A Look Back: The 1990 Tech-UVa Game
by Jim Alderson, TSL Extra #9, July 17, 2001
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Recently, a miserable selection of television programming choices, even by Dead Zone standards, sent me rummaging through the farthest reaches of my videotape collection. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a tape I had not viewed in a long time, that of the 1990 Virginia Tech-Virginia football game, a 38-13 Tech victory. Needless to say, it made for great television.
The 1990 season was Frank Beamer’s fourth at Tech. His first two had been spent dealing with the effects of the Dooley probation, and had resulted in a cumulative 5-17 record. His third season, 1989, breathed life back into the program, and a record of 6-4-1 was turned in.
1990 had started with a lot of optimism among Hokies, but a lack of depth brought on by the NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions of the late 80's took its toll. Tech had opened losing 20-13 at Maryland in a game that many Hokies in attendance, including this one, thought would be won right up until the point the Terps hung a late touchdown on the board to snatch the victory.
A lackadaisical 21-7 home win over Bowling Green came next, then a thrilling 24-23 win at East Carolina. Next up at South Carolina, a blown fourth quarter lead, which was to start a pattern for this depth-shy team, cost Tech as the Gamecocks rallied to win 35-24 at Lane Stadium.
Tech then journeyed to Florida State and jumped to a 21-3 early lead, only to see FSU use their superior depth and talent to go ahead 32-28, and a late Tech drive ended with quarterback Will Furrer throwing an interception on the Seminole goal line that was returned for a touchdown and the final 39-28 margin.
A home win over West Virginia preceded yet another blown fourth quarter lead, this one at Temple, where the Owls rallied to win 31-28. Consecutive 20-16 home victories over Southern Miss (which featured Brett Favre at quarterback) and NC State pushed Tech’s record to 5-4, before a late Georgia Tech field goal in game 10 enabled the Yellow Jackets, who would go on to win the MNC, to escape with a 6-3 win.
Tech came into the UVa game 5-5, but had led in every game, and it was not an unrealistic assumption to think that with just a little more depth, the Hokies could have been undefeated. It was to take almost a decade to amass the necessary depth.
For the Hoos, it was the best of times. George Welsh was in his ninth season and had used a concentration on in state recruiting, aided by Tech’s probation and North Carolina's late-80's swoon, to assemble a powerhouse. Virginia had gone 10-3 in 1989, and had on hand for 1990 the best collection of talent George was ever to assemble, including Herman Moore, Terry Kirby, Chris Slade and Heisman candidate Shawn Moore.
They had also scheduled for success. Virginia opened by pounding Kansas 59-10, then got the late Clemson coach Frank Howard’s ‘white meat’ monkey off of their back, beating the Tigers for the first time ever, 20-7. The Hoos cruised through easy wins over Navy (56-14), Duke (59-0) and William and Mary (63-35), before thrashing a good NC State team 31-0. They again trolled along the bottom of the ACC, beating Wake Forest 49-14, and found themselves holding the Number One ranking in the country going into a Scott Stadium clash with also-undefeated Georgia Tech in arguably the biggest ACC football game ever played.
In a wild and exciting game, the Jackets prevailed, 41-38. Number One was history. The Hoos bounced back to beat North Carolina 24-10 before disaster struck at Maryland, where not only were they upset, 35-30, but they also lost Sawn Moore to a thumb injury that would cause him to miss the Tech game.
Virginia stumbled into Lane Stadium with an 8-2 record that Tech would have killed for, and still ranked #17, although they were reeling and the wheels had come off what could have been an outstanding year. They had already received a Sugar Bowl invitation, and anxious scouts from that bowl were on hand in Blacksburg nervously crossing their fingers and hoping they would not suffer the embarrassment of being stuck with an 8-3 team that was in full collapse. Those scouts would do much better with trips to Tech twice in the ensuing decade.
Both Frank Beamer and George Welsh had visited Danville to address the faithful during the previous off-season, and I had been fortunate enough to attend both meetings. George Welsh had been asked during a Q&A where he saw his Virginia program at the end of the next decade, and had responded that he hoped to be competing for a National Championship. Frank Beamer had told Danville-area Tech alumni, "We WILL beat Virginia." Both goals were to be accomplished, and both by Frank.
Frank Beamer’s record against Virginia his first three years was not good. He was 0-3, having lost 14-13 in 1987 when, after a late Tech score, he elected (in those days before overtime) to go for two and the win, an effort that came up short. One-time Tech commitment Herman Moore had been the difference in 1988 as the Hoos won 16-10, and 1989 had seen a donnybrook in Scott Stadium with Virginia bolting to a 24-0 lead, only to see Tech rally behind third-string quarterback Ron Wooten, before Virginia got away with a 32-25 win that cost Beamer a tooth knocked out (by Tech tackle Jimmy Witten, a Danville native who is now S&C coach at East Carolina) during an on-field post-game melee. Tech fans had become accustomed to dominating the Hoos under Bill Dooley, and lusted for a win. As Frank had promised, it was coming.
The game was held, as it was this past year, the Saturday after Thanksgiving. It marked the first time since 1983 the Hokies and Hoos had squared off at the end of the season. Ticket demand had been heavy, resulting in new temporary bleachers appearing in the North end zone, occupied by students foregoing their Thanksgiving holiday. While some (such as me), lamented the loss of what was a fixture in that end of the stadium, a barbecue stand whose enticing aromas wafting around Lane often proved to irresistible to resist (again, by me), the extra seating enabled over fifty-four thousand fans to pack into Lane, at the time the largest crowd to attend a football game in the state. Most would be in for a treat.
There was another first at Lane Stadium that day. ESPN had shown up to televise the game. A love affair has since been established between Tech and the cable network that continues to this day, but you always remember your first time, and that was it. ESPN was there primarily because of the ranked Hoos and their collection of Heisman and All-America candidates; just as a decade later they would televise the very same game due mostly to Tech’s collection of marquee talent.
Tech wasn’t complaining that day, however, as television opportunities for the Hokies were few and hard to come by. That year, only the opening game at Maryland, on the ACC regional network, and the home game against South Carolina, televised on a few cable systems around the state, had showcased Tech on the tube. This would be the first national exposure of Tech since another Tech-Virginia game, this one on a Thanksgiving night in 1982 in a miserably frigid and mostly empty Lane Stadium, had been televised by TBS.
The telecast opened to what has since become a staple of ESPN prime time, a jam-packed and highly enthusiastic Lane Stadium. It was a blustery day in Lane, but the cold and windy conditions did not deter the crowd a bit, as the late-afternoon 4 p.m. kickoff had enabled many fans to engage in what has become another staple of Tech football, the day-long tailgate. It had been put to good use by many. The place was rocking; ESPN sideline reporter Kevin Kiley remarked about the crowd, on the air, "They are loud." Yes we were, and would get louder.
The rosters of both teams were dotted with players who would later spend time in the NFL. Tech boasted running back Vaughn Hebron, quarterback Will Furrer, defensive backs Damien Russell and Tyrone Drakeford, and offensive linemen Eugene Chung and Jim Pyne among its future pros, while Virginia countered with, among others, the Moores, running back Terry Kirby, and lineman Chris Slade.
It was a significant sign of the times that the Hoo stars were from the state of Virginia, and indeed, Kirby had once been the nation’s top recruit. The majority of Tech’s better players were from outside the Old Dominion: Furrer was from the state of Washington, Hebron from Baltimore, Russell from DC, Drakeford from South Carolina, and Pyne from New England, with only Chung a local product, hailing from Northern Virginia. George Welsh dominated in-state recruiting at the time. Frank Beamer was, however, beginning to show what would become a hallmark of his program, recruiting lesser lights and turning them into top-flight players.
The game opened with Virginia receiving the ball. One thing that immediately jumps out at the viewer is that Tech was running the Wide Tackle Six defense, which Beamer had learned under his coach at Tech, Jerry Claiborne. It was primarily designed to stop the run, placing six men on the line of scrimmage, but was vulnerable to a strong passing game, with only three defensive backs. Its primary mission was accomplished, as Virginia, even with Kirby, was to gain only 95 yards on the ground. It left Tech, however, quite vulnerable to the sophisticated passing attacks springing up all over college football at the time, and had been seriously exposed earlier that season by Florida State as the outmoded defense it was. Tech would run that defense for two more seasons, and would continue to struggle against passing teams, until both the defensive scheme and Defensive Coordinator Steve Clark were sent packing after the 1992 season.
Welsh and Virginia Offensive Coordinator Tom O’Brien, now head coach at Boston College, came out looking to establish the run with Kirby, but, after one first down, were stymied and went to the air. Quarterback Matt Blundin, subbing for the injured Shawn Moore, hit receiver Derek Dooley, nephew of former Tech coach Bill, in the hands, but it was dropped -- the first of five dropped Blundin passes, most in critical situations that would plague the Hoos.
Tech took the field on offense, and what becomes quickly noticeable is how small Tech was, along the line and especially at the skill positions, where receivers Marcus Mickel and Bo Campbell, along with running backs Hebron and Tony Kennedy, were all in the 5’8"- 5"9" range. The days of Lee Suggs and Andre Davis were still a ways off. Tech gained very little on its first possession and punted back to Virginia, who was quickly punting back after another Dooley dropped pass. Things then got interesting.
On the first play of Tech’s second possession, Furrer hit Campbell for a forty-nine-yard bomb. It is interesting to note that although Campbell was wide open when he caught the ball, he lacked the speed to out-run the Virginia secondary for the score. Again, the days of Davis were a decade away. Tech scored on a three-yard run by fullback Mark Poindexter and took a 7-0 lead.
Virginia again could not move the ball, and Tech began a drive that stalled at the Hoo 29. Facing a fourth and eleven, Frank Beamer called timeout. It would have been a forty-six-yard field goal effort, but Tech kicker Mickey Thomas was notoriously scattershot from beyond forty yards and, even with a strong wind, would have been dicey.
Beamer sent his offense back onto the field. Everybody, including the Virginia defense, figured Tech would try to gain five yards for the kick by attempting to draw the Hoos offside, which is exactly what I commented at the time. Both the defenders and I were quite surprised when Furrer dropped back and hit a sliding Nick Cullen at the goal line for a touchdown. Tech was up 14-0. The play was poetic; back in 1984, seeking his first victory over Tech after two losses, George Welsh had gambled on a fourth and inches with a long pass completion that enabled Virginia to upset Tech. The tables had been turned.
Thomas did hit a twenty-one yard field goal a third of the way into the second quarter to push Tech’s lead to 17-0, and later Lane Stadium erupted when Furrer, who would have a terrific passing day of 16-23 for 254 yards, 3 touchdowns and 0 interceptions, hit tight end Greg Daniels for a spectacular thirty-three-yard diving touchdown that pushed the lead to 24-0. It seemed the rout was on.
In 1986, Tech had blasted Virginia 42-10 in Dooley’s last Tech-UVa game, a lopsided result that led to players on both teams claiming that the Virginia players simply quit, which in turn led to the famous ‘Hoo Quit Again’ bumper sticker. These Hoos were made of sterner stuff, however, and any thoughts held by Hokies that Virginia would roll over and die evaporated as Virginia put together what would be its only sustained drive of the game. Tech had apparently stopped the drive on a fourth down inside its own ten, but an obliging and terrible defensive holding called by ACC officials that had ESPN analyst Mike Gottfried scratching his head and an enraged Beamer on the field griping, gave the Hoos a fresh first and goal.
Blundin hit Kirby to put Virginia on the board. Confusion then reigned on their sideline, resulting in Welsh burning a timeout trying to decide whether to go for two and pull within two scores. After wasting the timeout, Welsh in the end decided to kick the PAT, which was promptly blocked by Tech’s Bernard Basham (even then Beamer’s Hokies were blocking kicks). The teams went to their locker rooms with Tech ahead 24-6.
Tech did nothing offensively to start the second half. When Virginia got the ball, Herman Moore, who had been held in check by a double-teaming Tech secondary, beat that same double coverage and hauled in a Blundin pass, taking it sixty-six yards for a score. The PAT was good and the Hoos had closed to within 24-13.
The once-jubilant crowd began to stir with a bit of unease as the Tech offense again foundered and the Hoos took back over. Tech had blown leads before that season, including another 24-13 lead on the same field against South Carolina. Momentum was definitely on the side of an excited Virginia team, and they began another drive that made it to the Tech 14. That was where it ended, in what Frank Beamer would tell the Hokie Huddler "might have been the biggest play of the game," as UVa running back Gary Steele fumbled and Tech linebacker Rusty Pendleton recovered.
Hoo momentum had been broken, punctuated by George Welsh throwing his cap to the ground. Tech, which had run only seventeen plays in its three second half possessions against the wind, ran the ball and the third quarter clock, and had the wind at their backs when they punted back to Virginia. While Virginia had used much of their third quarter with the wind running the ball, they now went to the air against it, and Blundin promptly threw a long pass that was picked off by Drakeford near midfield.
The game then became the Vaughn Hebron road show. The punishing ground game that Tech fans have come to expect was on display for the remainder of the game, as Hebron carried the ball on 19 of Tech’s final 26 plays. Hebron, who would gain 142 yards for the day on 31 carries, took on the bulk of the offense, running behind an offensive line that was now pushing the Hoo defenders all over the field. He scored on a nine-yard run and Tech jumped to a 31-13 lead.
The Hoos continued to decline to pack it in and showed fight in driving inside the Tech 30 on their next possession before Blundin threw his third and last interception, also the final in a five-turnover Hoo parade, this one a remarkable grab by defensive lineman Jerome Preston (Blundin was uncharacteristically generous that day; beginning with his last 7 passes in this game, and extending deep into the 1991 season, Blundin would throw 231 straight passes without an interception, an NCAA record). Beamer was letting the air out of the ball and the game until Virginia’s Jason Wallace fumbled a late Tech punt inside the Virginia five. Frank could not resist a little RUTS, and the scoring ended with Furrer hitting Poindexter for the final 38-13 score.
It was very interesting to note that with the game winding down and decided, the ESPN announcers, who had been commenting all game about the difficulties Tech faced as a football independent, began discussing the proposed Big East Football Conference. Miami, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Boston College were all confirmed members, while a graphic labeled ‘Possibilities’ listed Virginia Tech, Louisville, West Virginia, Rutgers, Temple and East Carolina. Tech, of course, made the cut, and over the next decade used that Big East affiliation to take the program to unprecedented and previously unimagined heights.
The game ended with Tech students storming the field, engaging in what has become another familiar end-of-season ritual, the tearing down of the goal posts. It was a very happy Frank Beamer who headed across the field, telling ESPN, "This was a nice one, I’ll tell you that right now." Indeed it was.
While Tech’s year ended at 6-5 with the win, Virginia was not done. They played in the Sugar Bowl, losing a tough 23-22 game to Tennessee. The Virginia program continued winning, going 8-3-1 the next year, losing in the Gator Bowl, and finishing out the decade by winning 7, 7, 9, 9, 7, 7, 9 and 7. Virginia’s dream of becoming a Top Ten program was over, however; the Hoos never again achieved the lofty heights they enjoyed during the 1990 campaign. Welsh’s program instead stagnated around the seven-win level, before slipping to 6-5 in 2000, the year Welsh was prodded into retirement.
Despite the landmark victory, the tribulations of Frank Beamer were not over. What was expected to be a very good 1991 Tech team collapsed under the weight of a demanding schedule that included five straight road games early, and a late-season injury to Furrer, finishing 5-6. The 1992 season was a disaster, as Tech blew six second half leads en route to a miserable 2-8-1 record that almost cost Beamer his job, and did signal the end of the outdated Wide Tackle Six.
New defensive coaches, including Coordinator Phil Elmassian, were brought on board, and, as Big East play began in 1993, Tech exploded onto the scene with a 9-3 record culminating in an Independence Bowl win, Tech’s first bowl trip since Dooley’s 1986 Peach Bowl. Tech has been going to bowl games ever since, including some very big ones, and despite the slight regression in 1997, has generally been getting better ever since.
What began to change the fortunes of both programs following that 1990 game was recruiting. Throughout the 90's, Beamer gradually turned the in-state tide away from Welsh. Where top running back prospect Terry Kirby and defensive one Chris Slade had chosen Virginia, future quality recruits at the same positions, Ken Oxendine and Cornell Brown, chose Tech after bruising recruiting battles, paving the way for current Hokies Lee Suggs and Nathaniel Adibi.
Frank had already bested George for a critical recruit, quarterback Maurice DeShazo, who was completing his red-shirt year in that 1990 game (DeShazo, wearing #14, rode the South end zone goal post after the game as Hokie fans tore it down). Welsh had wanted Maurice to replace Shawn Moore, but instead DeShazo led Tech to bowl games in 1993 and 1994. Many more quality players began choosing Tech. It took a decade, but ten years later, Beamer was dominating state recruiting, and Welsh was out of a job.
Frank Beamer’s problems with George Welsh also did not end that day. Virginia won three of the next four, including a humiliating 38-0 pasting of Tech in 1991 in Scott Stadium and an equally humiliating 42-23 smackdown in Lane Stadium in 1994. It was not until 1995 that Frank began to achieve the upper hand, winning four of the next six. In the ten games played since the 1990 game, each team has won five.
The game was not the rout so many Hokies like to remember these days. Tech scored early, and then late, to compile a 38-13 win that seemed closer during the game, especially when Virginia dominated the middle portion, closing to 24-13 and launching a drive that threatened to make it entirely too interesting. It was an opportunistic Tech team, a phrase that has often been used to describe succeeding Hokie squads, which carried the day. I do suspect that Frank Beamer looks back on it as one of his most satisfying wins, because, while he has now beaten the Hoos six times, that was the first.