Charlotte, NC — Virginia Tech has a chance to make history on Thursday night.
A win vs. Arkansas in the Belk Bowl would give Virginia Tech three straight bowl victories, making this year’s senior class the first to accomplish such a feat in the history of Virginia Tech football. The Hokies won the 2014 Military Bowl 33-17 over Cincinnati and the 2015 Independence Bowl 55-52 over Tulsa.
A win over the Razorbacks would mean something more too.
“We just want to show everybody that Virginia Tech is back,” Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans said on Wednesday. “That’s pretty much the whole thing. We want to go 1-0 everyday, but it’s pretty much to show Virginia Tech is back to where it used to be.”
The Hokies have definitely righted the ship. Virginia Tech is on the verge of winning 10 games for the first time since the 2011 season. Virginia Tech’s success can be partially traced back to one week.
After losing in embarrassing fashion to Tennessee in the Battle at Bristol, Virginia Tech said in the post game their performance could be traced back to a poor week of practice.
“We didn’t lose tonight,” said defensive end Ken Ekanem after the game. “We lost Tuesday, Wednesday and Monday during practice. Me, as a senior and all of the other seniors on the team, we have to hold ourselves accountable to get this team going and actually be productive and make better practice habits.”
“We didn’t have a great week of practice for whatever reason. I don’t know,” said Sam Rogers. “I don’t know how we didn’t, but we didn’t and we have to fix that. Senior leaders got to step up and be more vocal on those days and make sure we get it right because no one likes this feeling. No one likes the feeling of just giving away games like this.”
That week, that loss has now turned into a lesson that’s propelled Virginia Tech to heights they haven’t seen in the last few seasons.
“I think it was a blessing in disguise,” said Jerod Evans. “It showed us what we really had. The leadership on this team understood that. We picked up where we knew we were slacking. I think it was very important, especially that early in the season, that we understood that.”
“Coach Fuente has actually brought that up,” Rogers said. “He’s gone through each week and shown us, ‘These are the lessons we’ve learned throughout the year, this is what we’ve done.’ You kind of forget about them as you’re going week to week, you forget everything you’ve been through. This team has been through a lot. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs and I think we’ve really matured throughout the year.”
The players made it a point that for the rest of the season, they’d hold themselves to a higher standard.
“That kind of drew the line with us,” Ekanem said. “We can’t just have a bad practice. We know what a bad practice looks like. Once you start seeing that, people start correcting themselves. Nobody wanted a loss as bad as Tennessee. We made sure we prepared and the leaders had to keep people in check… It was kind of a big teaching moment and I hope going forward, the younger guys learn from that and it sticks with them going forward.”
Virginia Tech has all the motivation in the world as well to ensure a good week of preparation.
“The people out there that say these games are meaningless are wrong. They’re not,” said Justin Fuente. “It’ll mean a lot to our kids. That’s why they’ve worked so hard to get here, that’s why they work so hard in preparation.
“There is a strong desire among our players to send the seniors out the right way,” Fuente said. “Our group of seniors mean something special to the younger players.”
The Hokies have been busy this week, but they’ve been able to have enough downtime to heal up from a rough season.
“Healing up was pretty big for us,” Ekanem said. “We really took this time to get into the training room and get all the nicks and bruises out. I think a lot of guys took advantage of the time and used it efficiently.”
“It’s been huge,” Rogers said. “Football is a very physical game so you’re going to have bumps and bruises throughout the year and you’re going to get beat up, so having these couple weeks to get healthy, it’ll feel good going into the game being refreshed again.”
Unfortunately for Tech, there hasn’t been enough time for Vinny Mihota’s shoulder to heal. Mihota has been bothered by the injury since the Hokies’ win over Miami. Mihota dislocated his shoulder and has been able to play since then, but has been limited. Mihota will miss Thursday’s Belk Bowl.
“It just kept coming out of place and he couldn’t help it,” Ekanem said. “I respect him for being team-first and putting himself in harm’s way to give us the best chance to win. I’m very proud of him.”
Filling in for Mihota is redshirt-freshman Trevon Hill, who’s dealing with a shoulder injury of his own. In limited snaps, Hill has registered 1.5 sacks, five tackles for loss and 33 total tackles.
“He came in, improved from game to game,” Ekanem said. “He has a lot of potential going into next year. He has to get surgery going into the offseason too and it all depends on how he rehabs and attacks it. He’s really improving game to game and especially in the latter half of the season. He’s been coming in and making a difference.”