By HANK KURZ Jr.
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
RICHMOND, Va. —
Virginia Tech is accustomed to preparing for BCS bowl games this time of year, having played in four the past five years.
But after a disappointing season, the Russell Athletic Bowl suits the Hokies just fine.
Virginia Tech (6-6) and former Big East rival Rutgers (9-3) meet Dec. 28 in Orlando, Fla.
“There’s times this year that we looked a little unstoppable and there’s times where we looked terrible. We want to get rid of the terrible times and we want to finish the season off on the right foot going into next year so we have something to build off,” junior quarterback Logan Thomas said.
It will take some doing against the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers finished fourth nationally in scoring defense, allowing 14.25 points per game, and 14th in total defense, allowing 321 yards per game.
“A great game against a great defense would do a lot for our confidence going into next year and keep us excited about going into next year,” Thomas said. The Hokies gained an average of 392 yards, 71st nationally.
Virginia Tech, like most teams, used the early part of its postseason practices to give players that redshirted or were lightly used a chance to take center stage and gain experience for next season.
Coach Frank Beamer set Wednesday as the day to transition the focus into game preparation, and the Hokies say there’s no shortage of reasons to treat their 20th consecutive bowl berth like it’s a BCS game.
“If you’re a redshirt junior like me, we haven’t won a bowl game yet since we’ve been here,” cornerback Antone Exum said. “That’s something that stays in the back of our mind, or in the front of our mind, actually. So we’re definitely motivated to win this game. We just kind of feel something to prove as well with us not performing like we wanted to this season.
“ It’s a way to close the season out right. And also not be the first team in a while with a losing record here. So the motivation’s there.”
The Hokies haven’t finished under .500 since the 1992 team was 2-8-1, and just getting to .500 took some doing. They had to win their last two games — 30-23 in overtime at Boston College and 17-14 on a last-play field goal at home against Virginia — to achieve the six victories to even qualify.
Linebacker Bruce Taylor, one of three senior starters on defense, plans to relish every moment with his teammates, and hopes to be in the NFL next season watching the Hokies rise back to the top using momentum from the bowl game.
“It’s very important,” Taylor said. “We did have a disappointing year with our record-wise, but I just feel like it’s a chance to build and going to next year for the guys that are taking over for next year, guys like Antone and stuff. I told him today in practice, ‘Keep working, keep at it,’ because what we had this year was unacceptable in my eyes. ... I feel like this can be the first step for the team.”
Talk of making a first step back to the top seems almost surreal for the Hokies. Heading into this season, they had won 10 or more games for eight straight seasons, the longest streak in the country.
And they will finish their season against a team trying to get to the level they had been.
The game “gives our seniors the opportunity to do something that only two teams in the history of Rutgers football have done, which is get to the double-digit wins mark,” first-year Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. “When you get to the 10-win mark, it separates your team and your year and puts you in a little bit of a different class. Great programs are sometimes defined by their 10-win seasons.”
Or, in the case of the Hokies, by how fast, or if, they can get back to that level.