Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Sports column

August 10, 2013

Foster: Hokies are up to the Crimson Tide challenge

BLUEFIELD — Bud Foster has a reminder for all those critics who are giving Virginia Tech no chance in its season-opener against top-ranked Alabama.

“I don’t know if there is a good time to play them or not, I heard that question earlier with our players and Coach (Frank) Beamer,” Foster said. “We have a great program here, we have had one for a number of years, we take a lot of pride in that.”

In fact, Foster has seen similarities to a pair of close season-openers in the past for the Hokies with Southern California and Alabama, both of whom won national championships later in those seasons.

“We have played Alabama before, we had a chance to beat them (in 2009) when they won the national championship,” Foster said. “We opened up with Southern Cal (in 2004) when they won a national championship.”

Both were close games. Virginia Tech lost to USC  24-13, and the Trojans won it all. The Hokies entered that contest with lots of questions — much like they do this season — but finished as ACC champions in their first year in the league.

“As a coaching staff we are not new at this, but we do have some question marks on this football team,” said Foster, whose Hokies are looking for answers at several positions, particularly at running back, wide receiver, offensive tackle and defensive back. “I think it will be a measuring stick for us.

“I know in 2004 it was a very similar year. Going into the year we had a lot of question marks on both sides of the ball, and lost a really close football game to a national champion in Southern Cal with Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart and that crew and we ended up winning the ACC.”

Virginia Tech was experienced in 2009, and actually led Alabama late before falling 34-24. Beamer said that lack of experience might be the biggest difference in the two games when these clubs meet four years later, once again to open the season in the Georgia Dome.

“We certainly have a lot of question marks still on our football team and how many of those can we get solved and feel good about before you open up with a team like Alabama,” Beamer said. “The other part of it is you realize how good they are, they are the best team in the country over the last two years, the best team by a wide margin in preseason voting this year and I think that is certainly justified.”

Beamer agrees with Foster, calling the matchup with Alabama a measuring stick to see where the Hokies are and where they need to go.

“Let’s see where we are and go play. I think it is not often that you get to play the best team in the nation,” Beamer said. “There are some challenges in that regard, we just have got to keep practicing hard and keep improving right now, day to day...

“They are the best team in the country, I think you find out right away ‘do you measure up.’”

Aaron Moorehead, the new receivers coach for Virginia Tech, is excited that his first game for the Hokies will be against the nation’s top team.

“Everybody is excited, that is a big deal, you don’t always get too many shots at the number one team in the country in your career and that is a fun deal,” Moorehead said. “I tell you what, you go down there and you know those guys are going to be prepared just because of their coaching staff and how they do things and we are going to be prepared and it is going to be a helluva battle.”

Virginia Tech, which had a 7-6 record in 2013 — its worst mark since a 2-8-1 record in 1992 — faces a tall task against the Crimson Tide, but the Hokies — at least outwardly — certainly aren’t intimidated in the least.

“For sure we are not taking anybody lightly, but we feel we are just as good as anybody around,” Virginia Tech senior linebacker Jack Tyler said. “We have the talent, we have the coaching, we are on scholarship too.

“That is what we like to say, we think we are just as good.”

Alabama is known for a punishing running attack and a stingy defense, but the Hokies have built a strong program with similar traits, and hope to put both on display against the Crimson Tide.

“I think we are pretty good on defense too at Virginia Tech,” Virginia Tech senior defensive lineman James Gayle said. “It is always good to be the underdog going into the game. Alabama is a great team so we will see what happens.”

These clubs last met four years ago, with Alabama winning 34-24, beginning a run of three national championships in the last four years, and two in a row. Virginia Tech didn’t win the ACC in ‘09 like they did in ‘04, but did beat Tennessee in a long-awaited contest between the schools in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Still, Foster recalled that Virginia Tech led that game late, and the Hokies are excited about the chance to play the role of giant killers once again.

“What this kind of game prepares you for, you know you are going to play a big time football team,” Foster said. “It allows you from a coaching standpoint and a players standpoint, that you have got a tremendous opportunity.”

He also doesn’t think that — win or lose — the Hokies of 2013 will be defined by the outcome in Atlanta.

“Our kids are really working hard, Alabama is not a make or break game for us,” Foster said. “Alabama will be a measuring stick where we are and we will find out a lot of questions with some things that we have got to find out at some positions. It will be a starting point for where we can go as a football team.”

Among the answers being sought at Virginia Tech are dependable receivers, and Moorehead is seeking improvement from Demetri Knowles, D.J. Coles and others to face what could be an inexperienced secondary for the Tide.

“I always tell the guys once you go out there rather you are playing Alabama or Western Carolina or East Carolina, you had better respect your opponent,” said Moorehead, who was at Stanford last year, “no matter rather they have got football all-Americans or rather they have guys who have not been all-conference because all these guys are getting football scholarships to play college football.

“There are different talent levels and guys that on a day to day basis you know you should beat, but at the same time you had better respect them because as soon as you don’t you are going to look like an idiot on tape and that is the way you approach it.”

It’s still early, but Alabama is a 22-point favorite over the Hokies. Go ahead and doubt them, but Virginia Tech will show up, and expects to win.

“You play the game and that is why you play it and we are going to play it for four quarters and I like our mentality and the way our kids are approaching this thing,” Foster said. “This game, it can really do big things for our program, but it is not going to make or break our season.

“It is a tremendous challenge, but at the same time it is a tremendous opportunity so we are looking forward to it.”

Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. He encourages feedback at bwoodson@bdtonline.com.

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