Saturday, September 27, 2008

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Husker Nation to test character of young Hokies

Kenny Lewis Jr. remembers the feeling. The nighttime crowd roaring, his team getting gutted on a national stage.

He remembers the aftermath, too -- even though he'd rather not.

"When we came back in that locker room, it was like everything had been sucked out of you," the tailback said, thinking back to LSU's 48-7 drubbing of Virginia Tech last September. "We were all looking at each other like, 'How did that happen? Where did we go wrong?' "

Everywhere. And unfortunately for Tech, that's the last memory any of these Hokies have about performing in an atmosphere like they'll see tonight.

Nebraska is clearly not the speed-laden juggernaut the Tigers were last year. Nobody really knows how good the Cornhuskers are, or how good they'll ultimately be, but we do know they're not LSU. Last year's 5-7 season, achieved with many of these same players, was earned. Their 3-0 record so far this season means little, considering the competition they've played. They won't be winning any national titles this season, even if new coach Bo Pelini is off to a solid start.

But they're favored by a touchdown tonight for several reasons. One of which is big and loud.

"The fans are crazy -- 80, 85,000 Husker fans," said Nebraska safety Larry Asante, who went to high school in Virginia. "All red. They don't sit down the whole game. They love football here in the state of Nebraska. They make noise throughout the whole game.

"The state feeds off Nebraska football."

Sound familiar? We heard a lot of these same things last season before the Hokies took off for Baton Rouge. And once Tech got there, the crowd delivered a chill-inducing crescendo that exacerbated Tech's woes.

The Huskers, fresh off a bye week, hope their dedicated throng can do the same.

"It's always going to affect you a little bit," Pelini said of the atmosphere. "Otherwise, you might as well play all the games at neutral fields. It gives you an advantage to be at home in a game like this.

"But they're good enough and they've been in enough hostile environments that it won't determine the outcome of the game, and it surely didn't in the game against LSU."

He's right about that. Talent did. But even if talent began the bullying, the Tiger Stadium atmosphere picked up the Hokies, flipped them over and shook out every last coin in their pockets.

That's what the Hokies must avoid. They'll play more consequential games than this one this season, the kind that will decide the ACC's Coastal Division title, so it's not Armageddon if they lose. But what they can't have happen is for the progress they've made over the first four weeks to dissolve in one embarrassing performance, setting the odometer back to zero.

That's what happened in the Bayou, and Tech coach Frank Beamer knows it. He hopes his players learned something from that.

"The problem I've got is," Beamer said, "we've got 34 guys who probably weren't on that trip."

Hence, the great unknown.

So far, the young Hokies have shown excellent composure. They've kept their penalties to a minimum and fought hard even as they've struggled offensively. But tonight offers their most formidable test yet.

"It's not a conference game; it's a character game," Lewis said. "We get to see how we are as a unit. At UNC, we had to fight back. Are we going to fight back from the first quarter this week? Are we going to come together and be ready to go?"

We'll find out.

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