From Old Dominion, domination; Vick, Virginia Tech open eyes at 8-0, No. 2

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- They are used to the routine. As the Virginia Tech football team clattered out of Lane Stadium after practice and shuffled into its locker room in an adjacent building Tuesday night, Michael Vick was left behind to retell his story -- and theirs.

"Don't tell 'em no lies," one of Vick's teammates joked as he passed the redshirt freshman quarterback.

It's the story of how Vick came out the state's toughest high school conference, in the shadow of the country's top player; how he chose the Hokies over Syracuse and how he has led Virginia Tech to an 8-0 record and a No. 2 national ranking going into tomorrow's game here against Miami.

It's also the story about how the Hokies have become a legitimate, if still long-shot, candidate for this season's national championship. Ranked in the traditional polls behind only Florida State, they were leapfrogged by once-beaten Tennessee in the latest Bowl Championship Series calculations.

Vick is used to the attention now, as are the Hokies. This will be the fifth time this season Virginia Tech plays on national television, the second time that the folks from ESPN's "Game Day" crew make the trek to a campus tucked into bucolic southwest Virginia.

The Hokies, Vick in particular, have turned heads in this topsy-turvy college football season. His five-touchdown performance against Rutgers was the start. Their 62-0 demolition of the school Vick turned down was the biggest headline-grabber, the most one-sided defeat ever of a Top 25 team.

Tomorrow night's game against the Hurricanes could be what Virginia Tech needs to convince those feeding the BCS computers that the Hokies shouldn't be penalized for an early-season schedule that included games against Division I-AA James Madison and barely I-A Alabama-Birmingham.

"If other teams have lost a game, if Florida State loses to Florida (on Nov. 20 in Gainesville), why not give us a chance?" Vick asked, sitting in near darkness on a bench outside the stadium.

Like many of his teammates, Vick is used to fighting for that extra shred of respect, that sliver of the spotlight. All he heard during his four years as the starting quarterback at Warwick High School in Newport News, Va., was about Ronald Curry, the quarterback at nearby Hampton.

Curry, now a sophomore at North Carolina, was the national Player of the Year as a senior, and, because of that, Vick was not even all-district at his position. But the coaches so respected Vick's talents that they created a separate category -- specialist -- to acknowledge his achievements.

Wrong move by Syracuse

"It inspired me," Vick said of his competition with Curry, which included four straight defeats to Hampton. "I just asked God to bless me when I came to college."

Playing in Curry's shadow proved a godsend for Vick, and ultimately for Virginia Tech. It kept him humble and hungry, and it kept the Hokies in the hunt.

Virginia thought it had signed Curry, so the Cavaliers weren't interested in Vick. It came down to Virginia Tech and Syracuse.

The Orangemen made the mistake of telling Vick that he could become the next Donovan McNabb (the 1999 first-found draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles).

"I thought to myself, 'Why not go to a program that's never had a Donovan McNabb?' " said Vick. "Virginia Tech was where my heart was."

Not that the Hokies have been without their stars.

Perennial All-Pro Bruce Smith forged his legend here. Antonio Freeman (Poly) and Vaughn Hebron (Cardinal Gibbons) came down from Baltimore to electrify the fans.

Nor has the program come out of nowhere. It took coach Frank Beamer four seasons to get Virginia Tech into a bowl after his arrival in 1987. The Hokies have made six straight post-season appearances, including trips to the Sugar Bowl in 1995 and the Orange Bowl in 1996.

Some of that success came with a price.

Until two years ago, Virginia Tech was looked upon by some as a poor man's Nebraska, a program that allowed its players to operate under a different set of rules than the rest of the student body. During a 15-month stretch over the 1996 and 1997 seasons, 19 players were arrested, including two for rape.

"I remember watching the Orange Bowl between us and Nebraska in 1996, and they had a list comparing our arrests to theirs," recalled Eric Jacobson, a senior marketing major from Vienna, Va., who now serves as one of the two Hokie Bird team mascots.

Renegade image fades

That image has changed dramatically with the implementation of a comprehensive action plan that began in February of 1997. It laid out a code of conduct for athletes and shifted enforcement from the coaches to the athletic director.

Since then, one football player, who is no longer in school, has been arrested.

"We've now got some programs in place to better educate our athletes," said Beamer.

Vick had expressed reservations about coming into what some might perceive as a renegade program, but whatever fears he had while he was being recruited have dissipated. And the Hokies had no qualms about recruiting Vick.

The college coach who spotted his talent was Jim Cavanaugh, who first saw Vick as a freshman in high school. A former Maryland assistant under Bobby Ross and Joe Krivak, Cavanaugh was coaching at North Carolina at the time.

"For a young kid, he threw the ball really well, and he ran the ball really well, but what stood out was his poise," said Cavanaugh, who later recruited Vick for the Hokies and is now one of the team's defensive coaches.

But Vick got off to a shaky start this season. Injured in the third quarter of his team's opening, 47-0 shutout of James Madison, Vick's sprained ankle kept him out of a 31-10 win over UAB the next week. He then threw three interceptions in a 31-11 win over Clemson.

"After that game, we changed a couple of his reads, which you do with any young player," said Rickey Bustle, the team's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. "The whole approach I've taken with Michael is that he's going to make mistakes, but he's going to learn from his mistakes."

The result: By using more play-action passes rather than straight drop-back, Vick has become dangerous. He has thrown for 1,030 yards, with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. He has also rushed for 234 yards and two touchdowns. He is third in Division I-A in passing efficiency.

"I've adjusted well," said Vick, solidly built at 6 feet 1, 211 pounds. "I'm very comfortable right now."

Said Beamer: "It doesn't take long to see his physical ability, how quickly he can release the ball and how far he can throw it. But the thing about Michael is what a great job he does learning from one game to the next."

It all played out last Saturday in Morgantown, W.Va. Despite a disappointing record this year, the Mountaineers gave their rivals their biggest scare this year. Trailing 19-7, West Virginia scored two late touchdowns to take a 20-19 lead with 1: 15 remaining.

Starting from his team's 15-yard line, Vick led the Hokies on a drive that ended with Shayne Graham's 44-yard field goal at the final gun. The biggest play was a 26-yard run by Vick down the sideline to the West Virginia 27 after being forced out of the pocket.

"I dreamed about being in a situation like that," Vick said three days later. "I watched John Elway make plays like that all the time, to be in control. All that was going through my mind was, 'Here's my chance.' " That was the biggest play of my career."

The drive surely erased any doubts his teammates might have had about their young quarterback's decision-making ability.

Growth in faith

Senior defensive end Corey Moore has become a believer. "I said to [defensive end John] Engelberger, if Michael Vick is as good as advertised, he's going to make something special happen, and he did," recalled Moore.

"I wouldn't say that it was lucky," added Moore, who will likely be the Big East's Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season, "but God was definitely on our side."

The Hokies might need a little divine intervention in their bid for a national championship, with Tennessee moving ahead of Virginia Tech in the BCS ranking.

The two teams with the best standings mathematically will meet for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl.

To get there, all the Hokies' redshirt quarterback wants is a chance. Just as he did coming out of high school, and, like the Hokies, out of the shadows.

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