Virginia Tech’s Sugar Bowl appearance next month returns the program to the site of its greatest postseason moment. Indeed, New Year’s Eve 1995 in New Orleans marks the Hokies’ ascension to a national prominence they’ve yet to relinquish.
Never before had Virginia Tech finished among the nation’s top 10 or played in a major bowl. Never before had the Hokies defeated a top-10 opponent in postseason.
Until that night in the Superdome.
On the opposite sideline stood Texas, champion of the soon-to-shutter Southwest Conference. This was not a vintage Longhorns outfit, but it did include future Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams and was ranked ninth by the Associated Press.
Oh, and coach John Mackovic’s team also included an impostor – more on him later.
Frank Beamer’s squad, meanwhile, had rebounded from an 0-2 start to win nine consecutive games and Tech’s first Big East title. With that championship came access to the Sugar Bowl, priceless for a program heretofore relegated to the Sun, Liberty, Peach, Independence or Gator.
You probably recall the names. Quarterback Jim Druckenmiller, running back Dwayne Thomas and receiver Bryan Still. Defensive tackle J.C. Price, defensive end Cornell Brown and rover Torrian Gray, the latter two now Hokies assistant coaches.
In overcoming those early defeats to Boston College and Cincinnati, Tech had conquered three ranked teams in a season for the first time: Miami, Syracuse and Virginia. The Hokies were ranked 13th themselves and were only 2-point underdogs.
On the eve of kickoff, news broke that Texas reserve defensive back Ron McKelvey was, in fact, Ron Weaver, a 30-year-old former California junior college player who had lied his way onto the team in order to write a book.
When a California newspaper hipped Texas officials to Weaver’s identity, they went to his room in the team hotel, only to find he’d beaten the posse out of town.
The following May, Weaver pleaded guilty in a California federal court to misusing a Social Security number. He did not serve any jail time, and the NCAA cleared Texas of any wrongdoing.
Here's a detailed Sports Illustrated account of Weaver's scam.
The game itself had far less intrigue. Druckenmiller threw for 266 yards, and Still scored touchdowns on a 52-yard pass and 60-yard punt return as the Hokies rolled 28-10.
``When I found out we were going to the Sugar Bowl, I had dreams about making big plays,” Still said after the game, ``and today they came true. All that talk we didn't belong, I think today we showed we belong with the big names in college football.”
True to Tech’s time-honored MO, the story was defense.
The nation’s top-ranked rushing defense during the regular season, Tech limited Texas to 78 yards on the ground, well below the Longhorns’ average of 207, and did not allow a third-down conversion until the third quarter. Gray had two interceptions, Brown three sacks as the Hokies smothered quarterback James Brown, the Southwest Conference’s offensive player of the year.
Brown completed only 14-of-36 passes, threw three picks and rushed for minus-43 yards.
``We played a great overall game defensively against a great offense,” Beamer said.
Fittingly, the defense produced the game’s final points as tackle Jim Baron returned Brown’s fumble 20 yards. It was Tech’s seventh defensive touchdown, all in the season’s final six games.
The Hokies finished 10th in the AP poll, the first of their seven top-10 seasons under Beamer. And just in case folks considered them one-hit wonders, they repeated as Big East champions in 1996 and went to the Orange Bowl, only to lose to defending national champ Nebraska.
This season’s Sugar Bowl, Jan. 3 against Michigan, marks Tech’s eighth major postseason appearance (four Orange, four Sugar) in 17 years. Since the BCS’ 1998 advent, the Hokies have qualified six times. Only Ohio State (nine), Oklahoma (eight) and Southern California (seven) boast more.
``We've been working to get this program to the top of the college football world,'' Beamer said 16 years ago in New Orleans. ``I think we took another step tonight. I think this is the greatest win in Tech history. We've got our eye on some more here in the future, too.''
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