All season, the Virginia Tech Hokies accumulated victories and doubts in seemingly equal proportion. Undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the nation entering tonight's game against No. 19 Miami, the Hokies' relatively easy schedule raised questions about whether they deserved to contend for the national title.
Tonight's 43-10 victory over the Hurricanes offered some compelling evidence to quiet their critics.
In front of 53,130 delirious fans at Lane Stadium, who did the "Hokie" Pokey during breaks in the action and stood for much of the fourth quarter, the Hokies moved to 9-0 for the first time ever and beat their toughest foe so far this season. Virginia Tech took advantage of six turnovers by Miami to erase a 10-0 first-quarter deficit and turn what was a close game at halftime into a blowout.
"We've opened up some people's eyes," said cornerback Ike Charlton, who recovered three fumbles, to go with fellow cornerback Anthony Midget's three interceptions. "We let you know, Virginia Tech really is for real."
Tonight's victory, coupled with third-ranked Tennessee's 28-24 loss to Arkansas this afternoon, likely will move the Hokies to No. 2 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings. The would mean they are on course to play for the national championship in the Jan. 4 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans--provided, of course, they win their last two games against Temple and Boston College, and provided the partially computer-generated rankings make them No. 2. Last week, the then-once-beaten Volunteers leaped over the Hokies to No. 2 in the BCS rankings.
"I'm happy as heck," Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer said. "We're going to enjoy this one tonight, but tomorrow we're going to get right back to that next game, see if we can win [No.] 10."
With the victory, which was their fifth in a row over Miami and made them 5-0 in Big East Conference play, the Hokies' worst-case bowl scenario, should they win their remaining games, would be an appearance in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1 as the Big East champion.
The Hokies led by 10 points entering the fourth quarter, but a 64-yard punt return for a touchdown by Ricky Hall and a 51-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Charlton put the game out of reach. Place kicker Shayne Graham added a 42-yard, fourth-quarter field goal after one of Midget's interceptions.
The Hokies completed the fourth quarter explosion with a 58-yard touchdown jaunt by Andre Kendrick--which actually included a fumble inside the 10-yard line. The result of the play befit the Hokies' serendipitous season: Teammate Andre Davis fell on the ball in the end zone, getting credit for the score.
The night concluded, fittingly, with a fireworks display and a long ovation from the crowd. Nobody, it seemed, left early."
Graham gave Virginia Tech a 20-10 lead with less than a minute left in the third quarter on a 28-yard field goal. Graham, who hit the game-winning field goal as time expired in last week's 22-20 victory over West Virginia, also connected from 42 yards in the third period after earlier misses from 59 and 45 yards.
Miami's offense had success moving the ball against Virginia Tech's defense, but the Hokies came up with enough big plays to offset Miami's ball movement. The Hurricanes relied heavily on backup tailback Clinton Portis, who went over 100 yards rushing just minutes into the second half and finished with 139. Yet Miami (5-4, 3-1) was stymied in the first half by four turnovers and in the second by key defensive plays and an ankle injury to Miami quarterback Kenny Kelly, which kept him out of much of the fourth quarter.
"We lost our composure and got caught up in pushing and shoving matches," Miami Coach Butch Davis said. "You can't do those kinds of things, and you certainly can't turn the football over against a good team."
The Hokies fell behind just four minutes into the game on a 28-yard field goal by Miami's Andy Crosland. Virginia Tech had only trailed once previously this year--by one point with just more than a minute remaining in last week's last-second victory over West Virginia.
Charlton recovered a fumble on Miami's next drive, giving Virginia Tech the ball in Miami territory, but Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick promptly returned the favor two plays later. Vick fumbled on a crushing blindside hit, putting Miami's offense at the Hokies 49.
Kelly then engineered a tidy, five-play drive that was capped by a seven-yard touchdown strike from Kelly to Andre King and upped Miami's lead to 10-0.
Virginia Tech's offense, struggling at that point, needed a break and it got several. On the first play after a punt by the Hokies, David Pugh tackled Portis and forced a fumble that Charlton recovered and returned deep in Miami territory. The Hokies scored five plays later on a one-yard dive by Shyrone Stith.
The Hokies took their first lead of the night after Midget grabbed his first interception, stepping in front of a poorly thrown ball by Kelly at the Hurricanes 42. One play later, Stith took a pitchout left and, behind a crushing block by fullback Jarrett Ferguson, raced 41 yards into the end zone nearly untouched with 7:08 left in the second half.
"This victory proves we win the games we need to," Graham said. "It doesn't matter if we play a first-ranked team or a middle-school team, the only control we have is to win every game we play, or it won't do any good to complain about" the ranking system.