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Place-kicker plays essential role in title game appearance

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Virginia Tech place-kicker Dustin Keys, a fifth-year senior in his first year starting, spent the past four seasons watching the Hokies from the stands in Lane Stadium. As a walk-on, he dressed for the first game of his career in 2007's season finale, the FedEx Orange Bowl.

Heading into this season, Keys had already graduated and took out a loan to go to graduate school so he could remain a member of the football team. A few days before classes started, though, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer awarded Keys with a scholarship.

The decision has paid him back in the form of three game-winners.

This season, Keys is one of the reasons why Virginia Tech is playing in the ACC championship game and one win away from a second trip to the Orange Bowl. He has made 20 of 25 field goal attempts, including three game-winners. Keys' kicks of 21 yards, 45 yards and 28 yards earned the Hokies critical wins over three Coastal Division opponents -- Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Virginia, respectively.

"Even if we hadn't made it to the ACC championship, we knew we had a good season and we had done everything we possibly could and played in a lot of hard-fought games," Keys said. "We knew we were at least going to another bowl game. If that was going to be it, that would be perfectly fine with us. We'd prepare to win that game, but the cards fell in our favor this year.

"We took care of business and other teams didn't. It just goes to show you other teams had just as many chances as we did to knock us out or keep us in, and they didn't take care of it and we did."

Keys needs just three more field goals to set a new school record for field goals made in a season. He has made 20 this season, and Chris Kinzer (1986) and Shayne Graham (1998) share the current record of 22.

Heading into last week's game against rival Virginia, Keys had made 15 in a row inside the 43-yard line before he stubbed his toe and missed a 22-yard attempt. Keys said he has told his family and everyone he knows that any field goal that's 20 yards and in from the left or the right hash are more difficult to make than 45-50 yarders because of the angle, and there's not as much room for error.

His first collegiate field goal, though, was a 22-yarder against Furman in the second game of the season.

"The unusual thing the other day was he missed a short one," Beamer said. "He hasn't missed many this year. He's been really an asset to this football team. ... That's probably the hardest thing in football, I think, if I had to run out there for one play and be accurate on a field goal. That's a tough thing, I think."

Keys should have some confidence on Saturday in the ACC championship game against Boston College, as he made a pair of 45-yard attempts during the regular-season game against the Eagles. It tied his career long and Keys became the first kicker in school history to make two field goals of at least 45 yards in a game since Graham (46, 52 yards) did it at Pittsburgh in 1999.

But he also missed one.

"Like I've been saying all year, by making field goals and putting some points on the board keeps the game in your momentum. When we were up there at Boston College and I missed that one, it could have turned the game around for them. You just never know."