Saturday, January 02, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hokies better prepared at Chick-fil-A Bowl

ATLANTA -- Here's a line you probably never thought you'd hear from a Virginia Tech opponent:

"It was the play calling that kind of caught us off guard."

Tennessee free safety Janzen Jackson said that Thursday night, shortly after his Volunteers fell to the Hokies 37-14 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. He'd been asked whether Tech tailback Ryan Williams -- who ran for 117 yards and two touchdowns -- was the biggest problem.

Not so much him, Janzen said. The play calling.

The play calling!

Here's a line you thought you'd hear from Tech coach Frank Beamer during all those years of bowl struggles but never did:

"I was not pleased with our practices down here."

UT coach Lane Kiffin said that late Thursday night. He'd hinted at it before the game, too. He noticed that the players' focus and intensity weren't where they needed to be, but he could do nothing to change it. Because of that, he has to be heading into this offseason wondering about the commitment level of some guys and the immediate future of everyone in the program.

Sound familiar?

That used to be Tech. But not anymore.

Of all the positives that came out of Tech's victory here -- another 10-win season, a positive blow for the ACC against the Southeastern Conference, a record-setting performance from Williams -- nothing is more encouraging than this: The Hokies really seem to be figuring out this whole bowl thing.

And what a difference that makes. As Beamer has often said, there's nothing good about losing a bowl game. But for too long, the Hokies couldn't seem to avoid it, no matter how much talent they put on the field.

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Preparation is so critical for these things. How you line up your practices, how you motivate, how you discipline, how you game plan -- all those factors are magnified when you have a month to gear up or go stale.

And after finishing back-to-back years with bowl wins for the first time in school history, it's clear that the Tech coaching staff is getting better at all of them.

Let's start with offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring. His challenge seemed greater than anybody's heading into this one. He had to try to outwit UT's Monte Kiffin, considered one of the best defensive minds in the game.

The result: 438 total yards, well above Tech's offensive average for the year.

He did it by riding Williams, sure, but also by mixing in the pass well. On Tech's first touchdown drive, quarterback Tyrod Taylor opened with a 20-yard bullet to Jarrett Boykin. Williams caught a pass out of the backfield, a weapon the Hokies didn't use enough during the regular season.

Receivers Dyrell Roberts, Danny Coale and Marcus Davis all made big catches early to help the Hokies take a 14-0 lead.

This looked like a team with a plan. And Stinespring avoided the pitfalls that so many coordinators -- including him, in the past -- plunge into when preparing for bowl games. He didn't go nuts.

We saw misdirection, but we didn't see a lot of gadgets. He wasn't out to prove how creative he could be, only how productive he could be.

"Credit really has to go to our players," Stinespring said. "This wasn't about Coach Kiffin or Bryan Stinespring. It was about 11 offensive players, about a football team executing."

That's what you'd hope he say, considering "execution" seems to be the culprit when things go wrong. But that really goes back to coaching, too, and how well the players have been trained to do their job.

So give Beamer his due for keeping this group on task throughout December. Tech's quick start in all three phases showed that they'd done a lot of work on timing and rhythm. And their response in the second half, outscoring the Vols 20-0, revealed stellar tactical adjustments and mental toughness -- cornerstones of a championship team.

All will be quiet now until April. The Vols will head back to Knoxville and make notes on how to do things better the next time, something the Hokies had to mull for so many years.

But not this year or last. And there's something very reassuring about that.

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