As the great Ice Cube once said: "today was a good day." After losing a series of battles to the forces of realignment that cost Mountaineer fans every rivalry they ever cared about, the armies of good and tradition gained a little ground on Wednesday with the announcement that WVU and Virginia Tech would meet in 2021 and 2022.
Instead of dwelling on the fact that I'll be celebrating my 43rd birthday when the two clash in Blacksburg for the second of those games, I thought I'd take a moment and reflect on what was always my favorite rivalry.
Full disclosure, I got the idea from a tweet John Antonic sent out that he was doing a similar list, and I highly suggest that you give his a read (after you finish up here of course) if you haven't already - check it out here. (I purposely haven't read it yet, so any similarities are purely coincidental). Also I've chosen to limit my list to games of the last quarter century. I’m cutting it off there for a couple reasons. First, the ‘rivalry’ – as well as both teams – were largely irrelevant prior to that time. WVU had begun to emerge as a burgeoning power in the early 80s, but VT was awful. It wasn’t until the late 80s that the games mattered and the vitriol started flying. Also my Mountaineer memories started around that time, so there’s not a ton I remember before that.
Let the hate begin.
1991: Virginia Tech 20 WVU 14
This one goes on the ‘deep tracks’ list. You know how a person says they’re a fan of someone – say Billy Joel - and you ask their favorite song and they give you some vanilla answer like "Piano Man" and it kinda tells you they’re not a REAL fan but just someone who just likes the music in passing? But then if they give you an answer like "Leningrad" you nod your head approvingly and you both know that you're in that dorky Billy Joel fan club? This one is the WVU / VaTech deep track. The 1991 game didn’t mean a whole hell of a lot for anyone – neither team was ranked and neither team would make a bowl – but if you’re a true WVU fan (and old enough to remember) this one sticks out in your mind.
Tons of names old WVU fans remember fondly – Adrian Murrell, Rodney Woodard, James Jett, Darren Studstill. The Hokies went up 20-7 on WVU in the second half. Then the rain started. Then the thunder and lighting. Play was suspended and WVU fans bolted for the concourse – a majority of the 57,000 plus bolting the stadium. Not my dad and me, though. In one of the first of many lessons he taught me in what it means to be a true fan, we remained and were drenched through the nearly hour delay until the all clear was given.
A rejuvenated Mountaineer squad came out and cut the lead to 20-14 on a nifty Murrell TD run. There was some grinding back and forth until WVU got it back with time running down, including an awkward lateral from Murrell to a wide receiver that went for 6 but was called back as a forward lateral. A magical final drive ensued with a pair of tipped balls caught – one of 4th and long (I unfortunately can’t remember the wideout’s name) to preserve the rally and bring the ball to the goal line. Alas, the bid would come up just short when quarterback Chris Gray lost the ball on an option keeper at the 1 yard line in the final few seconds.
Unfortunately there's also a sad coda to this story that makes it stick out in my mind. Almost exactly a decade later that same Chris Gray would find himself in the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald on an upper floor of the World Trade Center the morning of September 11th. He was among nearly 3,000 Americans who perished that day. A sad end to a promising life.
1989: Virginia Tech 12 WVU 10
You know that scene in 'Batman' - not the Christian Bale one, but the Michael Keaton one from 1989 - where Joker says "you made me!" to which Batman replies "you made me first"? Well any time some Hokie fan tries to convince you that WVU's program "emerged" with wins against VT in 2002 and 2003, remind them of this jewel from 1989.
Major Harris was king, the magical 1988 year was still fresh in our minds and WVU football was riding a 16 game regular season unbeaten streak. Things had come back down to earth a bit the week before with a 31-31 loss to Pitt (anytime you blow a 31-9 lead in the second half it's a loss, I don't care what the score says) but a visit from the previously hapless Hokies seemed just the recipe to get back on track.
This moribund football program entered Mountaineer Field led by some 3rd year nobody named Frank Beamer who had never done anything other than compile a 7-18-1 record in 2 1/2 years. Major was going to drop 50 on them and we would all go home happy. I don't remember my dad expressing anything but supreme confidence on the trip up that WVU would win.
The game was a grind - all I remember is several WVU turnovers and the disbelief of the fans around me that we could lose to this Virginia Tech. Then it happened. I also remember a couple Hokie players grabbing a fan-painted bedsheet banner off the stadium wall and parading around the field with it (but hey, we're the ones without class, right?). I decided then and there I hated these assholes from down south with their puke-inspired color palette. Tech would finish the year 6-5 and the Beamer era had begun. And it was on that day, on that field that Hokie football was born.
1997: WVU 30 Virginia Tech 17
This one was big for me personally. First off, I'd seen the Mountaineers tangle with the Hokies 4 times (89, 90, 91, 95) in person and never seen them win. Second, while all these games were with my family, in 1997 I was a freshman in college and was making only my second solo game trip. This opened up a world of tailgating possibilities that I could have never dreamed of as a high schooler.
It was a great day to be a Mountaineer. Things started out tight, but in the second quarter WVU blew things open with a 46 yard touchdown pass from Marc Bulger to Shawn Foreman. I'll always remember this play because, after a series of Amos Zereoue runs, I felt things were set up to take a shot. I turned to my buddy John and said "time for the old pump and go!" I'll be damned if that wasn't exactly what they ran. The play went for 6 and the route was on. The Mountaineers took a 27-7 lead into the locker room and it was never close after that. Easily the most one-sided 13 point victory I've ever enjoyed.
2002: WVU 24 Virginia Tech 18
It had been a rough few years for Mountaineer fans. The end of the Nehlen era wasn't anything to sing songs about (give or take a Music City Bowl) and the beginning of the Rich Rod era wasn't much better with a 3-8 2001 campaign. When the Mountaineers headed south to Blacksburg in November 2002, the proverbial worm seemed on the cusp of a turn. The first signs of life happened when the 'eers gave the #1 Miami Hurricanes all they could handle, entering the 4th quarter trailing by only a point. Convincing wins against Temple and Boston College gave fuel to the hope, but WVU was still looking for a marquee win.
Enter the 12th ranked Hokiies.
I had the pleasure of watching this game on TV with a Hokie grad friend of mine and the bad Big East blood was a welcome change in my new home of Nashville. The teams battled through the first half with WVU holding a slim 14-10 edge at the break. I remember feeling WVU was outplaying Tech but couldn't gain any ground. They were systematically grounding VT to dust with the run game but couldn't build a lead. Then the Pride of Weirton Quincy Wilson burst through the line over the right side for the most wide-open 42 yard touchdown run you'll ever see. But there was still work to do.
For a team that would make their bones on the offensive side of the ball over the next few years, it was the defense that carried them on this night. A pair of highlight reel plays sealed the game - first Grant Wiley's diving stop on a goal line 4th down and then Brian King's end zone interception on Tech's final possession sealed the deal. A four game losing streak to the Hokies was gone and Mountaineer football was back.
2004: Virginia Tech 19 WVU 16
This one hurt. A highly touted WVU squad came down the WV Turnpike with their #6 ranking and a bus full of arrogance. Caught up in the arrogance, I remember being insulted that my unbeatable Mountaineers would be labeled a 2 point UNDERDOG to the Hokies by those idiots in Vegas. I even changed the name of my fantasy football team to "2 Point Road Dogs" for that week. This was gonna be a laugher.
You'd have thought that well into my second decade of WVU fandom I would know better.
Things started badly as WVU couldn't get going early and then VT blocked a field goal try at the end of the half to turn a potential 6-3 deficit into a 13-0 hole. The Mountaineers rallied, however and were poised to take the lead...and then there was the worst unnecessary roughness call that I have ever seen in my life.
Take a look for yourself. Jahmile Addae led with his shoulder, hit well after the ball arrived and didn't even target the VT player's head. Even in today's ultra-protective environment, that's clean. Yet some typical Big East official saw an opportunity to get on camera and killed WVU's momentum. There was another rally featuring one of the more impressive long TD runs that nobody remembers by Rasheed Marshall to cut it to a single score, but it too was quashed when normally sure-handed John Pennington dropped a pass at the 1 yard line for what could have been the winning score.
The title dream was over but more importantly the stage was set for this 2004 squad to run way off the rails.
1999: Virginia Tech 22 WVU 20
The second most painful WVU loss I have endured in person - but if you consider that the first was the infamous blocked punt game against Miami in 1996, that's pretty heady company. Freshman Michael Vick was all the rage and 3rd ranked VT was a title contender. On the other side, 3-5 WVU had fallen woefully short of expectations and needed this game just to keep hope alive for a bowl. Tech struck first with a long TD run but WVU answered back. The teams headed into the locker room tied at 7.
Despite the long odds, I felt strangely confident in those stands. With all the heartbreak I'd endured, often at the hands of the Hokies, surely this was the night to hit them back. When Marc Bulger was knocked out and Brad Lewis entered in relief and WVU came unglued with some untimely turnovers in the 3rd quarter, I remained calm. Tech wasn't scoring touchdowns - WVU was still within striking distance. At one point a VT receiver (#88, can't remember his name) dropped a wide open scoring pass on a bomb and I thought "this is it, this isn't their night, we got 'em."
Tech finally punched one in with 5 minutes left to take a 19-7 lead and the fat lady seemed to be warming up, but WVU took possession on the ensuing drive and marched down the field in just under 2 minutes to cut it to 19-14. At this point I decided to share my bizarre confidence with those fortunate souls around me. "These guys haven't made a mistake all night - they're due. Just watch." And by God if I wasn't right. Hokie running back Shyrone Stith coughed it up in VT territory and WVU had life. 30 seconds later Kory Ivy snagged an 18 yard pass in the end zone and the comeback was complete as the Mountaineers led 20-19.
It was pandemonium in the stands. I was hugging my buddies, some of which had sat through countless VT disappointments with me. Overgrown boys were screaming like girls as we piled closer to the bottom of the stands - just waiting for our chance to rush that field.
As you all know, this one didn't end well. The elder Vick led VT on an improbable last-minute drive, highlighted by a play that will always give me nightmares. As he was chased in the backfield, Vick darted towards the sideline and the entire WVU defense inexplicable let up. Even Barrett Green, who had made a career out of smacking people on both sides of the sideline, gave Vick a pass. He took the opportunity to plant his foot and dart upfield for a 24 yard gain to the WVU 36. From our angle it seemed improbable that Vick had stayed in bounds and I remember being stunned when the action from a supposedly dead play shifted rapidly 20 yards down the field. A few plays later the Hokies nailed a 44 yard field goal as time expired and the dream was dead.
2003: WVU 28 Virginia Tech 7
We're 2000 words in here so I'm not going to get too far into this one. If you've been a Mountaineer fan for longer than a decade, you remember it well. For my money, it was the most complete performance up to that time by a Rodriguez team. The best part about this one was that for all the obnoxious prattle we hear from Hokie supporters about Mountaineer fans, on this night we were completely in their heads. Beamer was so concerned that he gave his troops a directive to not remove their helmets when they were out on the playing field and the rattled coach even went so far as to smack a player on the sideline after a boneheaded play in the second half. They never had a chance.
It was one of those amazing crowds where the numbers didn't adequately convey the energy in the stands. I can't remember the exact number - I think it was in the low 50k range - but that place was among the loudest I'd heard it. It was a special collection of the hardest core fans who didn't let an unimpressive 2-4 record keep them from making the trip on a Thursday night. If you were there, it was because you WANTED to be there.
On that special night WVU could do no wrong and won a 28-7 game that wasn't even that close. Fans gleefully showered the Hokie bench with chants of "ACC! ACC!" mocking the recent VT Big East defection. The scene got crazy and downright dangerous after the final musket shot as fans rushed the field and the WV State Police decided to make a stand around the goal posts. A good friend of mine made the mistake of rushing said cops and got a faceful of pepper spray, a busted up knee, an arrest and all of it on the front page of the Charleston Daily Mail for his trouble. It's an insane night that my buddies and I still talk about.
Those were the games I remember, the games I loved. We may not get them every year again, but it's nice to know the rivalry will be rejoined, even if for just a couple years. Bring on the Hokies and bring on the hate. There are more memories to make.
Remember these game? What's your most memorable game of the WVU / VT series? Let us know in the comments!