To the outside world, Virginia Tech appeared to be falling apart throughout its decidedly un-Virginia Tech-like 2012 season.
To the players on the team, the unaccustomed and unwanted losses produced stressful practices and even more stress in games -- when players routinely jumped out of position to do more than they needed just to try and make a play.
“It was like everybody was getting gray hairs,” linebacker Tariq Edwards says now.
“Just a few,” the 22-year-old Edwards says with a laugh.
He can afford to laugh now that Virginia Tech is back to its winning ways, ranked No. 14 in the BCS standings and a serious threat to get back to the ACC championship game once again. Nobody in this program wants to go back to the misery that was 2012, but the adversity has helped shape this team and, most especially, this stifling defense.
“Last year, we were supposed to be like this, and for some reason or another it didn’t happen,” linebacker Jack Tyler says. “We didn’t want that happen again. We’re all a year older and we knew what it was like to really underperform and not live up to expectations. Some of the leaders got together. Our defense is pretty old. We have seven or eight starting seniors and we all came together and said, ‘That’s not going to happen again. We’re not going to allow that to happen.’”
Both Edwards and Tyler point to much stronger leadership from a larger senior class in helping the Hokies reclaim their usual spot in the Top 25 rankings. But Tyler also says the final three games of last season helped Virginia Tech get on the roll it is on now.
The Hokies had to win their final two games of the regular season to just get back to a bowl game. They did that, then dominated Rutgers defensively in the Russell Athletic Bowl to finish with a winning record, a huge victory considering all the struggles. Virginia Tech ended up with six losses, its highest total since 1992 -- when most players on the team were either infants or not even born yet.
Still, Tyler saw the potential. So did his teammates. Since those final three games of 2012, Virginia Tech is 9-1, with its only loss to No. 1 Alabama in the season opener. Though the season began with questions about coach Frank Beamer and whether he could get the program turned around, nobody on the inside had much doubt the Hokies would be back.
“You definitely don’t want to come into a season thinking you’re going to do bad in any way,” Edwards said. “They say defense wins championships so if we held down our side of the ball, we knew we would be in every game.”
Indeed, the defense has been the story so far this season, ranking No. 2 in the nation in total defense and No. 5 in scoring defense. Under defensive coordinator Bud Foster, Virginia Tech has been nationally ranked in the top five of a major defensive category a whopping 35 times.
“There’s a certain way we do things here, the way Coach Beamer runs the program, we’re supposed to be good character guys on and off the field,” Tyler said. “We think here they directly correlate. Last year, there were some guys that were getting in trouble and stuff like that. It took away from the success because everybody didn’t know if they could trust them on the field.
“Some of those guys are some of our leaders this year and they really flipped the switch and started becoming more involved off the field. The trust factor and all that that you need when you want to become a good defense, it all twisted together and we’ve become a good unit because of that.”
Virginia Tech has won ugly but its biggest Coastal Division rival, Miami, is coming off a pretty ugly win of its own. All of a sudden it seems Virginia Tech has as good a shot as Miami of getting to the ACC title game. Their meeting in November in Miami should determine that.
For now, the Hokies can take pride in how far they have come. One year ago today, they were 4-4, wondering whether they would make a bowl. Today, they already are bowl eligible, with their sights set much higher.
Perhaps there are fewer gray hairs sprouting up, too.