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October 10, 2011

Sugar Bowl win over Texas the start of Tech's rise to prominence

By: Jimmy Robertson

This is the third in a series of stories that look back at head coach Frank Beamer’s 25 years as the head man of Tech’s football program. We continue with a look at the magical 1995 season – one that started horribly, but ended as one of the most memorable in Tech history.

The start of the 1995 football season resembled a Stephen King novel. It was dark and horrifying and possessed all the traits of a fine science fiction piece – only it was very real to Tech’s players, coaches and fans.

The Hokies lost to BC in their home opener, and a week later, fell to Cincinnati. Coming into the season with high expectations, Tech sat at 0-2, and adding to the terror, the Miami Hurricanes, led by Ray Lewis, were coming to town.

J.C. Price and the Hokies rebounded from an 0-2 start to win 10 games and knock off the Texas Longhorns 28-10 in the Sugar Bowl.

But not even an award-winning author such as King could have penned the ending to the 1995 season.

The Hokies went on to win their remaining games, many of them in thrilling fashion. They fell behind in seven of their 12 games that season, but still managed a 10-win campaign. The year culminated with a Sugar Bowl trouncing of Texas on New Year’s Eve – a game that led to the Hokies’ first top-10 ranking to finish a season, and as many still consider, the dawning of the program’s rise to prominence.

“From the time you were a little kid, you knew about the Sugar Bowl,” Tech head coach Frank Beamer said. “And you knew the name ‘Texas.’ So we were playing the biggest bowl we could play in against a team with name recognition as good as it gets, and Virginia Tech was able to win. I think that was another steppingstone.

“I’m asked quite a bit, ‘What are your greatest wins?’ That one is always in the conversation because I do think it had real significance as to how people thought about us and how we thought about ourselves and how recruits perceived us. That was just a big game for us.”

That rise began seven days after that dreadful affair against Cincinnati. Facing Miami, then ranked No. 17, Tech rushed for 300 yards, got an early touchdown from Dwayne Thomas (who rushed for 165 yards) and a couple of field goals from Atle Larsen, and then withstood a late Miami drive. A little known freshman defensive back named Loren Johnson tipped away a pass inside the Tech 10 with 17 seconds left, preserving the Hokies’ 13-7 victory. Fans stormed the field, as it marked Tech’s first victory over Miami in 12 tries.

“Miami was the team back then,” Beamer said. “They had had such great success, and we had lost two tough ball games. To get that win against that team very much turned that season around, without question.”

After that, things simply went Tech’s way. The next week, Tech rallied from a 16-7 deficit at Pittsburgh, scoring 16 points in the fourth quarter to pull to 2-2 on the season. The Hokies then won the next six games handily – Navy, Akron, Rutgers, West Virginia, Syracuse and Temple – all by double-digit margins and ended up winning a share of Beamer’s first conference championship. That left the Hokies at 8-2 heading into a regular-season finale showdown at No. 13 Virginia.

Tech went into the game ranked 20th itself, but the Cavaliers, behind the throwing of quarterback Mike Groh and the running of tailback Tiki Barber, led by 15 points heading into the fourth quarter.

Behind inspired play from quarterback Jim Druckenmiller, the Hokies rallied and took the lead with 47 seconds left when Druckenmiller found Jermaine Holmes running free. He hit him in perfect stride for a 32-yard touchdown, and Tech took a 30-29 lead with the Larsen extra point.

The Cavaliers tried to muster a comeback, driving to the Tech 40. But Antonio Banks intercepted a Groh pass and returned it 65 yards for a touchdown on the game’s final play. Tech fans stormed the field and celebrated the Hokies’ largest comeback win under Beamer.

“Even after we lost those first two games, we didn’t panic and Coach Beamer didn’t panic,” said Druckenmiller, who now lives in Memphis, Tenn. “He sort of related that to us. If we did our thing and took care of the little things and run our assignments, then good things were going to happen.

“After we beat Miami, things just started clicking for us. Guys started making plays. We were making plays on offense, and the defense was getting sacks. When it’s going right, you just get that feeling. I can’t explain it. It’s just something you have to experience and we were fortunate to be able to do that.”

A little more than a week after that UVa game, Sugar Bowl officials invited the Hokies to play Texas on New Year’s Eve – a game that would mark the school’s first such “big” bowl game. The Hokies’ allotment of 17,500 tickets evaporated within days, and more than 25,000 Tech fans marched to New Orleans to watch their team take on a Texas program that had won three national championships in its history [at that time].

“It was a tremendous opportunity for us,” said receiver Bryan Still, who teaches and coaches track and field at Cosby High School near Richmond. “We had a lot of confidence going into that game, but you’re still unsure. Would we be able to perform on that big of a stage? Would we be overwhelmed or would we play the way we had all season? I think we knew we could compete and do well.”

The Sugar Bowl followed the same script as many of Tech’s games – the Hokies got behind early. Tech trailed 10-0 in the second quarter, and in fact, its first six possessions ended with four punts and two turnovers, as the Hokies showed some nerves.

But with less than three minutes left in the first half, Still turned things around. He fielded a punt at the Tech 40, made a Texas defender miss in the middle of the field and used his blazing speed to go 60 yards for a touchdown. That made the score 10-7 at the break and got the Hokies back in the game.

The second half was all maroon and orange. Still’s 27-yard catch set up a Marcus Parker touchdown run in the third quarter, enabling the Hokies to take the lead. Then, early in the fourth quarter, Still caught a 54-yard touchdown pass to give Tech a 21-10 lead.

“I can still remember it. I saw that they were going to blitz, and I’m thinking, ‘Should I audible, should I audible?’” Druckenmiller said. “I decided to call the audible, and Bryan beat his guy so badly off the line of scrimmage that I didn’t even wait for him to finish his pattern. I just threw it up to him, and he scored.”

Tech’s defense took care of the rest. Jim Baron returned a fumble 20 yards for a touchdown with five minutes left to seal it. Tech’s defense forced four turnovers and sacked Texas quarterback James Brown five times.

Still earned the game’s MVP honors. He caught six passes for 119 yards and scored twice.

“That was the best game I’ve ever had,” Still said. “I couldn’t have written a better script.”

The game, and the season, brought national attention to Beamer and his program. He and his staff took a bunch of under-recruited young men, for the most part, and won. The group included blue-collar guys such as Druckenmiller, Baron, J.C. Price, Chris Malone and Brandon Semones, and they won in a fun and exciting style that won over skeptics of the BIG EAST Conference and Eastern football in general. The Hokies’ success brought priceless exposure to both the school and the football program and vaulted the program into a new place in the national pecking order.

No, Tech wasn’t on the same level as Nebraska or Florida State or Michigan back then. But for the first time, those at that level started taking notice of Beamer and his program.

“I think the East Coast started to see Virginia Tech as a place where they play good football,” Still said. “To me, 1995 was just the beginning. We sort of laid the groundwork then, and now we’ve got a bowl streak going. I’m proud to be a part of that.”

“It was like Mardi Gras after that game,” Druckenmiller said. “And it was a feeling that lasted for such a long time, too. That was just a fun and exciting time, and I’ll never forget it.

“People ask me often, ‘Do you miss those days?’ Well, I do – every single day.”