- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 28, 2004

BLACKSBURG, Va. — A sporting goods store not far from Lane Stadium seems to symbolize Virginia Tech’s declining football status.

Banners from the Hokies’ new conference colleagues hang from the tile ceiling. A sale rack near the front of the store suggests Tech is beginning its membership in the ACC on an ominous note as No.5 maroon jerseys are marked down from $50 to $19.97.

Just like suspended quarterback Marcus Vick’s uniform, this Virginia Tech team starts the season as a discounted version of recently potent ones as Beamer Ball comes to the ACC. For the first time since the pre-Michael Vick era in 1998, Tech is unranked as it awaits combat.

The Hokies will get a quick and possibly painful peek at their prospects when they face top-ranked Southern California tonight at FedEx Field. Virginia Tech is an 171/2-point underdog, and few expect the Hokies to be more than a snack for the national co-champions.

“We are probably too young to be playing Southern Cal,” said coach Frank Beamer, who returns nine starters but will have 22 freshmen in uniform. “You get out there in practice, and there are too many young people running around who are probably going to be in vital roles. That’s the way it is.”

These Hokies are a low-budget version of their predecessors who regularly were found in the Top 25 and were stocked with stars like tailback Kevin Jones and cornerback DeAngelo Hall, both of whom left early after last season to become first-round picks in the NFL Draft picks.

Marcus Vick, brother of the greatest Hokie of them all, was supposed to win the quarterback job from Bryan Randall and provide a new version of Hokies magic. Instead, Vick was suspended from school for the fall semester after being convicted of three misdemeanors for contributing to the delinquency of a minor and later being arrested on marijuana possession charges.

“Nobody is giving us a chance,” Randall said. “But we are. The difference is, we don’t have those superstar names. That doesn’t mean we won’t be a better team.”

Virginia Tech was picked to finish sixth in an ACC media poll behind perennial powers Florida State and Miami, as well as once inferior rivals Virginia, Clemson and Maryland. There are doubts the Hokies will keep their string of 11 consecutive bowl appearances alive. They are coming off a colossal meltdown last season, having lost four of their final five games after starting 8-0 and being ranked No.5 after thrashing Miami 31-7.

These Hokies hardly seem like descendants of the program Michael Vick jump-started in 1999 into one of the nation’s best. But they plan to live up to their lineage as they feed off a heavily partisan crowd in what amounts to a home game in front of 91,000 at FedEx.

“What better scene can you have?” senior defensive tackle Jim Davis said. “It’s just like the Cinderella story. We were in rags last year. Now we are going to the ball, playing with the big boys. It’s one of the biggest games in Tech history — playing the No.1 team in D.C. We will have a lot of supporters. We just have to take advantage of our surroundings and realize what we are about to get into. … We just want to get back into the Virginia Tech of old.”

That is a constant refrain around Lane Stadium. The Hokies freely admit they imploded a year ago, a season that ended when they allowed 52 points in an Insight Bowl loss to Cal.

“We lose a game or something and we just die,” said cornerback Eric Green, whose unit allowed 121 points over its final three games. “And everybody goes their own way instead of playing together. Now we don’t have any all-stars. We don’t have DeAngelo. We don’t have Kevin Jones any more. We just have to go out and play as a team.”

Virginia Tech has no proven receivers, no depth at quarterback, its top tailback is coming off an injury and the defense includes six new starters.

The loss of Vick leaves third-year starter Randall backed up by two true freshmen. Cedric Humes was set to assume Jones’ role as featured rusher before breaking his left leg in spring practice; he’ll play tonight with a pin in his ankle. Backup Mike Imoh is serving a three-game suspension after getting into trouble along wiith Marcus Vick. Converted receiver Justin Hamilton will serve as Humes’ understudy.

“We probably won’t run the option as much as we have in the past until these young quarterbacks prove themselves,” said running backs coach Billy Hite, who feels a healthy Humes will continue the tradition of standout tailbacks in Blacksburg.

The offensive line has some continuity with three returning starters and converted guard Will Montgomery taking over at center for All-American Jake Grove. But that unit has the unenviable task of facing the nation’s best defensive line against USC.

“With our quarterback situation, we have to keep our quarterback healthy,” said Jimmy Martin, one of two returning tackles along with Jon Dunn. “I like that everyone is counting us out. We have players that are real talented. I actually think we are going to surprise some people.”

The defense has as many questions as a TV quiz show. The only proven players are ends Noland Burchette and Darryl Tapp. Davis, a 6-foot-3, 265-pounder who missed last season with a torn pectoral muscle, is expected to provide a rush up front against Matt Leinart, the USC quarterback and Heisman Trophy front-runner.

Freshman Xavier Adibi could become a dominating linebacker. Junior Jimmy Williams is the lone returning starter member back in the secondary and will take over as top cover man for Hall, the NFL’s eighth overall pick by Atlanta. Three somewhat seasoned seniors will surround Williams: Green and safeties Vincent Fuller and James Griffin.

“We told our offense, ‘You score 21 points and we are going to come out with a victory,’” said Green, a converted safety.

The Hokies want to show they still belong among college football’s elite as they plan to spoil USC’s coronation party.

“Hopefully, we walk out of the ball with a nice young lady on our side or something like that,” Davis said. “Who knows? I am not going to make any predictions. Just as long as we go there ready to dance.”

Let the music begin.

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