Friday, January 02, 2009
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: At last, a Virginia Tech football season that feels complete

At last, the Orange Bowl-champion Hokies are able to end the season on a high note.

MIAMI — Finally, a cake with icing.

Finally, an award-winning ending act.

Finally, a season concludes with dancing on the field instead of trudging to the buses.

They came here with a plan, these Virginia Tech Hokies, and they did not stray from it. They were intensely focused from the moment they touched down in Miami, and the results a week later were emphatic. The Orange Bowl scoreboard read Hokies 20, Cincinnati 7, but the lasting memory says something else. Something simple.

Finally.

“Complete” is the other word here, on every level. A season completed the right way for the first time in years. A complete performance by the Hokies, with the offense grinding out first downs, exhausting an eager, veteran Cincinnati defense. And a Tech defense doing what a Tech defense does, minimizing scores and slashing spirits with huge plays.

The best part of it all is it’s over. There will be no press conferences talking about stomps, like the last time the Hokies won a bowl game. There will be no hand-wringing about play-calling in this one, no quarterbacks controversies festering in the spring, no lingering questions about why sweet turns sour in January.

Virginia Tech's Darren Evans and coach Frank Beamer celebrate the their team's 20-7 Orange Bowl victory over Cincinnati.

Photo by Matt Gentry | The Roanoke Times

Virginia Tech's Darren Evans and coach Frank Beamer celebrate the their team's 20-7 Orange Bowl victory over Cincinnati.

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The reward coach Frank Beamer used to talk about so often? This is it. Macho Harris and game MVP Darren Evans hugging on the podium, accepting the Orange Bowl trophy, Beamer shouting for joy into a microphone, a small but hardy crowd sticking around to wave pompoms and revel in the moment.

For once, the late-season surge did not die once the conference title was won. The strong points of the ACC title game — the tough running of Evans, the determined push by the offensive line, the nastiness of the defense — all of that traveled to Miami and then some.

Senior defensive end Orion Martin ended his career with a flourish, intercepting a pass to set up Tech’s final touchdown. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor shook off the struggles from last year’s Orange Bowl loss to Kansas to log a solid performance, scoring the Hokies’ first touchdown and setting up the other one with a key third-down completion.

Offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring, the target of criticism all season long, called a balanced, creative game that produced 398 total yards, just two off the season high. And Beamer, who went to work immediately after last year’s BCS defeat trying to figure out how to change his team’s postseason mentality, saw his decisions validated on a national stage.

Like last year, Tech fell behind 7-0 against an upstart opponent. But unlike last year, the Hokies did not crumble. By halftime, they had a lead on the scoreboard and a dominant edge in time of possession, foreshadowing a second half in which they would hold the Bearcats scoreless.

The last moment of doubt disappeared with 7:25 remaining. Facing a fourth-and-goal from inside the Tech 1-yard line and trailing 20-7, Bearcats quarterback Tony Pike took the snap, ran to his right and cut inside toward a hole.

Except there wasn’t one. There was Barquell Rivers — Barquell Rivers! — blasting into Pike’s thighs. And there came the white shirts — three, then four, then five —swarming, feasting, smothering, wrestling the 6-foot-6 QB to the ground.

As the pile unfolded and the officials awarded the ball to Tech, Harris went skipping along the grass like an 8-year-old on a sugar high, waving his arms in joy. Then he leaped three feet in the air and fired his fist at the moon.

The message spoke for everyone: Finally!

Yes, finally.

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