By Mark Giannotto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2010; 12:38 AM
BLACKSBURG, VA. - It might be hard to fathom, but perhaps the best thing that happened to this Virginia Tech football team this season was becoming the second ranked division I-A team ever to lose to a division I-AA foe.
Players and coaches agree that the Hokies' loss to James Madison on Sept. 11 brought this group closer together and helped leaders emerge in the wake of an 0-2 start. But more importantly, it created a theme for this season: redemption.
It was only fitting, then, that No. 13 Virginia Tech will roll into next weekend's ACC championship game unscathed in conference play following Saturday's 37-7 thumping of Virginia, a team seeking its own form of atonement in what has become a one-sided rivalry.
The Hokies earned possession of the Commonwealth Cup for the seventh consecutive year, the longest winning streak in this series since the Cavaliers won eight straight games between 1895 and 1904.
Virginia Tech (10-2, 8-0) has reeled off 10 straight wins since that disastrous start to the year and is the first ACC team since Florida State in 2000 to finish the conference's regular season slate undefeated.
It's a feat even Coach Frank Beamer had trouble putting into perspective, given the potential ramifications that remain for the Hokies now that the postseason has arrived. Virginia Tech will face Florida State in Charlotte next Saturday with a spot in the Orange Bowl on the line.
"We've had quite a year. The two losses make you appreciate these 10 wins even more," Beamer said. "I think we feel good about where we are right now and where this team will be thought of when you look back in history. But that's yet to be determined. We've got two more games that could put us right up at the top, in my opinion."
Virginia Tech has its longest winning streak since 1999, and it's just the third time in program history that it has a double-digit victory streak.
But more significant to the Hokies on this day was to make clear which of the state's division I-A football programs remains the dominant one, at least for another year. Virginia's hiring of Coach Mike London last December and his desire to regain a recruiting stronghold in the state re-invigorated both teams' fan bases.
Following a scoreless first quarter, though, Virginia Tech proved definitively that any on-field comparison of the two is still a ways off. The Hokies scored 37 consecutive points in a blowout that was out of reach by the middle of the third quarter.
"They're the measuring stick right now and you're humbled by the fact that that's where you've got to go," London said. "That's what I aspire to be, a team that wins games and competes for championships."
The Hokies' trio of running backs proved to be the difference. Sophomores Ryan Williams and David Wilson and junior Darren Evans combined for 259 total yards and all five of Virginia Tech's touchdowns. Senior quarterback Tyrod Taylor finished 13 of 23 for 176 yards and threw one touchdown pass - a 20-yard bubble screen to Wilson - in his final home game at Lane Stadium.
Taylor became the Hokies' career leader in passing yardage (6,532), surpassing Bryan Randall, who threw for 6,508 yards from 2001 to '04. With three touchdown passes in his remaining two games, Taylor would break Maurice DeShazo's school single-season mark of 22 set in 1993.
The Hokies' defense, meanwhile, was strong throughout, holding Virginia (4-8, 1-7) to just 70 rushing yards. The Cavaliers' lone touchdown came late in the fourth quarter, when running back Keith Payne (eight yards rushing) caught an 11-yard touchdown pass.
But once the Hokies' 11th victory in their past 12 games against Virginia was in the books, much of the postgame talk revolved around a different in-state foe. James Madison may represent the ultimate disappointment for the Virginia Tech faithful, but the loss to the Dukes was the launching point for the Hokies' remarkable resurgence.
"It just lit a fire under us," Evans said. "I know all of us wish it could have been a different way, it could have happened different, but it's just how it was. It's kind of hard to look back then when we've got so much going for us now."
That they do, and when the Hokies take the field next weekend, they could put an exclamation point on what is fast becoming a historic season in Blacksburg.
With all they've overcome, though, these Hokies realize there is still work to be done if they are to fully redeem themselves.
"We just started winning and we're not looking back," Whitley said. "But it doesn't mean nothing unless we go down to Charlotte and get the job done."