The instructions last week in Blacksburg were simple: Rest and heal. This week, the focus shifted to the complicated task of identifying and fixing the problems that upended what had been a perfect start to Virginia Tech's season.
Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer will find out tonight against West Virginia (7-3, 4-1 Big East) if his rest-first approach to his team's 11-day delay since its loss to Syracuse was the right one.
"Mentally, I think it's tough on you when you're doing very well and you're ranked high . . . and I think when you lose two, that's tough on you, too," Beamer said. "So, I think mentally getting some rest, and physically getting some rest. . . . I feel good about our football team."
The 12th-ranked Hokies (8-2, 3-2) are coming off consecutive losses to No. 19 Pittsburgh and Syracuse. The Panthers scored 21 straight points to erase a 14-point deficit in their win; the Orangemen used triple overtime to complete their dramatic upset. Virginia Tech has not lost three consecutive regular season games since 1992, the year before it began its streak of nine consecutive bowl appearances.
But instead of rushing back to the drawing board, Beamer elected to give the team an extended break. The Hokies, who have three games remaining in their longest regular season in school history, practiced just once during the week after losing to Syracuse before resuming their regular schedule Saturday.
"We all still believe in each other," senior tailback Lee Suggs said. "We know we have a good team. The last two games hasn't been us. . . . We have a whole lot of people hurt. We've been going straight since October. Everybody's tired. We just [needed] a break."
The hiatus proved long enough to heal injuries to sophomore tailback Kevin Jones (hamstring), who splits time with Suggs, and junior linebacker Vegas Robinson (ankle). The only starter still out is sophomore cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who will miss his second straight game with a lower back injury. Junior rover Michael Crawford, who continues to undergo testing for lymphoma, will dress for the game but has not practiced all week and will only be used in emergency situations.
While Jones is a big part of the offense -- he is still on pace to match Suggs's 1,000-yard season and give the Hokies their first pair of 1,000-yard backs in a single season -- it is the return of Robinson that is most critical.
With Robinson in the lineup, Virginia Tech's run defense was ranked first in the nation. No team had rushed for more than 83 yards against the Hokies and seven squads were held to less than 40. Without him, the Hokies yielded a combined 476 yards to Pittsburgh and Syracuse. West Virginia boasts the nation's second-ranked rushing unit, averaging 294.9 yards per game. Senior Avon Cobourne leads the Mountaineers' charge with a league-high 1,409 yards and 13 touchdowns.
"Vegas was a guy that just was playing extremely well," Beamer said. "He had size, he could cover in pass coverage and in the run game, when he hit them things stopped. And when he's out of there we've got a couple of redshirt freshmen playing who just haven't played enough football. That's not an excuse, it's just reality."
West Virginia's run defense, which ranks second in the league behind Virginia Tech, will likewise be tested. With Jones (708 yards) back in the lineup -- and sophomore quarterback Bryan Randall having passed for a career-high 504 yards in his last outing -- West Virginia won't be able to key on Suggs (1,021 yards). Suggs, who has scored in 23 consecutive games played, needs a touchdown Wednesday to break a 32-year-old NCAA record for consecutive games with a touchdown. Arkansas' Bill Burnett set the record in 1970, totaling 47 touchdowns over a 23-game span. Suggs has scored 49 times in his last 23 games.
"We need a win right now, that's obvious," junior center Jake Grove said. "But none of us are hanging our heads; we're all upbeat."