Running diary from Blacksburg

Originally Published: September 17, 2003
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

Editors Note: ESPN.com writer Wayne Drehs is in Blacksburg, Va., for tonight's game between Texas A&M and Virginia Tech and will be filing running updates throughout the night.

An article in the Virginia Tech student paper this morning reported the dismay of students over the fact that school president Charles Steger does not cancel classes on football Thursdays. Few students make it to class because parking is such an issue. All student lots must be clear of cars by 4:15, and as I walked campus this afternoon the towing of vehicles began at exactly that time.

Communications professor Ken Garland told the paper his average attendance for class on the nights of the last two Thursday games was 0.5 students. "I had one student the year before and none last year."

And with Hurricane Isabel bearing down, rain gear is in high demand and you can't find a poncho anywhere. The Lowes, Target, Super K, Home Depot and Wal-Mart stores in nearby Christiansburg were all completely sold out by early afternoon. "We had one guy come in here and buy 100 emergency ponchos for $.99 each," said a K-mart employee. "Smart man -- he's probably gonna be outside them stadium selling them for $10 apiece tonight."

As the day went on, the possibility increased that A&M were going to have to buy VT ponchos and turn them inside out.

As for the weather itself, a drizzle began at 2:00 and we've had a steady, hard rain since. The worry on weather reports in the area is that the higher elevation in Blacksburg could lead to higher winds and heavier rain than in the surrounding areas.

4:15 p.m. -- The Virginia Tech band -- known as the Highty-Tighties -- is practicing in a driving rain wearing only shorts and sweatshirts. Not coincidentally, they're practicing the Scorpions song "Rock You Like a Hurricane." They are on the large green at the center of campus, which is deserted otherwise. At one point, the director ordered them under a tree, where everyone faced the trunk and kept playing, then blew a whistle that sent everyone sprinting inside to get their uniforms.

5:40 -- Head groundskeeper Casey Underwood is sitting behind his desk under the stadium, waiting for things to get underway. The field at Lane Stadium is made up of small, sand-based trays that have a vacuum cavity underneath which allows water to be sucked from the soil, and knowing the rain was coming the vacuums were turned on three days ago. The field is normally kept at 20 percent moisture, but three days of vacuuming combined with sun and wind had the level as low as five percent. "The field can take whatever Mother Nature can give it," said Underwood. And he's right. I walked on the field and didn't see any standing water.

5:50 -- The game officials are standing in the tunnel drinking coffee out of foam cups. When asked if they have rain gear, one says "Of course, but they shouldn't be playing this game. The money's not worth it. This is how someone gets hurt."

5:45 -- Five members of the Texas A&M special teams are on the field in nothing but grey cotton shorts and t-shirts, in order to acclimate themselves to the weather and footing. They're working on field goals, punts and snaps.

6:00 -- The wind is blowing harder and the temperature is becoming uncomfortably brisk. Water is being being blown sideways across the pavement in the parking lot.

6:15 -- The gates open at 5:30, and right now I count 32 people in their seats. Most fans are milling around in the concourse.

6:25 -- The Aggies special teamers are back on the field, in their uniforms this time, and sophomore placekicker Todd Pegram is hitting field from about 45 yards out, into the wind. The rain is now coming down horizontally.

6:55 -- The Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets is marching into the south end of the stadium, lined up in perfect four-wide formation. They are wearing camouflage fatigues and black overcoats, and each cadet is staring directly at the back of the man in front of him. The cadets are followed by the Highty-Tighties, wearing slick uniforms consisting of white pants, black shoes, blue blazers with sash-like crossbelts and hats like those worn with a Navy dress uniform.

7:15 -- The Tech cheerleaders have broken into two groups, the Maroon and the Orange. The funny thing is, the male cheerleaders are wearing large Virginia Tech football parkas, like the players wear over their pads on the sideline, while the females -- in their short skirts and tight tops -- are covered with nothing more than glorified trash bags that fail to even cover their entire skirts. When asked if she was cold one lady answered, "I'm absolutely freezing. I don't know how I'm going to do this."

7:20 -- Expect to see nothing but orange when you turn on the television tonight, reminiscent of Nebraska's Sea of Red. The VT students have designated this their "Orange Effect" game and the entire stadium looks like one big pumpkin. Most people have managed to find transparent ponchos to go over their orange shirts or put the shirts right over the ponchos. The student section is loving the weather for some reason and everyone there is going completely berserk.

7:37 -- The Highty-Tighties just finished the national anthem have joined the cadets in at the head of the tunnel, waiting for the Hokies to come onto the field.

7:41 -- The PA system is blaring Metallica's "Enter Sandman" and the place is going nuts waiting for the teams.

7:44 -- The A&M tunnel is very business-like. A few guys are yelling sporadically, but nearly everyone is shifting from foot to foot, nodding their heads and looking straight ahead.

7:50 -- When Aggies QB Reggie McNeal came off the field after the first series, coach Dennis Franchione immediately pulled him aside and tried to calm him down. Punter Cody Scates came off the field after his botched punt and fired a ball into the practice net in disgust, and he hasn't stopped kicking balls into the net since.

8:15 -- As soon as the ball went through the uprights on the A&M field goal, Coach Fran and McNeal huddled with running back Keith Joseph and three other coaches, drawing something up on a whiteboard. And there are actual whiteboard guys on the sideline, keeping them in garbage bags and having them ready for the coaches at a moments notice.

8:28 -- There was obviously a blown coverage on that touchdown pass, and DB Byron Jones was irate coming off the field, jumping up and down and basically having a tantrum. No. 19 Jaxson Appell blew the coverage, but the coaches and his teammates are staying positive. Defensive tackle Johnny Jolly got in Appell's face and told him to keep his head up.

8:33 -- After McNeal ran out of bounds on a scramble, A&M linebacker Scott Stickane gave a nice sideline shot to Tech's Jimmy Williams. The Tech fans got on him, and Johnny Jolly went to the edge of the stands, cupped his hand to his ear and yelled, "I'm sorry, I can't hear you people!"

8:39 -- An interesting note on the sideline communication: because of the rain, the phones to the booth are covered with a large, clear, upside down tub. There is a hole in the top just big enough for a hand and handset, and rather than a ringer the phones have strobe lights. Someone is standing by, ready to pickup the phones and fetch the player or coach being called.

8:54 -- The north end zone - the one at A&M's back -- is reminiscent of the old Dawg Pound in Cleveland. It's extremely loud, and theAggies might have called that last time out to make sure they had the right play and good communication on an important down.

8:57 -- After the Tech penalty when the bench kind of spilled over onto the field, Coach Fran appointed three or four staff members to stalk the sideline and make sure the Aggie players stay within their appointed area. And the Tech fans behind the A&M bench are throwing lemons at the Aggies. There are now security guards standing behind the players, looking at the fans in a menacing fashion.

9:06 -- The A&M sideline is even more upbeat than you'd expect at the half. The coaches are pumping up the players, telling the running back to keep playing their butts off, that the Hokies are starting to wear down. Everyone is positive going into the lockerroom.

9:35 -- As you can imagine, the A&M defensive coaches were not very happy in that first drive of the second half. They are reminding the DBs to stay inside on the pass routes and stressing to everyone the need to finish tackles and create turnovers.

9:43 -- The rest of the A&M sideline is more excited than Cody Scates after that run on the blown punt. Nearly every one of his teammates has come up to congratulate him, but Scates is just shrugging his shoulders and practicing taking the long snap.

9:49 -- There is a group of Tech fans sitting right behind the A&M bench where the offense meets, one guy with a plactic turkey on his head and everyone in the group with a cowbell. As soon at the offensive coaches start talking the bells start clanging, and when the coach stops talking the bells stop. Just trying to be a distraction.

9:43 -- Reggie McNeal is walking the sideline with a slight limp, jumping up and down and seemingly testing something by throwing some balls. One of the assistants walked over and asked how McNeal was feeling, to which he replied, "I'm all good."

10:00 -- After the punt that was disallowed on the offside penalty, Tech returner DeAngelo Hall got in the face of one of the Aggie gunners and talked a lot of smack. The A&M player walked away and an official started to give Hall some hell, but Hall just hugged him and patted his behind, and the ref returned the favor and walked away.

10:04 -- Texas A&M may be going with a new punter the next time out. Scates has battled injury early this year and may have re-aggrivated something, because backup Jacob Young is warming up by kicking balls into the net.

10:16 -- The Aggies are fired up right now. Some of the receivers are giving McNeal a hard time, asking if he planned on taking a nap after the fake before he threw the ball. Backup QB Jacob Carter was telling everyone who would listen "We got this game!" McNeal told Tim Van Zant, the walk-on who caught the touchdownpass, "I knew they weren't paying attention to me, and as soon as I saw you back there I knew it was all good."

10:30 -- There are a lot of heads down on the A&M sideline right now, and all the air has been taken out of the players. Even Coach Fran just shook his head when Tech fell on the ball. The visible optimism isn't there anymore, but everyone on the A&M sideline is standing as close to the field as possible, waiting to see if the defense can make a stop here.

10:36 -- Just like that, the stadium begins to empty after the touchdown. The Aggies equipment guys are digging around in the coolers and beginning to prepare the sideline to be packed up.

10:44 -- It looks like the Aggies are going to make a change at QB. Coach Fran came over and said a few words to McNeal, who just shook his head, and backup Dustin Long started warming up.

11:00 -- No one said a word in the A&M tunnel. Every player was silent. Wide receiver Anthony Wright and defensive linemam Linnis Smith walked at the back of the pack and Wright held up his fist as if to get a knuckle bump from Smith, who ignored him. Wright held his fist up all the way down the tunnel before Smith finally gave him somea grudgking knuckle knock at the lockerroom door.

On the field, the A&M yell leaders were leading a cheer of "Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, beat the hell out of Pittsburgh," as the Aggies host the Panthers on Sept. 27. Meanwhile, with no one left in the seats the wind was whipping all kinds of garbage around the stadium.

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.

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