Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Trip to Tampa fitting reward for this Hokie team

BLACKSBURG -- Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer climbed up on the podium, the place where he'd fielded all the pointed questions about the offense, the platform where he'd talked so often about ugly performances and finding ways to win, the place where so often this season he looked tired, worn down, older than his years.

In his hand he clutched the credential for the ACC title game. As he wrapped it around his neck, he looked out upon a packed room of reporters.

"Some of these mean more than others," Beamer said. "This one, I think, is about as special as it gets."

The hows and whys will fade. Specific memories of the journey will grow fuzzier with time. But the Hokies will always remember that it was difficult to get where they did in 2008, but they got there.

Tampa bound.

Rival Virginia was the final obstacle to the ACC's Coastal Division crown, and the Cavaliers brought a challenge Saturday. Surprise starter Vic Hall staggered Tech with two long touchdown runs, but the Hokies adjusted. The offense sputtered in the red zone but still churned out yards, spun the clock and ultimately did enough to win.

In other words, this 17-14 victory was a lot like the season. Sometimes great, sometimes a mess, but always pointed toward the same goal, the one the Hokies achieved despite the doubts.

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Hokies trainer Mike Goforth was trying to tackle the man. During the second half, Tech's trainer had quarterback Tyrod Taylor by the shoulder pads and was screaming for him to get on the ground, to stop pushing it, to lie down before he hurt himself more than he already had.

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Taylor kept hopping on one foot. What else should we have expected from him? If the sophomore quarterback has proven anything this year, it's that he won't go down easily.

First he was redshirted. Then he wasn't. Then he was the starter. Then he got hurt. Then he was the starter again. Then last week against Duke, he suffered through the worst game of his career, turning it over four times in five possessions, getting benched in the process.

Some -- including me -- thought he had no business starting this game. But not only did he start it, he owned it, passing for 137 yards, running for 137 more and serving as the engine on the most important drive of the season.

With Tech trailing 14-7 in the third quarter and desperately needing a momentum shift, Taylor ripped off a 73-yard run, the longest of his career and Tech's longest play from scrimmage in 2008. Two plays later, Tech was in the end zone and Lane Stadium was jumping.

"This has been the story of the season, actually," Taylor said. "We just worked hard, nobody gave up, everybody on this team believed."

And they're Tampa bound.

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How challenging was the journey?

Bryan Stinespring smiled.

"Let's put it in perspective," the Tech offensive coordinator said. "Let's go back to North Carolina, where we've got to call timeouts to get lined up. Two, back to back.

"And then where they are now: Danny Coale [five] catches. [Jarrett] Boykin [six] catches. Big catches. Big plays. You saw portions of it throughout the year. You saw it coming. It's gratifying to sit here and witness a group of young people not lose their confidence, not to lose the sight that there's a better day out there for 'em."

The receiving corps was the biggest question coming into this year, and the freshman-laden group responded in a big way Saturday. Boykin caught a touchdown pass. Coale shined as a possession receiver.

Together, they helped produce a 392-yard day for the Tech offense, the second-best production for the Hokies all year. And Stinespring said that's a credit to a group of players who refused to mentally succumb to the frequent struggles.

"Understand that there's an offensive system, a defensive system, a kicking system -- but deep down, there's got to be a belief system," Stinespring said. "And we believe."

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Tech cornerback Macho Harris thought back to last year's win over UVa, a road victory that also clinched a spot in the title game. He agreed with Beamer: This one's more gratifying.

"I'm not saying last year we didn't earn it," he said. "We definitely did earn it.

"But this year, we earned every inch. Every inch on that field, we earned."

There's no way to argue. Saturday's victory was just the latest in a series of grind-out ACC wins -- Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Duke. All of them leaving you wondering how they did it and whether they could possibly do it again.

Well, they did.

"I think it's a heck of an accomplishment," Beamer said. "And being right in the middle of it, I know it's a heck of an accomplishment."

He looked down at his credential. For the moment, he appeared just a little younger.

And 100 percent Tampa bound.

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