It was with a sigh that Virginia Tech quarterback Bryan Randall took a minute Tuesday night to ponder the past weekend. To simply say it had been an emotional one for the No. 8 Hokies would be insufficient.
"I don't know," said Randall, a sophomore. "There's so much more going on here than just football, but yet we still have to be able to focus. But the last few days have been hard on us all."
It started Friday, when junior Michael Crawford, the team's starting rover, told his coaches and teammates that an initial biopsy of his lymph nodes were suspicious of cancer. He continues to undergo testing, but this weekend's game at Syracuse will likely be his last of the season.
Saturday, the team blew a 14-point lead over Pittsburgh in its first defeat, 28-21, to all but knock itself out of the national title hunt.
During the game, standout sophomore tailback Kevin Jones suffered a mild strain of his left hamstring, an injury notorious for its lingering effect. Afterward, sophomore cornerback DeAngelo Hall audaciously guaranteed the Hokies would not lose again.
On Tuesday, though still hesitant to label Crawford as having cancer, team doctors talked openly about the likelihood of treatments, including chemotherapy, to reverse his illness.
And still, Syracuse looms. The Carrier Dome, in which Coach Frank Beamer has managed just one victory in his six visits, awaits. And the outcome will go a long way in deciding this team's immediate future.
"The chance of us coming back and losing a second one here seem pretty high, but we can't let that happen," Randall said. "Our goals haven't changed. And we can still accomplish them if we don't lose another game, so that's our focus. What DeAngelo said, that was a bold statement. Emotions were running high. But it also shows our confidence. We have to be confident we can win every game we play. I definitely think we can."
To do so, however, the Hokies must not only overcome their emotions but also respond better on the field.
The Hokies opened the season with four near-flawless performances, including wins over three ranked opponents. The five games since have been marred by turnovers, penalties and uncharacteristically poor special teams coverage. Just as troubling have been a wavering pass defense and an offense that, without the ability to spread to the field, has struggled at times in its productivity. Against inferior opponents, the Hokies got away with such blemishes. Against Pittsburgh, they did not.
Most glaring against the Panthers were defensive mistakes that allowed Pittsburgh to total 275 yards rushing against a unit that ranks second nationally both against the run (66.8 yards per game) and in scoring (12.7 ppg).
But it's the sometimes-stagnant offense that is a bigger concern. Virginia Tech, which lost Jones after two carries, slowed itself against Pittsburgh with numerous first-down penalties and three turnovers. Senior Lee Suggs totaled 128 yards on 25 carries, but Randall completed just 12 of 22 passes for 145 yards and one interception and was sacked a season-high seven times. His late-game throws, albeit into a strong wind, wobbled and fell short of their intended targets.
"We had trouble getting our offense going on a consistent basis," said Beamer, whose team will be without Jones again this week. "We had like four penalties on first down and three of them after we picked up a big gain. Then, all of the sudden, the play comes back and you're penalized. Now it's first and 20, and we're not a first-and-20 offense right now. . . . We've just got to keep working, and keep improving."
If the Hokies can return to their early-season form this week, a win will keep them in contention for a share of the Big East title. Pittsburgh and Miami, which are undefeated in the league, meet Nov. 21. A win by Miami in that game, and a subsequent loss to Virginia Tech in December, would be enough for the Hokies to earn the Big East title and its automatic berth into the BCS.
"For us, this could be a tremendous season if we could get back on the right track this week and finish things off the right way," Beamer said. "I mean a tremendous season. There are so many great things left for us to play for."