Miami of Ohio 24, Virginia Tech 17
by Will Stewart,, 10/4/97

Click here for the game recap with stats

Walking out of the stadium, I thought this was going to be the hardest game report I had ever written. After all, in the short life span of HokieCentral (1-1/2 football seasons), I had never had to write up a loss in which we were heavily favored over a supposedly inferior opponent.

In some ways, it is the most difficult game report I have ever had to write, but in other ways, it’s not. I’ll admit that when I sat down for the Temple and Arkansas State game reports, I struggled with what to say. I worked hard to analyze those two games and basically came up empty.

For this game, however, for this hideous loss against Miami of Ohio, I have once again given it a lot of thought, and I’m surprised with how much I’ve come up with. Not so much for the physical performance of the team, but for this loss in general. I’ve got a lot to thoughts to pass on to you about what this loss says about our players, coaches, fans, and the state of our program.

HokieCentral’s official slogan is, "All-Hokie, All the Time. Period." But the unofficial slogan is, "It’s the journey, not the destination." In the case of our football team, the destination - a national championship - is indeed clear and tangible. But how we get there - the journey - and how we handle setbacks and adversity along the way will determine not only if we can reach our destination, but when.

When you step back and look at this loss in the big picture, you find some surprisingly calming and positive thoughts that you can take away from it, and as with most losses, there are many lessons to be learned from it.

Having said that, be aware that I’m not here to dress this pig up in silk and try to make you feel better. Make no bones about it, that loss on Saturday ranks right up there with the worst we’ve ever suffered. We were beaten in all phases of the game, including offense, defense, special teams, and coaching. It was embarrassing, and it was a severe setback on the road to national respect not just for us, but for our conference. Faced with the chore of carrying the flag for our struggling football conference, we fell flat on our faces.

We have discovered that for now, we need to quell the talk of going 11-0, winning the national championship, and trying to earn respect from the nation and the pollsters. Our biggest task at this point is getting better as a football team and learning not just how to win, but how to be winners.

What I mean by that last statement will become clear as we move along.

The Physical Reasons Why Tech Lost the Game

Frank Beamer summed this loss up perfectly when he said, "This was a classic upset." Indeed it was. Here is a list of several things that when added together, spell "upset":

  1. Miami scored 2 touchdowns off the special teams.
  2. Tech fumbled twice. One fumble, on the Tech 30, led to a Miami touchdown, while the other, on the Miami 10 yard line, prevented a Tech score.
  3. Tech’s best receiver got hurt early in the game.
  4. Tech’s offensive line coach, J.B. Grimes, left the game with chest pains and was taken to a hospital. He is the field general for the offensive line, and if you’re wondering why they played so poorly, wonder no more (for more details on Coach Grimes's condition, see the News and Notes section).
  5. The officials made two calls in Miami’s favor that had a profound impact on the game. The first was on Oxendine’s fumble on the Miami 10-yard line, when it was arguable that he was down, and the second call came on a Miami punt return late in the game. The officials ruled that the Miami returner did not touch a bouncing punt that the Hokies later covered, and I’ve talked to boatloads of Hokie fans who insisted that he did touch it.

Never mind that the team, the coaches, and the fans weren’t sharp for this game. If any one (or two) of those five items listed above had gone Tech’s way, we might have won, anyway, much like we did against Temple earlier this year. In retrospect, it’s kind of incredible that the final score was only 24-17, given that almost none of the breaks went our way and that Miami outplayed us.

As a matter of fact, a number of games in the last three years have all been as losable as this one, but we won them anyway. I went to see the Navy game in 1995, a 14-0 Tech victory, and let me tell you, the Midshipmen were a few freak plays and bad calls away from winning that game. You think Miami of Ohio did a number on our offensive line this past Saturday? You should have seen how Navy abused it that day.

Pitt had us on the ropes in their stadium in 1995 and let us get away. And how about the Akron game in 1996?

I could go on and on like this for a while, but you get the point - when you play poorly against a decent team that executes well, and the intangibles don’t go your way, it can easily add up to a loss. On Saturday, it did. I, for one, am not going to go ballistic about it, and I’m not going to call individual players and coaches out on the carpet because of it.

The coaches are good coaches, and the players are good players. And they’ve got these thingies called projectors that they can use to figure out why they made mistakes and how to correct them. And they will, just like they did after the 1995 Cincinnati game.

The Mental Reasons Why We Lost the Game

This is a much broader topic, and one that I’ll go into in more detail.

There was a lot of talk about how the players took Miami "lightly" and didn’t respect them. Some players agreed that they hadn’t focused well on the game, others denied it. I don’t want to talk about what our mindset was on Saturday. I’d rather take a step back and talk about what our overall mindset is, because it’s an illuminating discussion.

Five years ago, we were 2-8-1. The trip from a 2-win season to a national championship is a loooong journey, and many things have to happen along the way. Some of them are obvious - you have to win a lot - and some aren’t.

Perhaps one of the more subtle things that has to occur along the way is that you have to shift your mindset from being the underdog, the hunter, to being the top dog, the hunted. Virginia Tech has thrived in recent years on playing the role of the underdog to its fullest advantage by sneaking up on supposedly more powerful teams that didn’t take us seriously. Ask any Texas fan how shocked they were when little ol’ Virginia Tech trashed them in the Sugar Bowl.

In recent years, the Hokies seemed to have found the sweet spot consisting of their own inner confidence and a bevy of overconfident opponents. That sweet spot adds up to a lot of victories.

What happened this year is that Tech’s long-term lease on the role of underdog started to run out. For the first time, many people were openly acknowledging, right or wrong, that Tech is the best team in the Big East conference (that is now debatable, and not even worth talking about at this point).

For the first time, fans and columnists started to talk about being favored in every game for the remainder of the year, and the possibility of going undefeated. Talk of an undefeated season means that you’re flying in rare air indeed, in the company of just a few schools in the country. And what we found out on Saturday is that there is a difference between learning how to win and learning how to be a winner.

We already know how to win. Now we need to concentrate on what it takes to be a winner, week in and week out.

We faced a very unique situation this year, one which was not only strange but totally unexpected. Six weeks ago, we were talking about 8-3 and 9-2, and suddenly, after strong performances against Syracuse and Rutgers, we started thinking about something even better: 11-0.

You might say, so what? We should always strive to go 11-0. Yes, we should. But wanting to go undefeated and learning how to go undefeated are two different things entirely. Learning how to go 11-0 is a difficult task, one littered with many potholes and setbacks along the way, as we discovered.

Remember the NBA championship teams of the Detroit Pistons in the late 80’s? They took the road to success one step at a time, year by year. First they had to learn how to win their division, then they had to learn how to win their conference championship, then they had to learn how to win the NBA championship. As I remember, the whole process took a few years to get right, and then they reeled off a few before they were done (but don’t quote me stats, because I’m not an NBA guy).

Three weeks ago, the day of the Tech/Temple game, I settled down in front of the TV with my Nitanny Lion wife and watched Penn State annihilate Louisville. The Lions were very focused, very business-like, and you would have thought that the Loserville Cardinals were their last game of the year for the national championship. By halftime, it was 50-14. Penn State is a team that’s used to having other teams gun for them, and this is a team that knows how to put their best foot forward and play up to their potential, or darn close to it, each and every week.

Another example is Florida. Steve Spurrier’s a jerk, yes, but his team plays 100 miles an hour every week, whether they’re playing Central Michigan, Central Florida, or Florida State. They don’t let up, because if they do, their coach will eat them alive, and they’ll ride the bench while the next High School All-American on the depth chart takes their place.

Neither of these teams got there in one year. It’s a long learning process, folks.

On Monday’s Hokie Hotline show, Bill Roth asked Coach Beamer how he would have prepared differently for Miami if he could have it to do over again. Beamer didn’t hem and haw and use generalities. He got very specific.

He said, "I would have anticipated the questions the reporters were going to ask last Tuesday (during Tech’s media day), and I would have prepared my players on how to answer the questions and what to focus on. I would have told them not to worry about who they want to play, but who they are playing."

Thanks to the Miami Redhawks, Beamer is now one step ahead of the game. The next time the opportunity for an undefeated season rears its head, the next time this team starts to look better than the rest of its schedule, Coach Beamer will know how to handle it better. He’ll be prepared, with his Miami of Ohio game tape and lessons learned in hand.

Knowing how to play hard week after week is a challenge. And as this Virginia Tech football team continues to improve, I think it’s the next major hurdle it will have to overcome. They will have to learn to master the fine art of playing hard and playing with confidence, without overlooking any opponents.

Last year in the Orange Bowl, we learned a lot about what it takes to be the best by looking across the line of scrimmage at the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Last Saturday, we learned a lot about what it takes to be the best by looking at ourselves.

The, Uh, "Fans" at Saturday's Game (Me Included)

We can sit here and critique the players and coaches all we want to, but there’s another group, a much larger group, that also fell flat on its collective face Saturday – the Virginia Tech fans.

A few brief questions for you:

  1. How many of you were in your seats, ready to go, when the Tech football team came out of the tunnel? I wasn’t.
  2. How many of you were in your seats, ready to go, at the opening kickoff? I wasn’t.
  3. How many of you were surrounded by people who were gabbing, playing with kids, getting drunk(er), and not paying much attention to the game? I was.
  4. How many of you didn’t really start to cheer until early 4th quarter, and then it was a panicky cheer because you were worried we were going to lose? That describes me.

Big-time teams don’t just have good coaching staffs and players. They also have large, dedicated fan bases. Fans that make it hard for visiting teams to play in their giant stadiums.

Now let’s be honest. At this point in time, there is no way that Virginia Tech can hope to match the show put on by 85,000 fans in the Florida Gators’ stadium, or the 100,000+ that show up to watch Tennessee. And I’m not just talking numbers, I’m talking focus and intensity.

At big schools like Penn State, you have to donate money just to be put on a waiting list for season tickets. And it’s a long waiting list. By the time you get those season tickets, you’re damn glad to have them, and you’ve paid a lot of money and time to get them, and the last thing you’re going to do is skip half of the games, and show up and be quiet for the other half.

On Saturday, Tech’s stadium was full of a lot of "fans" who were there because it was a nice day. They got up, went to the stadium on a lark because it was sunny and 80 degrees, and they scalped a ticket from some guy who was selling his buddy’s season tickets for $5 apiece – or giving them away.

In the crowd of 42,000+ at Saturday’s game, a large portion of them couldn’t have cared less about the game that was taking place down on that pretty green grass. This was not a UVa, a WVU, or a Miami (FL) that the Hokies were playing, it was just one of those "guaranteed wins" that ESPN had been harping on us about. What’s the big deal? After all, we had beaten Arkansas State 50-0 the week before, and what’s the difference between them and Miami of Ohio?

Tech is unable at this point to turn out 50,000 hard-cheering fans game after game, let alone 80,000. We can’t just magically produce 40,000 season ticket holders, not any time soon. This is not criticism, it’s a fact. And it’s an important point, because a good fan base is an essential part of a top-notch program. When is the last time a national championship was won by a team that averaged less than 50,000 fans a game?

Until the day that we can turn out 60,000 to 80,000 fans a game, what we can do, those of us who care, anyway, is show up and be "on our game" every week. If you’re going to ask it of the players and coaches, then you have to ask it of yourselves, because those 18-22 year old kids feed off of us. That’s what home field advantage is all about.

I just said a lot of distracting things, so let me restate my point: if you want the team and coaches to be at their best, then you have to be your best as a fan. I personally am not going to take any more teams lightly, and I’m going to make a lot more noise in the future at the Arkansas State and Miami of Ohio-type games than I’ve made in the past. I’m going to be in my seat when the team comes out of the tunnel, and I’m going to be ready for the opening kickoff. I may be the only guy there, but at least I’ll be doing my part.

I’m sure many of you have made that pledge before, and so have I. But now that I know how important it is to the success of the program, I’m sticking to it this time.

The Wrap-Up

The major point I’ve been trying to make during this game report is that in the grand scheme of things, this is just a temporary setback. Losses are, unfortunately, great teaching tools, and this one’s a whopper of a teacher, not just about what we need to do to improve on the field, but what we need to do to prepare ourselves for winning week after week and staying in the upper echelon of college football. Our coaches, players, and fans are all a little smarter and a little more sophisticated than last week, and in the long run, it will pay off.

Next Week: Boston College

Boy, I wouldn’t want to be Boston College this Saturday. They’re going to be facing 85 ticked-off players, 10 ticked off coaches (minus Coach Grimes, who will be in our thoughts), and close to 50,000 ticked-off fans. Not a good scenario for an inconsistent team that is banged up with injuries.

Bring your game face. I’m bringing mine.

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