Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Ready or not, Hokies enter rugged November

BLACKSBURG -- This is exactly what you want to see before you enter the most critical month of your schedule:

Your stadium beginning to empty with a quarter to go.

Your best players relaxing on the sidelines.

Your third-stringers trying to show what they can do.

No complaints with this one, as Virginia Tech dumped Duke 44-7 on Saturday. And there weren't many last week, either, when the Hokies pounded Wake Forest.

So now they rest a bit, the calendar flips to a nasty November, and we'll really find out what the Hokies have.

It's folly to say you can't learn anything against lesser opponents. Sometimes, you can learn quite a bit. Over the past three weeks -- as the Hokies have drubbed overmatched Central Michigan, Wake and Duke by a combined score of 141-49 -- we've learned that they're serious about turning this season around after a disastrous start.

"When you play well and you have success, it builds confidence," Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "You can't talk your way into it; you've got to do it. In the last couple games, I think we've taken steps towards where we want to go."

Where they want to go is Charlotte, site of the ACC championship game, then on to Miami for the Orange Bowl. Those are the only goals left after a loss to James Madison, of course, but they are significant. And JMU -- while still pecking at this team's memories -- is finally starting to do so with a little less force.

"Personally, I never doubted the team," Tech running back David Wilson said. "I just looked at it and thought, 'That's not how we play.' Even if you put out a brand new defense or whatever, even if you have no starters returning, when you see a performance like we had early in the season -- especially against JMU -- you know that's not the football team you practice with during the week."

So they went to work on the offense, emphasizing improved red zone performance, third down conversions and overall precision. All that got better.

On Saturday -- as the offense continued to hum -- it was the defense's turn to make vital strides. Even with a lot of backups playing significant minutes, Tech's defense held the Blue Devils to 208 total yards.

"We're excited, with the ACC stretch that we're about to go on, that we just put together a game of four quarters," redshirt freshman free safety Antone Exum said. "We've been waiting on that all season. It's good to put that together right when we're going to need it."

And they will need it. Georgia Tech, as everybody remembers, sucked the air out of Tech's resurgence in 2009 with a 28-23 victory in Atlanta. The Jackets are up next a week from Thursday in Blacksburg, followed by road games against Coastal Division contenders North Carolina and Miami.

While the Hokies have enjoyed the past few weeks, they're eager to face some more highly regarded opponents.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't," Tech cornerback Jayron Hosley said. "I'm definitely looking forward to them. These guys, I've never started against them, so it's going to be something new. I'm up for the challenge, and I know our team's up for the challenge."

They seem like they will be. Kicker Chris Hazley hasn't missed a field goal since the season opener, nailing 13 in a row, and he says he feels comfortable from 52 yards and in. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor's pitching it around like never before. Ryan Williams is back and seemingly healthy. Tight end Andre Smith keeps catching touchdowns, giving opposing defenses yet another weapon to consider.

So bring on November and whatever it yields.

"Its black and white," Exum said. "We win those, we'll go to Charlotte. If we don't, we'll go down a different road."

At least the car's tuned up for the journey.

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