Thursday, November 01, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hokies miss road dominance

Virginia Tech used to own road games in the ACC. Not a long time ago, either. Last year, the team won all four. Same with the year before that. The year before that, they went 3-1.

Sometimes, when such trends are unfolding, it's easy to overlook how special they are, but the Hokies' road dominance attracted the proper reverence - and the right amount of bewilderment.

After all, how could where the team played not seem to matter? This is football, right? Where home teams get so many edges?

The energy surge from the crowd, the gift penalties at crucial times, the momentum shifts that don't swing back the other way. They all influence outcomes. Have for decades. Yet somehow, Tech seemed immune.

Not anymore.

The Hokies have yet to win this year away from Lane Stadium. They're 0-4, including the loss against Cincinnati at FedEx Field. Going back to last year, when they fell in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte and the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, the Hokies have dropped six straight away from Blacksburg - their longest losing streak since the 1990-91 seasons.

That's a problem. Particularly when tonight's game against Miami - likely the decisive one in the Coastal Division - will be played a 14-hour drive from the New River Valley.

But just as the road success was difficult to explain at the time, so too is the 180-degree turn.

"Trying to figure that out exactly," coach Frank Beamer said of the road winless streak. "I think when you're a little bit of an inconsistent football team, that can happen to you. ... It's been kind of unusual. How many times have you seen us take the lead like we did in Cincinnati, then lose it with very little time to play?"

Part of the explanation is simple: Tech's played better teams away from home than it has in Blacksburg this year. The Hokies aren't booking flights to Austin Peay. Bowling Green isn't the caliber of Pittsburgh, regardless of where the game's played.

But those road momentum swings Tech used to survive and overcome are becoming more nettlesome. When things go bad at somebody else's stadium, they tend to stay that way. The Hokies have committed 13 turnovers in the four games outside Lane compared to only three in Blacksburg.

Meanwhile, the defense's worst games have come away from Lane. The Hokies gave up 537 yards at Pittsburgh, 495 to Cincinnati and 533 at North Carolina. After all three times, players pondered whether the energy level was as high as it should have been.

"I think a lot of times, guys like to feed off the crowd," linebacker Bruce Taylor said. "Here at home, that's easy to do, with the crowd right there. It's just sometimes we have a different enthusiasm for home games than we do away games, which we can't have.

"I felt pretty good going down to Clemson. Guys were pretty turned up and excited to be out there."

And Tech gave up just 295 yards - but couldn't get enough offense.

The players say the business-trip mentality of road games past persists. They have a trusted routine for what to do at the hotel, when to eat, when to arrive at the stadium. Nothing's changed about their approach.

What has changed is the quality of the team and its play, making it more vulnerable to the trappings of road games.

The good news for Tech is that playing in Miami isn't like playing at Clemson or Florida State. Tonight's game should draw more than the Sun Life Stadium average this year of about 53,000, but recent history suggests it won't be the most intimidating of environments.

"It still has some sound to it," quarterback Logan Thomas said. "But it's not what you would expect a team that has a legacy like Miami to have."

Unfortunately for the Hokies, Miami isn't the only team that isn't quite what it used to be.

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