Saturday, November 28, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Game pits UVa's desire vs. Tech's talent

Welcome to the referendum on rah-rah, the ultimate indicator of how much emotion matters in college football.

Even the most ardent Virginia fan cannot argue that the Cavaliers are as talented as Virginia Tech. The evidence doesn't support it. The only question today is whether UVa can pull an upset fueled by desire, capitalize on a craving to win that nobody doubts resides in Charlottesville.

How big is the empirical talent gap? Every week, the ACC ranks teams in 30 statistical categories covering offense, defense and special teams. Tech is ahead of Virginia in 26 of them. The Cavaliers are better than the Hokies at three things:

1. Coming away with points in the red zone. 2. Stopping opponents on fourth down, and 3. drawing penalties on the other team.

Tech and UVa are tied in extra-point conversions at 100 percent apiece.

In everything else -- rushing, passing, defense, sacks, kick returns, punting, etc. -- the Hokies are superior.

But if the league charted competitive fury, the Cavs might lead the conference this week. You could see it in their faces, hear it in their voices.

"One word," UVa linebacker Denzel Burrell said, when asked how much he wants a victory over Tech to soothe the disappointment of the season. "Badly."

Senior linebacker Aaron Clark went a step further.

"I don't think you could give me any amount of money to trade for beating Tech," he said.

He hasn't done it yet, and neither have the other 29 UVa seniors. Five straight losses to Tech lie heavy on their shoulder pads.

To which the Hokies say: Great! Now here comes an elephant-sized dose of Ryan Williams to try to make it six.

And that's really all Tech should have to do today, repeatedly ship the ACC rushing leader toward the line of scrimmage and watch the man work. The Cavaliers play respectable defense, but their strength lies in the secondary. They rank 10th in the conference against the run.

As matchups go, that's bad news for UVa.

But can heart/ambition/adrenaline somehow raise that mediocre level to something special? Coach Al Groh and his players have to hope so.

"I love games like this," Groh said. "I love going against the best players and going against the best teams in games that really count for something in this type of environment.

"I think we certainly feel that. The better the opponent, the bigger the game, the more juice."

Juice has been largely absent from Blacksburg ever since the Hokies fell out of contention in the conference, but that hasn't seemed to matter. The Hokies have destroyed Maryland and N.C. State since with workmanlike ease.

In the Cavaliers, Tech faces a team on a five-game losing streak, including a 25-point home loss to Georgia Tech and a 35-point setback at Miami.

Any trepidation, then, will have to be manufactured.

"You can't assume anything," Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "We know a lot of their players. We've got respect for a lot of their players. They've had some tough injuries that's set them back a little bit, but I think they're very relentless. They went down to North Carolina and won, and I don't think a lot of people would have bet on them that week."

Most won't this week, either. But one by one, as those UVa seniors spoke this week, they labeled this matchup as their bowl game. There are no goodie bags, no free PlayStations, no trips to the beach, but you get their point: This is it for them, win or lose.

And you know what they say about bowl games, don't you?

Beware of the team that wants to be there more.

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