There was a lot simmering underneath the surface when third-ranked Virginia Tech arrived in Morgantown for a Wednesday night meeting with West Virginia televised nationally on ESPN.
The two schools had gone through a tumultuous summer that saw the Big East lose its marquee football program Miami to the ACC. Syracuse and Boston College were also ACC targets until Virginia politics stepped in, forcing the University of Virginia to support Virginia Tech’s inclusion instead of Syracuse.
In the meantime, Virginia Tech was party to a lawsuit issued by the remaining Big East football members seeking damages from a potential reduction in television revenue with the loss of three schools. Tech was naturally playing both sides of the fence and when the offer came to join the ACC, the school quickly dropped out of the lawsuit.
To many West Virginians, Tech even being in a position to land an ACC berth was the result of the yearly football series between the two schools played on an annual basis since 1973. It was that relationship with West Virginia that first got the Hokies on the radar screen of the Big East Conference, and once Tech got into the Big East, its program exploded in national prominence and prestige.
“We wouldn’t be on the map if it weren’t for the Big East,” Tech assistant coach Billy Hite said in 2003. “If not for the Big East, we wouldn’t be going to the ACC.”
The players may have been oblivious to a lot of the Big East-ACC undercurrent going on between the two schools, but not West Virginia fans eager to put one on the highly rated Hokies.
Virginia Tech also had a lot to play for after West Virginia went down to Blacksburg and stunned the Hokies, 21-18, late in the 2002 campaign. Tech’s 6-0 record and lofty national rating looked very impressive until you more closely examined its schedule. Blowout wins came against Central Florida, I-AA James Madison, Texas A&M, Connecticut (playing an independent schedule after moving up from I-AA), Rutgers and Syracuse. None of Tech’s longstanding Division I opponents had winning records that season.
West Virginia, meanwhile, was limping along with a 2-4 record although it had played a much more difficult schedule than Tech. Three of West Virginia’s four losses were against Wisconsin, Maryland and Miami – the loss to the Hurricanes on a late field goal.
So while West Virginia’s 28-7 blowout victory over Virginia Tech seemed stunning to almost everyone outside the two programs, it wasn’t that much of a shock to many of the game’s participants.
“It was all about preparation,” said third-year WVU coach Rich Rodriguez. “The defense pitched a shutout. It was a great team effort.”
“We know what we have here, West Virginia knows what we have here,” said defensive back Brian King. “But outside of here nobody knows what we have here.”
Virginia Tech’s lone touchdown came as a result of a gift by the officials. With 2:40 left in the first half and West Virginia leading 14-0, Tech’s Vegas Robinson recovered a Quincy Wilson fumble and raced downfield. West Virginia’s Rayshawn Bolden tackled Robinson from behind and he appeared down as the ball popped loose. Vincent Fuller scooped up the ball and continued on to the end zone for a questionable touchdown.
The fluke points were the only ones Tech scored all night.
Travis Garvin broke the game open with a 93-yard touchdown catch early in the third quarter to make the score 21-7. It was the longest scoring pass in Mountaineer Field history and the second longest ever behind Danny Buggs’ 96-yard TD catch at Penn State in 1973.
Eight minutes later, West Virginia pushed its lead to 28-7 when quarterback Rasheed Marshall scored a 4-yard touchdown. Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, sensing the inevitable, chose to punt twice late in the game and pin West Virginia back instead of going for it and running the risk of losing by a much greater margin.
Hokie cornerback DeAngelo Hall said the 56,000 that showed up for the game made quite an impression.
“The crowd was into it, but we expected that coming in,” he said. “They were yelling a lot of stuff and chanting ‘A-C-C’ all night. But the 56,000 in the stands didn’t beat us. The 66 players on West Virginia beat us. This was a devastating loss for us, but the better team won.”
Virginia Tech center Jake Grove was not so certain West Virginia was the better team – or that the Mountaineer defense, which limited Tech to 211 total yards, was all that special.
“They weren’t the best defense we’ve faced this year, by far,” Grove said. “We just didn’t play well enough tonight to win a football game, no matter who we were playing.”
Quarterback Bryan Randall said the crowd wasn’t a factor as much as it was the play of West Virginia’s nose guards Ben Lynch and Craig Wilson.
“They play a nose guard and we don’t see it that much,” Randall said. “They were really good at anticipating the snap and getting off the ball, and that messed us up.”
And the Tech player assigned to block Lynch and Wilson? That’s right, the guy who wasn’t impressed with West Virginia’s defense – Jake Grove.