Every once in a while, in football, you'll have a game that isn't about the matchup. The personnel groupings of the offense vs. the defense don't mean a damn thing when considering who will win the game. Sure, the Tarheels bring a different defensive scheme and offensive scheme to the table than they did last year. But the defense is the old 4-2-5, bring six on the rush, cover with five that Gary Patterson perfected at TCU. And the offense is the Gus Malzahn/Chad Morris-influenced offense that the Hokies have seen against Clemson, ECU and others. It's the "snap the ball as many times as you can in a game to tire your opponent" philosophy.
Sure, the Hokies struggled to stop Clemson, but the point is that these schemes aren't "new". They are, however, in their first year of implementation at UNC so those players don't have all the execution details down yet. To that point, UNC has played 5 games. Their losses? To Wake Forest and Louisville. Their wins? Against Elon, East Carolina and Idaho. So they haven't beaten anyone good, and they've crushed their less talented opponents.
But all of that is really thrown out the window. Because, this is one of those season-defining games that Coach Beamer has literally built his career on. I remember it, in 1995 coming against Miami. More recently, in 2010 it was against NC State in Raleigh and in 2011 it was against Miami at Lane. The formula is simple. Coach Beamer loses some games in the season he shouldn't lose and the team's back is against the wall. Are they going to get back up off the mat and fight? Or will they pack it in? And you know what? Hokie Nation eats this up and for that matter, so does the rest of the country. The Hokies became the Little Team that Could. Sure we might lose some games we shouldn't, but by golly, we pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and make a good season out of it (with 2003 being the glaring exception, when a huge win against #2 Miami was followed up by a loss at Pitt). Yeah, those losses knock the Hokies out of the national title picture every year, but America loves an underdog right?
And so here in 2012, we till this same ground. The Hokies find themselves at that tipping point yet again, having lost to Pitt and Cincinnati. The players had their obligatory "players-only" meeting this week. The coaches are gee-whizzing and aw-shucksing about how talented the opponent is and how it really isn't about the slow starts. And really, I haven't watched the Hokies losses, but I've read about them and I think it's obvious that the 2012 Hokies team has the talent to beat UNC. They unleashed over 300 yards of offense on Cincinnati in the 2nd half. They held Georgia Tech to 192 yards rushing. These guys can play, but the question is - will they?
There is one defining characteristic easily recognized in most Coach Beamer teams - guts. His teams hit, play physical and almost never give up. I mentioned earlier the 2003 Hokies and they are an exception. That was a team filled with incredibly talented, but selfish locker room cancers, like DeAngelo Hall and Marcus Vick. They did NOT play hard-nosed and go all out, every snap.
Now, I don't get the sense that this year's team is filled with prima donnas, per se, but even in the wins I watched, I didn't see a relentless, gutsy, go all-out like this is your last snap, type of effort that I'm accustomed to. The execution has been sorely lacking to be sure, but I think there's something that's been going on during the week that has led to that. Bruce Taylor tipped me off a little with his post-Cincy-game locker room comments about how "they're ain't gonna be any more joking around during the week. It's all serious now." That same message was re-delivered by Taylor during the players-only meeting on Monday.
I think what he was trying to explain to the younger players is that it takes a hard-nosed approach, ALL THE TIME. In Middle Drill. In position drills, every rep each player has to show toughness and competitiveness. You can't take it easy, joke around during the week and then just turn it on like a light switch at kickoff on Saturdays. So really the game on Saturday at UNC has more to do with if the Hokies are able to play with the intensity, focus and execution that have enabled them to beat more talented teams in the past. I think we're going to learn more about how the season will unfold based on HOW they play this game. If Taylor's message to the team really sank in, they are going to come out and play with guts and intensity from the opening whistle and execute like they are capable of, because during the week they listened to coaching and practiced each rep with that intense focus. If not, they will lose to UNC and the season will likely go off the rails like the 2003 season. Oh and by the way? 2003 was the last time the Hokies didn't win 10 games in a season. I hope this year turns out different.