MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Miami brought out the best in Virginia Tech on Saturday night.
Some of it was institutional — the longstanding rivalry between two programs that have big aspirations and a checkered recent history. Some of it was residual — the Duke loss serving as a humbler and a motivator last week.
And yes, some of it was personal.
Tech tight end Dalton Keene takes pride in his blocking no matter what team the Hokies are facing. But he had a little extra vigor when matching up with former teammate Trevon Hill, who was dismissed from the Hokies after last year’s loss at Old Dominion.
“I knew he was going to play hard,” Keene said. “But if I hit him enough times, he’s not going to want any more.”
This was the kind of edge the Hokies had been lacking through their first four games. And a trip here, where the ocean glistens and the palm trees sway, proved to be the perfect setting to unlock it.
“Winning at this level is hard,” Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “Coming down here to win is hard. We have two teams that have a great tradition against each other, a great rivalry. We didn’t win pretty, and that’s not what it’s all about. It’s just about winning.
“That was kind our message all week: If you didn’t believe, don’t even get on the bus. We’ll take 30 and come down here and fight and win.”
The fight was undeniable, and it’s the kind of attitude the Hokies are going to need if they’re going to make something out of this season. Foster’s defense committed its share of mistakes, but the hits we saw delivered by the likes of Rayshard Ashby, Alan Tisdale, Chamarri Conner and Jaylen Griffin on Saturday had significant bite to them.
All this came in the wake of a 45-10 drubbing by Duke and a week of practice that demanded a higher level of mental and physical toughness.
“We were definitely challenged,” Keene said. “We weren’t happy with what we put on film. What we put on film was a soft football team, and we just wanted to turn that around, because that’s not who we are. There’s nothing worse you can be called than a soft football team.”
It wasn’t just fans and media who were critical. Tech’s coaches were blunt with their players last week — an approach that could have gone one of two ways.
“They didn’t get offended, and they set out about changing it,” Tech coach Justin Fuente said. “When an opportunity presented itself, they responded.
“It was nice to get back to some of those big emotional plays.”
The Tech sideline hopped throughout the first quarter, as the defense forced four turnovers and Tech built a 21-0 lead. And that energy remained until the perilous end, when the Hokies had to stop Miami twice from the Tech 10-yard line to preserve the victory.
“It was just too much of a team effort and a strain to let it come down to one play and not give it your all,” Tech defensive back Caleb Farley said of the final play, when officials put one second back on the clock that gave the Hurricanes a final chance. “It was easy to regroup for your brothers, for your guys, your teammates and try to get the job done.”
And when they did, shouts of jubilation echoed through the hallways of Hard Rock Stadium. Miami had brought out the best in Tech, and a season in which every victory has been a struggle had its first true moment of bliss.
“I just love seeing my teammates make plays,” Farley said. “Seeing smiles in the locker room and celebrating — all that stuff is good for the heart.”