Michael Hawkes slid silently down a checkout aisle at a supermarket in Blacksburg, Va., less than 24 hours after the Virginia Tech football team's devastating, 28-26 loss to Syracuse last season--a loss that had cost the Hokies the Big East Conference championship. Hawkes had just spent several hours watching film; now, he just wanted to get his groceries, and get home.

Suddenly, a handful of Virginia Tech fans were behind him in line, and--far too loudly to be ignored--discussing the game's final play: Orangeman quarterback Donovan McNabb's 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Stephen Brominski. Specifically, they discussed Hawkes's poor performance on that play.

Hawkes wasn't going to attempt to explain it. Instead, he moved silently on. It didn't matter that Brominski wasn't his responsibility on the play. Nor did it matter that Virginia Tech had squandered an 18-point halftime lead or that the offense had managed a meager 152 yards during the game. What mattered were appearances: Hawkes was the player closest to Brominski when Brominski came down with that final pass.

And, outside the Virginia Tech football meeting rooms, Hawkes was going to be held responsible.

"Everywhere I went, people were bringing it up to me--blaming me--when I was out downtown, at a store or even in class," the senior linebacker said. "It made me feel awful, very disappointed, but I guess that's part of playing football at the caliber we do. When you make the play, you're the hero and when you don't, you're looked down on. Even if he wasn't my responsibility, I should have gotten there and made the play."

Said Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer: "Last year was a tough loss, but we made a lot of great plays in that ballgame. We just needed one more at the end. Michael Hawkes was covering for someone else. Michael made a great effort just to get there."

Hawkes, and Virginia Tech's coaches, refuse to name the player who was assigned to Brominski. And regardless of who made the mistake, there is no denying the play was remarkable. McNabb, chosen second overall in the NFL draft by the Philadelphia Eagles, rolled to his right before throwing back across his body, and the entire width of the field, to Brominski.

"I looked over when he threw it and I saw that the tight end was wide open," Hawkes said. "I tried to make the play. I tried to get there. . . . "

Others on the Virginia Tech team, which finished 9-3 last season, can relate. In the final seconds of the Hokies' 28-24 loss to Temple on Homecoming Day at Lane Stadium--perhaps the biggest upset in all of college football last season--split end Ricky Hall dropped what would have been a game-winning touchdown pass in the end zone. In the Hokies' stunning 36-32 loss to arch rival Virginia, cornerback Anthony Midget was responsible for wide receiver Ahmad Hawkins when Hawkins caught a game-winning 47-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Brooks with 2:01 remaining to cap the Cavaliers' 22-point second-half comeback.

"I know all three of those guys took those losses really hard, really personally," senior linebacker Jamel Smith said. "Like Ricky, I was his roommate, so I saw every day how he took it to heart. He'd just sit on the balcony, thinking about that play. None of them--or anyone else on the team--can have those plays back. But luckily they're all back so we do have this year to make it right."

No one's smile was broader than Midget's after the Hokies' 31-7 victory over Virginia on Oct. 2 in which Virginia Tech's secondary yielded one pass of more than 14 yards and limited Hawkins to three catches for 20 yards. Hawkes hopes his turn will come Saturday, when the fourth-ranked Hokies host the 16th-ranked Orangemen. Hall will get his chance at Temple on Nov. 20.

"I don't just want to get back at them for that one play," said Hawkes, who finished last season with 79 tackles and three interceptions--two of which came against Rutgers the week following the loss to Syracuse--and ranks fourth among Virginia Tech defenders this season with 25 tackles, two sacks and one interception. "I want to get back because this is another step in our goal of winning the Big East. All of the criticism has made me work to be a stronger, more mature person. And a better player. That's what I want to show Saturday."