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The VT/Clemson rivalry in football has been a strange one. For years and years, the Hokies couldn't break through against the Tigers, at one point losing an unbelievable 16 of 18 games from 1935 to 1989. But since 1998, the Hokies have won three in a row, and the series now stands at 10-17-1, in favor of Clemson.
From 1900 to 1924, the Hokies owned this series, going 5-1-1, but as mentioned above, Clemson schooled Tech for over 50 years, and entering the 1990's, the record stood at 7-17-1.
Clemson was a powerhouse in the 1980's, winning the 1981 national championship. Virginia Tech was building their program under Bill Dooley and was gradually improving, but the Hokies were doing it against a soft schedule that generally featured only one or two tough games per year, usually against WVU and/or Clemson. The Hokies had a habit of playing those tough games competitively but losing them, and their games against Clemson in the 80's certainly fit that bill. Tech went 1-6 against the Tigers in the 80's.
Clemson beat Tech 13-10 in 1980 to run their record to 12-6-1 against VT, and the two teams didn't meet again until 1984, when they played for six years in a row, from 1984-1989. Clemson won five of those six, the sole exception being a big 20-14 win by the Hokies in Death Valley in 1986.
The two teams then broke from each other for almost ten years, finally renewing the rivalry with a two-game set in 1998 and 1999. By then, Tech had risen to national prominence and had the upper hand, whipping Clemson in both games, 37-0 and 31-11.
Finally, the two teams met again in the Gator Bowl after the 2000 season, and in Michael Vick's last game for the Hokies, Tech triumphed easily, 41-20.
The games in the 1990's were good, but the games in the early 1980's bring up powerful memories, so here's a rundown on those early-80's games that will make you appreciate the Clemson/VT rivalry:
Painful Loss #1: In 1980, the 4-0 Hokies went down to Clemson to take on a Tiger team that would win a national championship the following year. Virginia Tech went toe to toe with powerful Clemson, and with 11 minutes remaining, the Hokies were down 13-7 and had a second and goal from the Tiger one-yard line.
In a sequence etched in Hokie fans' memories, the Clemson crowd of 64,558 raised such a din that the signals from Hokie QB Steve Casey couldn't be heard by the Tech offense. Five times over the course of two plays, Casey backed off the line and appealed to the refs, who of course couldn't do anything about the noise. Twice Casey tried QB sneaks, and twice he was stopped.
On fourth and goal, Casey again backed off the line, and the officials whistled him for illegal procedure. Now facing fourth and goal from outside the five-yard line, the Hokies settled for a field goal to make it 13-10, and neither team scored again.
Painful Loss #2: In 1984, a 7-2 Virginia Tech team that was driving towards a bowl bid traveled down to Death Valley to tangle with 6-2 Clemson. It was a matchup of two Lombardi Trophy candidates, Tech's Bruce Smith, leader of the nation's #1 rushing defense, against Clemson's 320-pound nose guard, William "The Refrigerator" Perry.
The Hokies led 10-7 at half time on the strength of an awesome 15-play, 96-yard touchdown drive. The score could have been worse for Clemson, but the Hokies missed two field goals, and facing a third and goal from the Clemson two-yard line, QB Mark Cox slipped, and VT had to settle for a field goal. Clemson had just three first downs in the first half, while VT uncharacteristically mixed the pass with the run.
Tech continued to dominate play in the third quarter, until Clemson drove into field goal range and kicked a 49-yarder to tie it at 10. But wait, VT was whistled for roughing the kicker, and the Tigers took the points off the board. Two plays later, Clemson fooled the Hokies with a 17-yard end-around that made it 14-10, Clemson.
That took the air out of the Hokies, and Clemson later added a field goal for the final 17-10 margin. Tech had held the Clemson offense, which averaged 412 yards a game, to just 220 yards, but the Hokies came up short, allowing Clemson to extend a 28-game home winning streak. The Hokies outgained Clemson 336-220, including an unheard-of 257 yards through the air, and had 20 first downs to just 8 for the Tigers.
"We should be 10-0, but we're 7-3," Cox vented after the game. The Hokies had lost to WVU 14-7 and Virginia 26-23. Tech later did get a bowl invitation, to the Independence Bowl, but if they had beaten Clemson, a much better bid would have been in line.
Painful Loss #3: The 1985 Hokies started out with losses to Cincinnati and Richmond, and at 0-2 faced Clemson in Lane Stadium. Tech again stood their ground and gave the Tigers all they could handle, and again made critical mistakes that cost them the game. Leading 7-0 late in the first half, Tech threw an interception that allowed Clemson to kick a field goal to make it 7-3 before half time.
Tech stretched the lead to 10-3 in the third quarter, but a series of mistakes and miscues doomed them. Eddie Hunter fumbled on the VT 45, and Clemson turned it into a TD that tied it at 10. Then with 8:14 left in the game, Clemson QB Randy Anderson dropped back on 3rd and 8. Tech safety Noland Hazzard blitzed and hit Anderson untouched, but Anderson incredibly bounced off, spun away ... and hit Ray Williams with a 46-yard TD pass. 17-10, Tigers.
Clemson coughed up a fumble on their 17 that allowed Tech to tie the ballgame at 17, and after holding the Tigers, VT drove deep into Clemson territory. But with 2:39 to go, Tech's Tom Taricani missed a 33-yard field goal.
You know what's coming next.
The Tigers lucked into a 41-yard pass play that moved the ball to the Tech 23 yard line with just 1:13 to go, but the angry Tech defense (angry because they had blown an assignment on the 41-yarder) stiffened over the next three plays and pushed Clemson back to the 24-yard line, forcing a field goal try.
David Treadwell came on for the 41-yarder and booted it straight down the middle, but the ball fluttered and came up short. It looked like the Hokies had battled the Tigers to a tie ... but Tech was flagged for roughing the kicker.
The ball was moved up to the 19, and Treadwell tried a 36-yarder. Again, he kicked it straight, and again it was weak ... but this time, it just barely cleared the crossbar, and Clemson won 20-17 as time expired.
Breakthrough Win: Seemingly cursed against the Tigers, a 1986 Hokie team that was 0-1 after a crushing home loss to Cincinnati trudged down to Death Valley again to meet Clemson.
This game is famous for two reasons: (1) Tech won, 20-14, catapulting them to a strong season that would end in a Peach Bowl victory; and (2) as the Tigers gathered at the top of the hill in their end zone for their famous entry into the stadium, the Hokies stood on the sidelines and beckoned them to come on down the hill.
The taunt was led by Tech's Morgan Roane, who said, "I just wanted to get on with the game. We were ready to play, and I didn't feel like waiting around all day for them to make some grand entrance."
The confident Hokies blocked a punt for a touchdown in the first quarter and never trailed. They gave up 346 yards to the Tigers, but in the most important stat of the game, Tech had zero turnovers. Clemson, meanwhile, lost two fumbles.
Another bugaboo, the missed field goal, was not a factor for the Hokies in this game. Chris Kinzer, who had missed two against Cincinnati the week before in a 24-20 loss, went 2-for-2 against Clemson, the beginning of a streak of 17 straight FG's on his way to a 22-for-27 year.
Tech's hotshot new quarterback, Erik Chapman, completed 13-of-23 passes for 242 yards, including a 50-yard bomb to Donald Wayne Snell that set up a fourth quarter field goal by Kinzer to make it 20-14.
The win ended 30 years of frustration for the Hokies, who had lost to Clemson nine straight times from 1955 to 1985.
Later On: In the next three seasons, the Tigers took their frustration over losing the 1986 game out on the Hokies. Dooley left after the 1986 season, and Frank Beamer took over. His very first game as VT head coach was a 22-10 home loss to the Tigers, and in 1988 and 1989, Clemson shellacked the Hokies by scores of 40-7 and 27-7.
The two teams then stopped playing, and they wouldn't meet again until 1998. That game provided one of Tech's most memorable wins ever, as a Hokie team that had limped to the finish line in 1997 went down to Death Valley in the second game of the 1998 season and hammered Clemson 37-0, the Tigers' worst home loss in 22 years. Tech led 31-0 at half time, as Corey Moore and John Engelberger spent the afternoon in Clemson's backfield, getting acquainted with QB Brandon Streeter.
1999 was more of the same. Clemson put up a bit of a fight before a Corey Moore outburst, in what was the showcase game of his career, led to two late TDs by Tech in a 31-11 win. Moore scored one TD himself by sacking Streeter, stripping him of the ball, recovering the fumble, and running it in for a TD. He later forced Streeter into a bad throw that Ike Charlton picked off and ran in for a score.
And of course, there was the 2000 Gator Bowl, a 41-20 Tech win. The Hokies should have been in a BCS bowl that year, and it was no contest against a Clemson team wasn't up to snuff. That game was bittersweet for Tech, because it was the last one for Michael Vick in a Hokie uniform. And with Tech finishing 11-1 it was the end of a dominating era in Hokie football.
Last week, I ranked the Clemson rivalry as my fourth-favorite ACC rivalry, but after reviewing those painful losses of the 1980's, I may be inclined to move the Tigers up the list. I still vividly remember Steve Casey backing off the line repeatedly in that 1980 game, and I still remember agonizing in my dorm room when the Tigers ran that 17-yard end-around in for a score in 1984. (I knew, in perfectly fatal Hokie fashion, that Tech was going to lose.)
For those of us who lived through those early 80's games, the thought of a matchup with Clemson brings back strong, sometimes bitter memories, not just memories of the three-game winning streak Tech now currently enjoys. For years, Hokie fans were jealous of Clemson and wanted to be Clemson. That feeling of aspiring to be like the Tigers goes way back.
Unfortunately, the Hokies aren't slated to play the Tigers in the
next two football seasons in the expanded ACC, but when the series resumes, it should be a good one. There's a kinship
between many Hokie fans and the Tigers, because they're just like Tech in many ways: a football-crazy school "out
in the middle of nowhere."
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