Hokies (3-1, 1-0) prepare to play at Duke (2-2, 0-0) on Saturday, they are looking to avoid losing as a top 10 team for the second time this season; in the season opener, the then-No. 7 Hokies fell to No. 5 Alabama.

Virginia Tech's coaches have maintained a day-at-a-time approach that places consistency above all; it's a philosophy the long-serving coaching staff has followed for years. But with all the instability at college football's upper echelon, they have also stressed to the players at meetings and in practice that they could also become the victims of a letdown.

"I think we've got smart kids," Beamer said of how the Hokies would respond to playing Duke. "The reality of it is you throw in the video from last year."

That film of last year's Duke game is not pretty. Virginia Tech turned over the ball five times in a 14-3 win. The Hokies had only a 7-3 lead before Macho Harris returned an interception for a touchdown with 1 minute 23 seconds remaining.

Duke hasn't been much of a rival for the Hokies. Although Virginia Tech leads the series by only a 9-7 margin, it has won its past eight games against the Blue Devils, who have not defeated the Hokies since 1981.

"I can see how somebody could overlook them," running back Josh Oglesby, a North Carolina native, said of the Blue Devils. "But they gave us a good run last year. Their program has come a long ways. I've seen it, watching them for a long time. You don't want to sleep on them after a game like Miami."

This time last week, when Miami's resurgence through its first two games was commanding attention nationally, Virginia Tech was on the other side of the psychological spectrum. In fact, before the game, some of the Hokies' players rallied around the phrase, "Miami might be back, but Virginia Tech never left."

"It was a setup," Bud Foster, the Hokies' defensive coordinator, said after the game. "I talked to a couple of their coaches, I said, 'I hope your kids aren't buying into this stuff.' It's hard not to. You've got to keep guarded against that stuff, when you've got people blowing smoke up your tail like they had."

Foster added: "That's got to be a distraction. It really does. Now we have to avoid that ourselves."

Foster said the goal was for his defense, and the entire team, to build on what happened against Miami, when the Hokies delivered their first complete game. Now, Foster said, Virginia Tech must string together 10 more performances of a similar caliber. If it was necessary, Foster said he would "create some crisis," or challenge players in practice with a hell-raising flair.

Gary Bennett, the university's sports psychologist, said the best approach to avoiding complacency against a weaker opponent was maintaining the same mind-set on a week-to-week basis. To do that, he preaches to athletes to hone in on their own weekly objectives, regardless of what team they are playing.

"I get them focused on what their plan is," Bennett said in a telephone interview. "What are your goals for this week? How are you planning to accomplish those goals? Keep it really simple so that they have a really good idea what they're going to do when they step on the field or the court, so that their approach is consistent."

The Hokies should be favored to win the remainder of their games. Outside of a test at Georgia Tech on Oct. 17, Virginia Tech will attempt to perfect the art of not losing to lesser competition. And despite what the coaches might say or the psychological approach they might take, the best motivation for the Hokies might be the most tangible.

"There are so many examples around college football, teams that were expected to win that are losing," linebacker Cody Grimm said. "There's as much riding on this game as there was last game, an ACC game. The other team has good athletes. It's not like it was a while ago, where there were just powerhouses."

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