THE HOKIE POKIE
Virginia Tech danced past Miami and closer to the national title
As coach Frank Beamer spoke to his Virginia Tech players after
practice last Thursday, the 8-0 Hokies, ranked second in the
polls, had every right to be distracted from their upcoming
showdown with Big East archrival Miami. For three days they had
endured questions about the BCS rankings, which had once-beaten
Tennessee at No. 2, one spot ahead of Virginia Tech. Beamer,
however, insisted that his team focus on the Hurricanes, who
were 5-3 overall but unbeaten in conference play and eager to
break a four-game losing streak against the Hokies.
"It's all about handling pressure," he told his players of the
challenge the Hurricanes would present. "At [Big East] media day
in August, Miami was talking about how they had marked this day.
It was almost like a threat. You know what they are going to
bring. It's about what you are going to bring."
Pressure is one of the hallmarks of Beamer Ball--not handling
pressure but applying it relentlessly to the opponent. For three
quarters last Saturday night, Miami withstood all that Virginia
Tech could muster. Then the Hurricanes collapsed as if they had
been dynamited by a demolition crew. Miami, which had jumped to
a 10-0 lead and was down only 20-10 when the final quarter
opened, gave up two touchdowns in a 24-second span and watched
the Hokies pull away to a 43-10 victory.
Typical of Virginia Tech, the game-breaking touchdowns didn't
come from the offense, but rather on a 64-yard punt return, by
Ricky Hall, and a 51-yard fumble return, by Ike Charlton. The
Hokies have dominated the Big East over the last five years
through defense and special teams. This season, however, the
offense has been giving opponents fits too. "I always wanted to
play this way," Beamer says of Tech's more wide-open attack. "We
never had a quarterback quite like this who could complete the
The quarterback is redshirt freshman Michael Vick, who ran for
46 yards and threw for 151 against the Hurricanes. Vick seems
never to lose his composure. In the third quarter, with the
Hokies clinging to a 14-10 lead, he rolled right on
third-and-nine, dropped the ball, circled back to pick it up,
sprinted to his left and completed a 15-yard pass to tight end
Browning Wynn. Vick had thought he would have to fight his
nerves this fall after drawing preseason comparisons with former
Syracuse great Donovan McNabb. "I felt that I had a lot on my
shoulders," he says. "I was thinking about it the whole summer.
I stepped out on the field for the first game and forgot all
Virginia Tech continues to trail Florida State in the BCS
rankings, but whether a team is first or second in those
rankings doesn't matter--what counts is not being third, which
is where the Hokies found themselves after their 22-20,
last-play escape at West Virginia on Nov. 6. When the BCS
rankings came out on Nov. 8, Beamer refused to succumb to the
temptation to discuss Tennessee with his team. Now the Vols are
a moot issue: Tennessee lost at Arkansas on Saturday afternoon.
By the time the Hokies gathered in the locker room before the
Miami game they knew that their road to the Sugar Bowl, home to
this season's national championship game, had smoothed out like
a Blacksburg accent. Beamer didn't talk about that, either.
Instead he continued to preach about not losing focus. "The
bigger it gets," Beamer told his players before the game, "the
smaller you've got to think. What you want to think about is
what you can do something about. Think about that next play. Put
all your effort into it, and then go on to the play after that."
That's the way to get to New Orleans on Jan. 4.
For a year Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner patiently
answered questions about The Fumble, his late-game gaffe last
season at Tennessee that enabled the Vols to drive for a
touchdown, win 28-24 and go on to the national championship.
Last week, with Tennessee coming to Fayetteville, Stoerner's
scab was ripped off anew. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette printed
a frame-by-frame photo sequence of the play. Television
continued to air what must be a disintegrating videotape. Then
Stoerner led the Razorbacks on two fourth-quarter touchdown
drives, the latter capped by a 34-yard pass to senior wideout
Anthony Lucas with 3:44 to play, to give Arkansas a 28-24
victory, and...well, redemption rarely comes in so tidy a package.
"It was a tough week, just hard," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt
said on Sunday. "To see Clint Stoerner go through that, and
thinking about Brandon Burlsworth...." Burlsworth, who died in a
car accident in April, was the Arkansas All-America offensive
tackle who inadvertently tripped Stoerner last year and caused
the stumble on which Stoerner fumbled. "Brandon wanted Tennessee
so bad last year," Nutt said. "I remember him taking that game
pretty hard." Stoerner coped with the attention as best as he
could. "A buddy of mine back home [in Baytown, Texas] gave me a
football with a handle on it," he said on Sunday. "I thought
that was funny. I'm the kind of guy that keeps everything in. I
don't know if I realized how much had built up."
The goalposts came down at Razorback Stadium for the first time
since 1981. The team remained amid the celebration on the field
for 45 minutes. "I know last year's game is always going to be
in people's minds," Stoerner said. "But now they can put this
game in there with it."
JUNE JONES TO THE RESCUE
Last December when June Jones turned down a reported four-year,
$3 million contract to remain as coach of the San Diego Chargers
and chose instead to become the head man at Hawaii, one had to
wonder if he was taking advice from Ryan Leaf. Hawaii was fresh
off an 0-12 season, owned the nation's longest losing streak (18
games) and hadn't had a winning year since 1992. But Jones, who
played for Hawaii in 1973 and '74 and was its quarterbacks coach
in 1983, has quietly engineered one of the greatest turnarounds
in NCAA history. Using 14 holdover starters from last season and
his trademark run-and-shoot offense, he has led a team that was
the laughingstock of the WAC to a conference championship.
With its 31-24 double-overtime victory over Fresno State on
Saturday, Hawaii is 7-3 and headed to either the Oahu or Las
Vegas Bowl. The Rainbow Warriors' seven-game improvement is the
second biggest in Division I-A history, and with games remaining
against Navy (4-6) and Washington State (2-8), Hawaii can still
tie or surpass the record eight-game improvement by Purdue in
1943 and Stanford in 1940. "From the beginning we always said
one team, one dream," says senior linebacker Yaphet Warren. "Our
dream came true."
Hawaii had been thinking of shutting down the program within two
years if it continued to hemorrhage money. This year football
will finish in the black thanks in part to a 27% jump in home
attendance. Fans have been eager to watch the team roll up
points: Thanks to the run-and-shoot, the Rainbow Warriors lead
the WAC in total offense (411.8 yards per game) and are third in
scoring (28.6 points per game). Says senior quarterback Dan
Robinson, who has already set a school single-season record with
2,992 yards of total offense, "There are two words for our
success: June Jones." --B.J. Schecter
Short Backs Are In
Many of this season's best tailbacks wouldn't be allowed on most
rides at Disneyland. The second leading ground-gainer in the Big
East, 5'8" junior Shyrone Stith of Virginia Tech, has rushed for
947 yards and 12 touchdowns, including two in Saturday night's
victory over Miami. The second-leading rusher in the Pacific-10
is Oregon State sophomore Ken Simonton (126.6 yards per game),
all 5'7" of him. The top two rushers in the Big 12 are 5'8"
Darren Davis of Iowa State (131.3 yards per game) and 5'7"
Hodges Mitchell of Texas (111.6). Their success comes as no
surprise in a conference in which eight starting tailbacks are
5'9" or shorter, including Michael Thornton of Oklahoma, who may
be the shortest Division I-A starter, at 5'5".
The increasing use of the spread offense (SI, Oct. 11) has
reduced the need for big-bodied tailbacks. With defenses
stretched from sideline to sideline, the rushing game has more
room in which to work, and short, quick backs can be very
effective. In describing Simonton, Oregon State coach Dennis
Erickson could just as easily be explaining why other small
backs are doing well: "He's got a lot of moves and quick feet.
Besides being able to find a crease and break off blocks, he can
make quick cuts--those guys get lost behind your blockers."
Last season, when Mitchell backed up the powerful Ricky
Williams, he bulked up to 200 pounds. The weight only hindered
him. "It took me away from being elusive, from moving side to
side," Mitchell says. "This season I'm down between 180 and 185."
He has rushed for 1,227 yards and eight touchdowns and caught 31
passes for 331 more yards and another score. Asking a linebacker
to cover a guy like Mitchell is like asking a sheepdog to catch
mice. Offensive coordinators love such mismatches. Says TCU's
Dan Dodd, "In today's open offenses your tailback has to catch
the ball. Not many Ron Daynes and Shaun Alexanders are out
there, so you look for guys with soft hands who make defenders
In other words, coaches still would rather have big guys than
small ones. When spring practice began, Erickson cast a
skeptical eye at Simonton. "He's playing a lot better than I
thought he would," Erickson says. "He's really strong and
Erickson understands that as long as he's coaching in Corvallis,
he'll be buying his tailback uniforms in the boys' department.
"If there's a 6'1", 220-pound guy and USC and UCLA want him,
he'll end up going to one of those places," Erickson says.
"We're looking for the little guys."
Toss in 5'10" quarterback Joe Hamilton of Georgia Tech, a
Heisman hopeful, and 5'8" wideout Troy Walters of Stanford, the
pac-10's second-leading yardage gainer, and the case for the
little man gets even more compelling.. "It's not what's on the
outside. It's what's on the inside," Mitchell says. He laughs.
"Of course, what's on the outside is working all right."
RUTGERS WINS ONE FOR COACH
A week after Rutgers coach Terry Shea made an emotional defense
of his four-year 7-35 record--"I'm going to see this thing
through. That's the mettle of Terry Shea"--the Scarlet Knights
broke their 11-game losing streak by upsetting Syracuse 24-21 in
Upset losses by North Carolina State and Wake Forest put the ACC
in danger of not having enough bowl-qualified teams to fill its
five berths. That's good news for the Big East, which likely
will have a surfeit of such teams, and for Marshall. The
Thundering Herd looks as if it will earn a third straight trip
to the Motor City Bowl in Pontiac, Mich., but the Herd is
discreetly trying to finagle an invitation to a more attractive
For complete scores and stats, plus more news from Ivan Maisel,
go to cnnsi.com/football/college.
--Ohio State (6-5, 3-4) at Michigan (8-2, 5-2)
--Penn State (9-2, 5-2) at Michigan State (8-2, 5-2)
The Wolverines, Nittany Lions and Spartans each need a win to
stake a claim to the two BCS at-large berths. Michigan will
cruise. Penn State fought hard after its devastating loss to
Minnesota on Nov. 6, but that wasn't enough to beat the
Wolverines last week. The Nittany Lions will play hard again on
Saturday--and again it won't be enough.
--California (4-6, 3-4) at Stanford (6-3, 6-1)
The crowd at Stanford Stadium will be wallowing in nostalgia. A
victory would give the Cardinal its first outright Pac-10
championship since 1971 and its first Rose Bowl berth in 28
years. The game won't be televised live, though, not even
regionally. Instead ABC will broadcast a matchup of two teams
tied for eighth place, USC and UCLA. (What a network won't do
for ratings.) Stanford has won four straight Big Games, but this
rivalry thrives on spoiling the favorite's dreams. Last season
2-8 Stanford knocked 5-5 Cal out of bowl contention by winning
10-3. Turnabout is fair play.
--Alabama (8-2, 6-1) at Auburn (5-5, 2-5)
The Tigers reinvigorated the Iron Bowl last Saturday with a
shocking 38-21 upset at Georgia. Not that this rivalry ever
suffers from anemia. Both teams have improved tremendously since
the beginning of the season. Auburn quarterback Ben Leard threw
for a school-record 416 yards against the Dawgs, but he will be
facing a defense that has intercepted nine passes in the last
three games even as it lost four of its starters to injury.
Alabama will end its four-game losing streak at Jordan-Hare
Stadium, clinch the SEC West and redeem once-beleaguered coach
Mike DuBose, who will go from nearly fired to SEC Coach of the
Year in one autumn.