Attention to smallest detail could produce biggest prize

Virginia Tech, Fla. State believers in special teams

January 03, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

NEW ORLEANS -- When Shane Beamer is asked about the attention Virginia Tech pays to its special teams, one image stands out. It is of his father, Hokies head coach Frank Beamer, sitting in his office watching tape of punt and kickoff coverage, not to mention field goals, until his eyes blur.

"We spend a lot of time on special teams, but Dad spends a ridiculous amount of time on it," the younger Beamer, a fifth-year senior and the team's long snapper, said yesterday.

It is why the Hokies blocked more kicks this decade -- 59 -- than any Division I-A team in the country. It is why Virginia Tech led the nation this season in giving up the fewest yards on punt returns (36) and having the fewest number of punts returned (nine).

It is also why the second-ranked Hokies will take an 11-0 record into tomorrow night's Sugar Bowl here at the Superdome, where they will play No. 1 Florida State (11-0) for the national championship.

"Coach Beamer has a saying, `The bigger the game, the bigger things get, the more attention you pay to the little things,' " said Virginia Tech kicker Shayne Graham. "Come game time, a lot of points are going to be gained or lost on special teams."

Graham's 44-yard field goal in the waning seconds against West Virginia turned out to be the biggest play in Virginia Tech's magical season. It helped beat the Mountaineers, 22-20, in Morgantown on Nov. 6 and enabled the Hokies to stay unbeaten.

But was it any bigger than the blocked punt Florida State's Tommy Polley made in the third quarter of his team's regular-season finale at Florida? Polley's block came with the Seminoles trailing 16-13. Florida State turned the block into the go-ahead touchdown in a 30-23 victory.

"It changed the whole momentum of the game," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said.

That is what tomorrow night's game could come down to -- making that one play to turn the momentum to either the Hokies or the Seminoles.

While Virginia Tech is cautious about what Peter Warrick might do for the Seminoles as a receiver or option quarterback on offense, the Hokies are just as concerned about what Florida State's game-breaker might do returning punts. Warrick had a 75-yard punt return for a score against North Carolina.

"I'd love more than anything to give the defense the opportunity to really pressure their offense," said Virginia Tech punter Jimmy Kibble. "Kicking against Peter Warrick, keeping the ball high and keeping him from returning it will be the job I'll have to do."

If there has been any team that had even more success on its special teams this season than the Hokies, it's the Seminoles. They blocked six kicks, including four in the last two games. Polley had two, the blocked punt against the Gators and a blocked field goal against Miami.

"Special teams is a big part of any game; this game is no different," said Polley, a redshirt junior who has played special teams for three seasons while starting the last two at outside linebacker. "We've got to be disciplined."

Said Florida State special teams captain Bobby Rhodes: "Special teams could really be the determining factor."

The most obvious head-to-head comparison, or in this case toe-to-toe, is between the kickers, Graham and Florida State's Sebastian Janikowski.

Graham has made 17 of 22 field-goal attempts this year, including seven of nine from between the 40- and 49-yard lines. Janikowski has been successful on 23 of 30 overall. His 54-yarder against Florida was two yards longer than Graham's best this season. Graham made a 53-yarder last season.

"Every time you walk on the field, you should think that what you'll do is going to win the game," said Graham, a senior who has set the Big East scoring record.

But Graham is not going to turn tomorrow night's game into a personal kicking contest with Janikowski, a first-team All-America who is being mentioned now as a possible first-round draft choice should he decide to forgo his senior year in Tallahassee.

Asked about the story going around of Janikowski kicking a 74-yard field goal in practice, Graham said: "I can sit here and give you numbers of what I kicked in practice; it really doesn't say anything of what I'm going to do in the game. What happens in the game, happens in the game.

"The only thing I can say that would be intimidating about him is that he's got a lot of talent, but I wouldn't want to run into him in a dark alley."

Janikowski is hard to miss, given that there aren't too many 6-foot-2, 255-pound, bald-headed kickers running around. A reputed party animal, he has reportedly been seen all over the New Orleans' famed French Quarter after curfew.

Reportedly spotted among the thousands who celebrated New Year's Eve in Jackson Square, Janikowski has been running extra sprints at practice the past two days. Bowden said yesterday that Janikowski will start in tomorrow night's game.

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