Virginia Tech usually plays football in a way that would please most sideline professors of the sport as well as most observers up in the stands -- even, perhaps grudgingly, their opponents' fans. The Hokies usually make few mistakes. They usually cause mistakes by their foes. They usually wear down the opposition with hard tackling. And, oh yes, they have Marcus Vick, who usually looks -- at least potentially -- like a right-handed version of his older brother, Michael of the Atlanta Falcons.
But as it happened, as was hoped around College Park, Maryland's Terrapins were waiting on the clipped green of Byrd Stadium for Vick and Co., waiting, first of all, to prove they aren't the same team that the Hokies, quite literally, blew out of Blacksburg last season in what was the worst game of the Ralph Friedgen era, by a score Terrapins fans needn't be reminded of. This they did; they proved they actually are in the same league as the Hokies, and they did a bit more than that. The Terrapins didn't win, but they certainly made Virginia Tech (with apologies to their many fans in the area and those at Byrd) look less than the No. 3-ranked team in the nation.
And they forced Vick the passer (not Vick the runner) into mistakes that made one question whether his identity had been stolen. Could that have been a quarterback named Vick, the fellow whose passes the Terrapins picked off three times in the third quarter alone?
Truth be told, the Terrapins never gave a hint of scoring a touchdown in Tech's 28-9 victory until they were down 25 points with little more than two minutes to play. Their best drive when the outcome was still in question ended when Sam Hollenbach was intercepted at the Tech 12-yard line in the first quarter. The Terrapins attempted a few field goals and almost had a safety, but they would have needed all their might-have-beens to beat the Hokies on a night they looked very, very beatable.
The Hokies made mistakes, enough that a better team than Maryland would have dropped them from the ranks of the unbeaten. Vick would have been thought absent from the road trip entirely had it not been for his running. Three interceptions plus running back Mike Imoh's fumble at the goal line and a field goal attempt by Brandon Pace that hit an upright aren't up to the Hokies' normal caliber of play.
"We got the win, so it doesn't matter," Vick said of his passing. "But otherwise, the three interceptions made my night terrible. I don't like that at all."
All the miscues should serve notice in Blacksburg that it might be premature to get caught up in dreams of becoming No. 1 or No. 2, displacing Southern Cal or Texas in the rankings, and to remember that the likes of Boston College, Virginia and Miami, and, the Hokies hope, the Atlantic Coast Conference title game remain on their schedule. They look like big enough hurdles for now.
The Hokies are capable, though, because of Vick. When he suddenly can't throw straight, he can play the game another way. He can run like a wind subject to change: Who could tell in College Park which direction he was going? On Virginia Tech's first touchdown drive, of 80 yards, he ran 11 yards to the right, 21 to the left, three to the left and eight to the right and into the Maryland end zone. In all, he ran for 133 yards. "I just wanted to pick up some yardage," he said. "A couple of them were designed runs, but for the most part, I was just trying to get whatever I could get."
Whoever cried out from among the onlookers, "Get Vick," had neither a novel idea nor one easily enacted.
Excluding their fruitless pursuit of Vick, the Terrapins played well on defense. Twice they made inspiring stops near the goal line, with the almost unheard-of result being that the Hokies came away those times with no points. They failed to score in the first quarter, the first time that has happened this season. The Terrapins were down by only 7-3 at the half. But even then, there was the suspicion that they would not get closer; they couldn't move the ball against a big, fast, strong defense.
Maryland's best scenario is a winning season and a berth in a bowl game of some sort. That, of course, would be an improvement over the 5-6 record of last season. The Terrapins beat Virginia on Oct. 1, a good effort, and made last night's game close enough for a half to sustain a big-game atmosphere. This college football season, the big games have unfolded in South Bend, Ind., in Columbus, Ohio, in Ann Arbor, Mich., in Happy Valley, Pa., of course, and a few other of the game's hallowed grounds. And for a time at least, something like that feeling prevailed at College Park. Shortly before game time, people were pleading to buy an extra ticket -- not trying to buy to resell, but actually trying to get into the game. It probably wasn't going to be the biggest game of the year in all America, but it promised to be big enough to attract 54,838, the stadium's second largest crowd.
"The atmosphere was really something else," said Frank Beamer, Tech's coach.
It might have been a game to remember, from Maryland's point of view, had the Terrapins been able to score a touchdown in the first quarter. Or had they been able to stop Virginia Tech on its 81-yard drive to open the second half. But that swift march, which included a 38-yard run by Vick, put the game in context as one between a team with national title aspirations and one hoping its season doesn't end in November, and neither having quite the performance it wanted.