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September 30, 2010

Week 5 preview in the ACC

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After following up its Labor Day evening devastation with second-week humiliation, Virginia Tech found its season at an early crossroads.

The Hokies could cement their status as one of the most disappointing teams of the season, or they could regroup in time to contend for their third ACC title in the past four seasons.

They obviously chose the latter option.

The Virginia Tech team of today hardly resembles the squad whose record dropped to 0-2 after a stunning loss to FCS program James Madison. The Hokies won their ACC opener 19-0 over Boston College and have outscored opponents 47-3 in the past six quarters.

Perhaps the turning point came during a team meeting on the eve of Virginia Tech's game with East Carolina two weeks ago.

"We had to let the guys know what was in our hearts and that there needed to be more of a sense of urgency," Virginia Tech defensive tackle John Graves said.

They have played with that sense of urgency ever since.

Virginia Tech overcame an injury to star RB Ryan Williams and rallied from a 10-point deficit in a 49-27 victory over East Carolina. The Hokies followed that up by allowing just 39 yards of total offense in the second half against Boston College.

The difference has been most obvious on defense.

Virginia Tech lost its season opener 33-30 to Boise State by allowing the Broncos to drive down the field for the winning touchdown on their final possession. The Hokies also couldn't stop James Madison when it mattered and had no answers for East Carolina in the first two periods.

But over the past six quarters, Virginia Tech's defense finally has begun playing like a typical Hokies defense.

The trend started against ECU when CB Rashad Carmichael recorded two interceptions and returned one of them 68 yards for a game-clinching touchdown. It continued last week when the Hokies recorded six sacks and handed Boston College its first shutout loss since 1998.

Have the Hokies finally turned the corner? Graves said the jury's still out.

"I think it will take a few more weeks,'' Graves said. "We still have some things we need to clean up from the Boston College game. We don't want to stay the same. We want to continue to grow as a team and as a unit. We need to keep jelling. We don't feel like we're there yet."

Virginia Tech should learn much more about its defense this week. The Hokies are going on the road to face North Carolina State, the ACC's only remaining unbeaten team. NC State QB Russell Wilson didn't play particularly well last season in a 38-10 loss to Virginia Tech, but he's performing at a much higher level this season.

Wilson threw for 368 yards and accounted for four touchdowns last week in a 45-28 victory at defending ACC champion Georgia Tech. Wilson has thrown 11 touchdown passes with only one interception this season.

"They're a great team," Graves said. "They have weapons everywhere. They can beat you a lot of different ways. Russell Wilson is a great quarterback, and he's a game-changer. He has the experience under his belt. It seems like when we watch him on film, he always makes the right moves. We've got to be prepared for a dogfight."

NC State also expects a major challenge. Virginia Tech may be entering this game with a .500 record, but the Wolfpack realize the Hokies are as dangerous as anyone in the league now that their defense has reasserted itself.

"They are about five plays away from being a top-five team in the country," North Carolina State coach Tom O'Brien said. "They're probably a product of their own success in that they had to come back [after the loss to Boise State] and play a James Madison team, and maybe one loss cost them two, but they're still a great football team.

"I don't see where anybody should be down. They have tremendous speed all over the field on defense. They can cover you. They're going to challenge you."

Best matchup: Clemson RBs Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper vs. Miami's run defense. In all honesty, the best matchup of the week involves Wilson's encounter with Virginia Tech's defense, but we already discussed that confrontation in detail. So we'll focus instead on whether Clemson can run the ball against Miami, an issue that likely will determine the winner of this interdivisional game. Clemson has run the ball as well as anyone could have reasonably expected in Year One of the post-C.J. Spiller era. Ellington ranks second in the ACC with 91 rushing yards per game and averages 7.4 yards per carry, while Harper has run for 154 yards on 31 carries. Miami ranks 43rd in the nation in run defense, but that stat's a bit misleading. Ohio State gained less than 4.0 yards per carry against the Hurricanes. Last week, Miami held Pittsburgh's Dion Lewis to 41 yards on 12 carries, while backup Ray Graham gained most of his 100 yards after the game was out of hand. Clemson leads the ACC in scoring offense (39.0), while Miami is second in the league in scoring defense (13.0).

Players on the spot: Boston College QBs Chase Rettig and Mike Marscovetra. One of these guys will be making his first college start Saturday against Notre Dame. On the day after Boston College's 19-0 loss to Virginia Tech last week, Eagles coach Frank Spaziani announced he was demoting season-opening starter Dave Shinskie. The Boston Globe has reported that Rettig has won the competition with Marscovetra, but Spaziani said Wednesday during the ACC coaches' teleconference that he hasn't made a decision. Marscovetra, a sophomore, has gone 8-of-13 for 92 yards with one touchdown and one interception while backing up Shinskie. Rettig is a true freshman who hasn't played this season.

Numbers game: After going 5-7 last season, NC State has won its first four games this season and is nationally ranked for the first time since Sept. 7, 2003. What's caused the change? Take a look at the turnover margin. NCSU has nine takeaways and four giveaways for a plus-5 turnover margin that is tied for 14th in the nation. Last season, the Wolfpack ranked 114th in turnover margin at minus-11 (25 giveaways and 14 takeaways).

They said it

"Not to knock the old system, but I just have a lot of confidence in this system and the coaches putting the right people on the field at the right time. They have a lot of trust in the players to go out and make plays. That has pretty much changed everyone's confidence." - Florida State LB Mister Alexander, discussing the improvements in the Seminoles' defense to Warchant.com.

"He's a hard runner, but I don't think he's going to penetrate our defensive line." - Miami DE Olivier Vernon, on Clemson RB Andre Ellington to CaneSport.com

"We're not a bad team, but we're not as good as people are telling us we are." - NC State OT R.J. Mattes, to The Charlotte Observer in the wake of the Wolfpack's 4-0 start

"This team could still be pretty good if they want to play with some urgency, but they have to decide. Either you want to be good or you want to be mediocre." - Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"It's hard to run the ball [in the red zone], especially if they're expecting it.' - Virginia Tech RB Darren Evans to the (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot after the Hokies' 19-0 victory over Boston College last week. Virginian-Pilot research shows that Virginia Tech has thrown only two passes in 74 first-down plays in the red zone dating to the start of last season. The Hokies have scored touchdowns on only nine of their 18 trips into the red zone this season, and Tech is running the ball on 79 percent of its overall snaps in the red zone

"We named him 'Chase' after Chase Manhattan Bank. He got his middle name from Aristotle Onassis, the shipping tycoon. When you think of Chase Manhattan Bank, you think success. When you think of Aristotle Onassis, you think success. We're hoping when you hear the name 'Minnifield,' you'll think the same way." - Former Cleveland Browns CB Frank Minnifield, discussing the origins of his son's name to The Roanoke Times. Virginia CB Chase Minnifield picked off two passes last week in a 48-7 victory over VMI

Etc.: All five ACC games this week are interdivisional contests. This marks the first time since the ACC began divisional play in 2005 that the league scheduled as many as five interdivisional games in a single week. ... Anyone attending the Miami-Clemson game should prepare for a long day at the stadium. Each of the past three games between these two teams has gone into overtime. The visiting team has won each time. The only other time in Division I history that a series has featured three consecutive overtime games is the Central Michigan-Eastern Michigan rivalry from 2004-06. ... Miami OT Seantrel Henderson worked with the first-team offense during 11-of-11 drills at Tuesday's practice. Henderson, a true freshman, was the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2010 recruiting class. ... North Carolina LB Bruce Carter's blocked punt against Rutgers last week was the sixth of his career. ... UNC RB Johnny White hurt an ankle and LB Quan Sturdivant injured his hamstring in the victory. Their status for this week's game with East Carolina remains uncertain. ... Virginia Tech's game at North Carolina State marks only the second time since 1994 that an unranked Hokies team has played a road game at the stadium of a team ranked in the AP poll. The only previous time came when Virginia Tech lost at No. 24 Florida State in 2008. ... Boston College LB Luke Kuechly has recorded at least 10 tackles in 12 consecutive games, the longest such streak in the nation. ... Florida State leads the nation in sacks per game (4.75) and ranks third in tackles for loss per game (9.25). ... Virginia WR Tim Smith has an ankle injury that will sideline him for the rest of the season. ... Wake Forest QB Tanner Price sustained a concussion last week at Florida State, leaving his status uncertain for Saturday's game with Georgia Tech. Sophomore Ted Stachitas is currently listed as the Deacons' first-team quarterback, though he has sore ribs. If neither can play, Wake would turn to either redshirt freshman Brendan Cross or junior Skylar Jones. ... Wake RB Josh Adams heads into Saturday's game with 1,997 career rushing yards and 80 career catches. The only three players in school history with 2,000 rushing yards and 80 receptions are Michael Ramseur (1982-85), Morgan Kane (1996-99) and John Leach (1990-93). ... Duke coach David Cutcliffe owns a career record of 21-9 in October. He has gone 33-38 in non-October games. ... Torrey Smith didn't practice Tuesday to recover from some nagging injuries, but Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said he expects his star receiver to play this week. Smith averages 23.7 yards per reception and has caught five touchdown passes in Maryland's past three games. ... Wake Forest has scheduled a home-and-home series with Notre Dame. The Irish will play at Wake's BB&T Field on Nov. 5, 2011, and the Deacons will visit Notre Dame Stadium on Nov. 7, 2015.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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