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November 14, 2011

Graham's boot at the buzzer preserved perfect season

By: Jimmy Robertson

This is the fourth 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 one of the biggest plays in Tech history – one that kept alive Tech’s dream of competing for the national championship.

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“To keep their national title hopes alive … from 44 yards … it’s long enough … it is … RIGHT DOWN THE MIDDLE. GOOD FOR SHAYNE GRAHAM.

“THEY’RE STILL ALIVE IN BLACKSBURG.” — CBS broadcaster Sean McDonough with the call of Shayne Graham’s game-winning field goal against West Virginia on Nov. 6, 1999.

After having coached at Tech for 25 years and in more than 300 games, Frank Beamer has seen his teams win in the final minute, lose in the final minute and lose on the final play of the game.

But only once in Beamer’s 25 years have the Hokies secured victory on a game’s final play.

Tech fans remember it vividly, as it occurred during the Hokies’ march to their only perfect regular season in school history and a spot in college football’s national championship game. In 1999, a Michael Vick-led squad steamrolled every opponent but one – longtime rival West Virginia – and in that particular game, the Hokies needed the right foot of Shayne Graham, a kicker from nearby Pulaski County [Va.] High, to preserve their dream.

Beamer, who shies away from lists, admitted the win over the Mountaineers ranks highly among his favorites.

“I think for what that game allowed us to do, or continue on that path, that game was about as big as it gets,” he said. “That game was probably the top all time in terms of comebacks and what was at stake right there.”

To recap, the Hokies traveled to Morgantown, W.Va., for a Nov. 6 battle with West Virginia. Tech sat at 7-0 and ranked No. 3 in the nation. No opponent had come within 13 points of the Hokies, and most assumed that West Virginia, at 3-5, would be the latest to suffer a bludgeoning at the hands of the Hokies.

Tech appeared to have the game in hand after a 6-yard touchdown run by Shyrone Stith gave the Hokies a 19-7 lead with less than five minutes left in the game. But a series of crazy plays enabled the Mountaineers to come storming back.

For starters, on the ensuing kickoff after the Stith touchdown, the Hokies forced WVU’s Richard Bryant to fumble. But the Mountaineers’ Boo Sensabaugh recovered and ran 44 yards to the Tech 39. A Tech personal foul penalty gave 15 more yards to the Mountaineers, and seven plays later, West Virginia quarterback Brad Lewis threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Porter with 3:15 left that cut the Tech lead to 19-14.

On its possession, Tech set about to running out the clock. But on a second-and-6 from the Tech 38, Stith fumbled, and Sensabaugh recovered for the Mountaineers at the Tech 32. Three plays later, Lewis connected with Khori Ivy for an 18-yard touchdown. The Mountaineers went for two points, but failed.

Yet all of the sudden, they led 22-20 with only 1:15 remaining. And what would transpire over the final 75 seconds would end up going down in Tech lore.

“Before that drive, I was standing there thinking, ‘Just give me a chance,’” Graham said. “I remember Corey Moore [Tech’s All-American defensive end] asking me where we needed to get the ball to, and I told him, ‘If we get it to the [WVU] 40, we’ll win.’”

Unfortunately, a short kickoff return by Stith forced the Hokies to start from their own 15. Vick’s first pass on the drive fell incomplete, but his next two completions got the Hokies to the Tech 38. The next play probably defined Vick’s career.

Looking to pass, he scrambled to his right and took off down the Tech sideline. He made a move on West Virginia linebacker Barrett Green and picked up 26 yards before WVU cornerback Perlo Bastien shoved him out at the West Virginia 36.

“I remember it to this day,” Beamer said. “I thought he [Vick] was going to run out of bounds, and then he hits another gear. It was just unbelievable. It was like a blur going by.”

That put Tech within striking distance. For good measure, Vick found Ricky Hall for a 9-yard gain to the West Virginia 27. The Hokies rushed to the line of scrimmage to stop the clock, and Vick spiked the ball with five seconds remaining, setting up a 44-yard attempt for Graham.

West Virginia coach Don Nehlen called a timeout as Graham lined up to try and ice him. But Graham was a senior – a veteran who had already been an All-Big East kicker for three straight years. Such theatrics did not faze him.

Beamer himself never said a word to Graham during the timeout, preferring to leave him alone.

“I never know what to say to a guy,” Beamer laughed, referring to the situation. “What do you say? ‘This is important. You’ve got to make this.’ I think you let them be by themselves, and if they’re made of the right stuff, they know what to tell themselves.

“I was nervously confident. I knew we had a great kicker. You just worry about the operation and their ability to block it because they’re not worrying about any fakes now. I was as confident as you could be in that situation.”

With 56,000 Mountaineer fans screaming, Graham drilled it perfectly between the uprights as time expired, sending the Tech sideline into delirium. The entire team rushed the field and someone hoisted Graham into the air.

“I just threw my mouthpiece in the air, unbuckled my chinstrap and took off my helmet,” Graham said. “It was just pure exasperation.”

There was no such celebration for Beamer. He looked emotionally exhausted, as he shook hands with Tech police officer Jody Falls, who went on football road trips back then as Beamer’s personal security officer. Beamer walked over to shake hands with Nehlen, arguably his best friend in the coaching profession. For him, there wasn’t a lot of joy in beating a good friend.

“So much happened at the end … I was exhausted by that point,” Beamer said. “And I felt for Don. They played great, and they had been struggling a little bit. You knew that win would be big for him. He’s a guy I really like in this business. He was always the same before a game and after a game, and not every coach is like that.”

Graham’s kick kept alive Tech’s dream of a perfect season. The Hokies also got good news that day when they found out that Minnesota had trumped Penn State, which stood at No. 2 in the BCS rankings. Graham’s kick enabled the Hokies to move from No. 3 to No. 2.

Ultimately, Tech polished off a perfect regular season with victories over Miami, Temple and BC in the regular-season finale. They went 11-0 and received a Sugar Bowl invitation to play Florida State for the national championship.

Still, Graham doesn’t necessarily consider his kick as the biggest play in the history of Virginia Tech football, though many argue for it.

“I would agree to an extent,” Graham said. “But the Vick play set it up. That was just as big, if not bigger.

“I still think Chris Kinzer’s kick to win the Peach Bowl [over N.C. State in 1986] may be the biggest. That was Tech’s first bowl victory. We still had to beat Miami and BC, so I’d still give him the credit.”

Despite a heroic performance by Vick, Tech fell to Seminoles in the title game. Yet the Hokies remained at No. 2 in the final Associated Press poll, a sign of respect from the national media who watched their ascent during the 1999 season. Vick became a legend at Tech because of that season, along with Moore and Graham, who finished his career as the all-time leading scorer at Tech and in the Big East – in addition to making the season-saving kick.

“I still get asked about it a lot,” Graham said. “Any time I see a Virginia Tech fan in a different city, they always ask, ‘Do you remember that kick against West Virginia?’ That’s usually the first thing people say. If they see me in public, they usually refer to that kick.

“And you know what? I’m completely fine with that.”