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Five Things I Learned Watching Virginia Tech Rally To Beat UNC

Virginia Tech’s comeback win over North Carolina last night was one of those games where Hokie fans should be glad the standings have only columns for wins and losses, and not areas where a game can be judged as “pretty”, “ugly” or “lucky.”

As a result, the Coastal Standings of the Atlantic Coast Conference only show that Virginia Tech is 3-0 in league games, in first place, and has a one-game lead over Miami and Virginia. But last night’s game showed more than that; here are five things I learned in watching them last night:

1. This team has heart. Yeah, I know everybody says that about their team. But last night they found themselves in a situation where only two miracles would prevent them from losing the game. They were late in the 4th quarter. A North Carolina touchdown – given the way Virginia Tech’s defense had played all evening – was a virtual certainty. That TD would have given UNC a two-score lead, and there wasn’t enough time for the Hokies to counter. The only thing that would grasp defeat from the jaws of victory for the Tar Heels would be either an interception – and there was no way UNC was going to throw the ball so close to the goal line – or a Virginia Tech defensive player came up with a hard hit or a strip of the ball that resulted in a fumble. Realistically speaking, the odds of that happening were right up there with a super model giving me a call during a timeout and asking what I’m doing after the game.

But it happened (no, not the thing with the super model). Safety Tyree Rodgers put his helmet into the midsection of UNC running back Michael Carter – who had run through the Virginia Tech defense all night with the same ease most of us would walk through a shopping mall – and the ball popped up in the air. Cornerback Jovonn Quillen grabbed it, dropped it, grabbed it again, then fell down on the two yard line. Half the miracle was done, but now the other half – having this offense go 98 yards – had to happen.

Coaches tell you in practice all the time that you can do things like this, but they rarely happen. The Hokies DID drive the length of the field, they DID score the winning touchdown, and they DID add a two-pointer to make sure a field goal didn’t beat them in the final minute. Such is the stuff legends are made of, and is also the stuff confidence, belief and heart are made of. There were probably players on the field who hoped they could do something like this, but didn’t really know if they could.

Now they know. Which could be a huge asset down the road this season.

2. This team is becoming a team. Having a comeback like the one last night is the type of magic that converts a group of football players into a team. This year’s edition of Virginia Tech football has been filled with enough drama as it is, losing players to the NFL they didn’t expect to lose, players being kicked off the team, injuries that removed starters on both defense and offense…even an injury that changed the face of the offense requiring a new quarterback. There’s no way a team can develop much cohesiveness with that many changes, and each week seems to bring even more challenges.

Wins like last night’s develop that cohesiveness in a hurry. People believe. They trust their teammates more. They pull for reserves to make big plays because they know when a team is having the kind of year Virginia Tech is having with injuries, it could easily be the “next man up” that decides the game. I really liked when true freshman Quincy Patterson came in at quarterback for only three plays, got the Hokies a first down, then headed back to the sidelines. He was mobbed by his teammates like he had scored a touchdown. And who led the group in celebration? Starting quarterback Ryan Willis, before heading back on to the field.

3. Ryan Willis is not Superman. Since taking over as the starting quarterback for injured Josh Jackson, Willis has enjoyed high praise because he is a better passer than Jackson and adds a different element to the Hokie offense. It came as a surprise to me, because I had heard from several people that Willis had not only a very strong upside, but he was also capable of going out and throwing three interceptions with the same ease I can eat three chili dogs. Jackson, it was said, had a straight line in terms of performance with a very visible ceiling. Willis, conversely, was a roller coaster who could provide very high highs and very low lows, sometimes with both coming in the same game.

Hints of that were evident last night. At times he played as if Virginia Tech had only one receiver – Damon Hazleton – and he seemed determined to throw the ball to him whether he was open or not. Willis showed signs of frustration at times last night too, something you really don’t want in your field general. It wasn’t until he started remembering people like Eric Kumah, Sean Savoy and Dalton Keene were still on the field – and he actually threw the ball to them – that the offense started to move the ball. During the game-winning drive, he spread the ball to more of the weapons the offense had on the field, which opened the field more so he could occasionally run. Had he not done that, several of those very key runs would probably have been stopped at the line of scrimmage.

All coaches tell their quarterbacks to not try to do it all alone, and play within themselves. Hokie fans last night got to see Willis at his worst when he was trying to do too much, then see him at his best when he played within himself. If that lesson was learned last night, that’s a big boost for the Hokie offense the rest of the season.

4. A hamstring is a hamstring is a hamstring. A few years ago, when Virginia Tech had no depth at quarterback, the running joke about Michael Brewer was that every time he was injured, the coaches would look at the depth chart, weigh their options, then tell Brewer to rub some dirt on it, tape him up, and send him back on the field no matter what the affliction. A Michael Brewer at 50 percent, it seemed, was better than a backup at 100 percent.

The team seems to be doing the same with safety Divine Deablo. He clearly has a pulled hamstring, and instead of sitting him out for 3 or 4 games in a row and letting it totally heal, he’s missing a game, coming back the next week, reinjuring it, missing another game, then attempting to come back the following week. Some of this may be Deablo telling the coaches he is OK and is good to go, but it was apparent on several pass plays that he’s playing on one leg. His warrior-like attitude is admirable. But a pulled hamstring is not something you can play through, and opposing defenses are picking up on that and going right at him. He needs to sit until he’s healthy.

5. Every game WILL be a 4-hour stomach ache. Justin Fuente offered this description of games this season during the summer, and he wasn’t lying. The team has talent, but it doesn’t have depth. It has speed and strength, but it sadly lacks experience in several key positions. In year’s past, a defensive mistake would result in the other team getting a first down. This year, that mistake results in the other team breaking off a big play and scoring a touchdown.

The team will be consistently inconsistent the rest of the way, and all of this is only compounded by Hokie fans wanting this team to be as good as some of those in year’s past. At times it will be. At times it won’t. After the Hokies opened the season with a big win against Florida State, there were high hopes of this being a great season (until everyone realized Florida State is not a very good team). The loss to Old Dominion showed how bad it can be. The rebound win at Duke showed how good it can be. Last night’s UNC game was a little of both. If this team were a person, you could probably diagnose it as bi-polar given how many times it will be up, down, up, down and up again.

With each game, experience will help with this. But it’s already mid-October, so there’s not that much season left. My advice: buckle up…and keep a bottle of Mylanta near the remote ????



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