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Bracing for the ACC

Duke beings conference play against Virginia Tech Saturday. The Hokies may be the ACC newcomer, but it might be Duke that is in for a rude awakening. The Blue Devils many lingering questions entering the game, a result of injuries and inexperience.

At first glance the Duke and Virginia Tech football programs will appear to be polar opposites when they square off Saturday at noon in Blacksburg, Va. The Hokies have achieved unbridled success over the past 10 years, and have enjoyed top-25 rankings, packed stadiums and the national television coverage that come with that prestige. The Blue Devils, on the other hand, have spent the last decade struggling to remain out of the ACC’s cellar, and have not been in a bowl game since 1994.

On a deeper level, however, these two teams have more in common than the casual observer would originally anticipate. Duke (0-2) and Virginia Tech (1-1) have common defining characteristics—they are both young, unproven squads with coaches who are looking to make good first impressions.

In Blacksburg, Va., that coach is Frank Beamer, who 17 years ago took the helm of a program that has since posted a 125-74-2 record, and for a stretch that ended in 2003, was ranked in 84 consecutive AP polls. He is now the fourth-winningest active coach in Division I-A.

Despite all his success Beamer now faces tremendous uncertainty. The Hokies lost 13 starters from the 2003 squad, including eight All-Big East members. After losing key players to graduation, the NFL and disciplinary actions, Beamer is still searching for players to step up against the upgraded competition Virginia Tech will now face in its first year as a member of the ACC. The Blue Devils will be the Hokies’ first ACC opponent.

Virginia Tech’s starting running back position is still up for grabs—current Detroit Lion Kevin Jones held the position in 2003, and his heir apparent, junior Cedric Humes, broke his leg last spring. Former wideout Justin Hamilton has been unspectacular in his first two games—he rushed for a mere 37 yards in a 24-13 loss to USC and platooned with two other running backs in a 63-0 victory over Western Michigan last week. Beamer has yet to admit that Hamilton’s job is in jeopardy.

“Justin Hamilton impressed me during the game this past Saturday,” Beamer said. “The blocking for pass protection and running hard worked for him that day.... He is a valuable, consistent player for us.”

Virginia Tech’s secondary is also dangerously thin. The Hokies’ defense, which gave up 175 points in the final five games of the 2003 season, surrendered 272 passing yards to USC.

Questions also abound for Duke head coach Ted Roof, who like Beamer is serving his first full tour of duty in the ACC. Roof is still utilizing a two-quarterback rotation—neither senior Chris Dapolito nor sophomore Mike Schneider has secured the starting job. Running back Cedric Dargan and wideout Senterrio Landrum will not play due to injury. Captain linebacker Phillip Alexander is now out for the season after breaking his leg Saturday. Add to these woes the lingering effects of last week’s demoralizing loss to Connecticut and the morale-crushing noise the Blue Devils will face inside Lane Stadium this weekend, and it appears as if Roof’s troubles might be insurmountable.

Roof however, has expressed nothing but confidence in his players.

“I think we’re very disappointed because we gave so much and we emptied our tank,” Roof said. “But at the same time, I know this: If we keep putting ourselves in position to win, we’re going to get some, and when we get some it’s going to snowball. I think they’re hungry to go compete again, especially against a great football team and in a great environment for college football. Motivation won’t be a problem.”

If the past is any indicator, the noise level inside Lane Stadium will not jar the Blue Devils, who last year nearly upset the Tennessee Volunteers in front of a crowd of 104,772.

“There will be a bunch of people screaming against us [at Virginia Tech,]” Roof said. “That’s a good thing. If you’re a competitor, you really can relish that. But at the same time, those fans aren’t going to tackle anybody or block anybody. There’s 11 on the field and we have to focus on that.”

Duke’s will have to focus especially hard on Virginia Tech quarterback Bryan Randall, a two-dimensional player with the ability to hurt opposing defenses both on the ground (114 rushing yards against USC) and through the air (253 passing yards against Western Michigan). Roof, whose defense was victimized by Navy’s option attack and now must deal with the loss of Alexander, reiterated the danger of a quarterback as mobile as Randall.

“You saw him get loose against Southern Cal, who might arguably be the best defense in the country, and he avoided those guys, made them miss and created big plays,” Roof said. “That puts added pressure on and it goes back to what I said about that about how that team puts you under the gun.”

So are Duke’s chances against Virginia Tech finished before they even begin? Certainly not, and Beamer will be the first to admit it.

“Duke is a capable football team,” Beamer said. “[Duke] is a football team that is capable of winning conference games and that is the way we are approaching Saturday’s game.”

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