The Top Ten Plays in Virginia Tech History
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 6/30/97

This is one man's humble opinion as to what constitutes the top 10 plays in the history of Virginia Tech sports.

One of the more interesting things I discovered about Tech sports as I was writing this piece is that there are a lot of great moments in Tech sports history. Also interesting is that out of the top 10 moments, 7 have occurred in the last four years. You could blame that on my relative youth (I’m only 32 years old), but I truly believe that the last four years of Tech sports have given Tech fans more to cheer about than ever before.

You’ll note that all of the top 10 are from football and men’s basketball (although one baseball play, which I’ll mention soon, was a serious candidate). This is to be expected, because one of the criteria for making the Top 10 was the sheer magnitude of the play in the cosmic scheme of things, and since men’s basketball and football are the marquee, high-exposure sports, it’s difficult for anything else – such as a last-second shot by a women’s basketball player that was seen by maybe 500 people in attendance – to make the list.

I did not have a scientific measurement and selection criteria that I used to make up this list, so I won’t bore you with the details of how I came up with it. Let’s just say that I winged this, and it is heavily filtered through my own likes, dislikes, and experiences. For the record, I was in attendance – actually there -- for six of these plays, I witnessed two others live on TV, and I have only seen the other two on film – old film.

Also for the record, here are the plays I considered that didn’t make the Top 10 list, in no particular order:

  • Chris Kinzer’s last-second, 50-yard field goal to beat Kentucky, 1986.
  • Wayne Latimer’s 61-yard field goal against Florida State, 1975.
  • Ace’s Custis’s buzzer-beater that defeated George Washington, 1997.
  • Torrian Gray running down Tiki Barber in the open field, 1996.
  • Torrian Gray’s interception for a TD against Boston College, 1994.
  • Either one of Ashley Lee’s interception returns against Vanderbilt (94 and 88 yards), 1983.
  • Matt Reynold’s ninth-inning homer to defeat USC in the NCAA baseball tourney, 1997.

Now let’s get to the fun stuff. In reverse order, here are the Top 10 Greatest Plays in Virginia Tech Sports History, in my opinion (a David-Letterman drum roll, please)…..

#10: Henson’s Heave
Les Henson makes an 89’3" shot to defeat Florida State, Jan. 21, 1980

This play makes the top 10 for two reasons: number one, it was just flat-out an incredible play. Number two, Tech got some serious mileage out of it.

To give you some idea of how far 89 feet, 3 inches is, Henson was standing a whopping 9 inches inside the baseline when he turned and heaved the shot. It was against FSU, and the Seminoles had just missed a free throw or a shot that would have broken a 77-77 tie. Henson tracked the ball down, turned, and winged it, and nearly 90 feet later, it swished through at the buzzer. The Hokies won, 79-77.

As for getting "mileage" out of it, nearly ten years later, at the end of the 1980’s, that play was shown over and over as the sports networks (ESPN, et al) ran their "Plays of the Decade" features. Sadly, I saw one feature incorrectly identify Henson as a Florida State player (typical), but most of them got it right.

Trivia: legend has it that Henson threw the ball opposite-handed. I believe he normally shot as a lefty, but he threw the ball in right-handed, if my sometimes-unreliable memory serves me correctly.

More trivia: the shot was recorded at the time as the longest in basketball history. How could it not be? He was barely inside the baseline on the opposite end.

But I was in Parkersburg, West Virginia, in 1985, when I heard the news: a Marshall University player by the name of Bruce Morris had broken the record by making a shot from 89 feet, 10 inches. I watched the news that night, and when I saw a tape of Morris’s shot, I went nuts. No way could he have broken Henson’s record! Morris was at least three feet inside the baseline when he shot the ball, whereas Henson had almost been standing out of bounds!

The secret? Morris was playing on a 94-foot court. Henson’s heave occurred on a 90-foot court.

In my opinion, Morris’s record should have an asterisk beside it. But no matter. Hokies everywhere remember "Henson’s Heave," and it lands at #10 in our list.

#9: Banks Makes a Geek of UVa’s Trainer
Antonio Banks returns an interception for a touchdown against UVa, November, 1995

The damage to UVa had already been done. They had already lost on the now-legendary Druckenmiller-to-Holmes TD pass that erased the last vestiges of a 29-14 UVa lead and broke the Wahoos back. But give the Cavs credit. They sputtered and coughed back down the field, and with 6 seconds to go, they had one play left in Tech territory and no time outs. The score was Tech 30, Virginia 29.

I turned to my girlfriend (and future wife) and said, "Down and out. They’re going to throw a quick down and out, pick up a few more yards, and try to kick the field goal."

Down on the field, Tech cornerback Antonio Banks was thinking to himself, "Down and out. They’re going to throw a quick down and out, pick up a few more yards, and try to kick the field goal."

The only other alternative was for UVa to go for it all with a pass to the end zone, but it turns out that Banks and I were both right. Whereas Jim Druckenmiller had the presence of mind to pump-fake to set up his TD to Holmes, Virginia’s Mike Groh didn’t have time on his side, so he took the snap and immediately turned to the sideline.

Banks broke on the ball, and Groh hit him in the numbers.

Generally, what occurs in this scenario is that the defensive back runs around in loopy circles until the clock expires, and then he takes one knee and the celebration begins. But what Banks did next, and what UVa trainer Joe Gieck did next, places this play at #9 in our list.

With all that green grass in front of him, Banks just kept on going, looking to rub the game in UVa’s collective face. He never broke stride, and even Tiki Barber, who has great speed, would not be able to block his path to the end zone and the Hokie fans who awaited him there.

The sheer joy of this play, however, is in watching the tape that clearly shows UVa’s trainer, Joe Gieck, taking two steps towards the field and sticking out his leg in frustration and disappointment, half-heartedly trying to trip Banks as he flew by. CNN Headline Sports ran the clip over and over, every half hour, for the rest of the day. Hokies howled, Hoos cringed, and this play went down in history, coming in at #9 in our countdown.

#8: Travis Punches Tech’s Ticket to the Garden
Travis Jackson hits a buzzer-beater to defeat New Mexico State, 1995 NIT quarterfinals

Imagine ten thousand people erupting at the exact same instant, within the confines of one of the best college basketball venues in the country. Imagine fans flooding the court and cheering a no-name basketball team that had just been run out of its own conference (the Metro) in a back-door meeting, on to New York and NIT final four glory. That was the scene at Cassell Coliseum in March of 1995, as Tech defeated a talented New Mexico State team in the NIT quarterfinals.

It was a Wednesday night, and what is not remembered about that game is that the NIT committee did the Hokies a huge favor that week. Tech stomped Providence on the road the previous Monday and returned right away to Blacksburg, where they snuggled into their beds shortly after midnight.

At about the same time, out in the western U.S., New Mexico State was starting their quarterfinal game with UTEP. The Aggies pulled out the win, but they had to go into overtime to do it, and by the time the game wrapped up, it was well past midnight in the West, and into the wee hours of the morning in Blacksburg.

The NIT called New Mexico State and said "Congratulations. Get on a plane and fly to Roanoke. You’ve got a game with Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Wednesday night."

While the Hokies slept well and rested up, the Aggies grabbed a few hours sleep and boarded a plane for Roanoke Tuesday morning. By Wednesday night, it was a confused, jet-lagged New Mexico State team that dragged themselves into a jam-packed, electrified Cassell Coliseum for an ESPN-televised game that would send one team to Madison Square Garden.

I remember watching the Aggies and thinking "Man, they’re quick!" But their situation had caught up with them, and the Hokies, who were rolling, took advantage of New Mexico State’s weariness and opened a huge 19-point lead early in the second half.

New Mexico State got their act together and clawed their way back into it, and as Hokie fans grew more and more nervous, the gap closed. Finally, with 13 seconds left to go, the Aggies hit a layup that completed the comeback and tied the game at 61. I remember looking at the clock as Tech inbounded the ball (without calling a timeout to set up a play, I might add) and thinking to myself, "If we don’t win this here, we’re screwed. They’ve got the momentum, and they’ll beat us in overtime."

Much to the consternation of the huge gathering, Shawn Good walked the ball casually up court. By the time he crossed the midcourt line, the clock was down well below ten seconds, and when Good threw the ball to Ace Custis at the three-point line, there were five seconds on the clock.

Ace was open. "Shoot it!" everybody screamed. The three-pointer wasn’t Ace’s strong suit, but hey - he was open!

When Ace declined the shot and instead turned and threw the ball to Travis Jackson, the pitch of the screams from the Hokie fans went up in intensity. It didn’t seem as if anyone wearing the orange and maroon wanted to win the ballgame.

Travis had no choice. He was as open as Ace had been, and he turned and launched a three-pointer, shooting with confidence and without hesitation.

Game films show the crowd erupting spontaneously as the ball swishes through the net for a 64-61 victory, and given that I was there, I can testify that the reaction from the crowd was just as much shock as it was joy. After watching New Mexico State come back from the grave, I don’t think there were more than 100 people among the 10,000 in attendance who actually expected Travis’s shot to go through. Up to that point, it seemed that Tech had once again snatched defeat from the jaws of certain victory, but Travis’s shot erased all of that.

From that point on, I knew that team was a team of destiny. I knew they were going to win the whole thing.

#7: Banks Declares Tech’s Independence
Antonio Banks returns a blocked field goal 80 yards for a TD, 1993 Independence Bowl

For most of 1993, Virginia Tech had been a solid football team, but with the exception of the Virginia game at the end of the year, the Hokies had not been able to beat a good team in an important situation. Tech wasn’t able to threaten the Miami Hurricanes in game 3 (a 21-2 loss in Miami), and with a chance to break into the Top 25 two games later, the Hokies had dropped a heartbreaking 14-13 loss to WVU, missing a field goal at the end that would have won it. In game 9, when Tech once again came up against a good team, the Hokies were manhandled by Glenn Foley and Boston College, 48-34.

Tech recuperated just in time to beat Syracuse and Virginia. The Hokies cracked the Top 25 and earned a bid to the Independence Bowl, but still the question remained: at 8-3, how good were these guys? The 1986 Peach Bowl victory had been the capper to a miracle season. Could the Hokies win another bowl, the first one they had even been to in 7 years?

In retrospect, after four bowls in a row and a Sugar Bowl victory, the answer is obvious. But at the time, it was a good question, one that was worth asking as the Hokies lined up against Indiana of the Big 10. The Hokies answered the question late in the first half.

With 24 seconds to go in the half, Tech’s Lawrence Lewis scooped up an Indiana fumble and rumbled in for a TD, stretching Tech’s tenuous 14-13 lead out to 21-13.

Indiana took the ensuing kickoff and stormed down the field, but the Hoosiers appeared to let the clock run out on a pass play that failed to get out of bounds. Much to the dismay of Frank Beamer, the Tech players, and the Hokie faithful, the refs put one second back on the expired game clock, and the Hoosiers lined up for a field goal of about 40 yards, with a chance to cut the lead to 5.

They should have just gone into the locker room.

A Tech lineman got a hand on the Indiana kicker’s long attempt, and the wounded kick fluttered downfield, falling into the hands of Tech’s Antonio Banks, who tracked it down at the Tech 20 yard line and caught it over his shoulder.

Tentatively, Banks started out to his right, and, spying an opening and a squadron of fellow Hokies on the other side of the field, he reversed himself and cut over to the left sideline. 80 yards later, the score was 28-13, Tech. Indiana was demoralized, and the second half was just a formality. The Hokies had their second bowl victory in a row, and suddenly, the boys in Blacksburg started to think of themselves as winners. It’s a mindset that lives on to this day.

#6: Keion Demystifies the Orange Bowl
Keion Carpenter returns an interception 100 yards for a touchdown against Miami, November 16, 1996

Sure, the Hokies had knocked off the Canes in a dominating performance at Lane Stadium the year before. But the Orange Bowl continued to be Tech’s personal chamber of horrors, and the Hokies still had a lot to prove to the Canes.

Beating a team once at your place is one thing, but beating them a second time in a row, this one at their house, says that you have arrived. For most of the game, the Canes and Hokies had battled back and forth in classic fashion, the two teams trading blows like punch-drunk fighters. Behind the heroic play of Jim Druckenmiller and the Tech defense, the Hokies had built a 14-7 lead, and late in the game, the Canes charged down field with an eye towards evening the score.

In my game report, I wrote that I wasn’t nervous as the Miami Hurricanes approached Tech’s goal line. I was convinced that Tech was going to win, even though the Hokies were without the services of future NFL draft pick Antonio Banks, who had suffered an injury against East Carolina the week before. As Miami brought the ball inside Tech’s 20, I waited to see how the Hokies would pull this one out.

My confidence was bolstered as Miami’s Tony Gaiter dropped a sure touchdown pass on the Hokie two-yard line. One play later, the Canes ran a slant pass to the end zone, and the Hokie defenders were waiting on it. Little-used safety Keion Carpenter, who had always been known as a special teams hero and kick-blocker extraordinaire, broke in front of the receiver, and cut the ball off perfectly.

In the past, in the "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory days," Carpenter would have dropped the easy interception, and the Canes would have scored on the next play. But Keion picked the ball off smoothly and started downfield, nothing but green Orange Bowl grass in front of him.

In one of the more storied stadiums in college football history, Keion Carpenter wrote a page of Virginia Tech history. The best plays are game-winners, and when Carpenter crossed the Miami goal line 100 yards later, the score was 20-7 (later bolstered to 21-7 by the extra point), and the game was in the bag.

Truly classic plays, however, have a twist, such as Gieck trying to trip Banks, or Henson making his full-court shot opposite-handed. Carpenter’s return also had a twist, as TV replays clearly show Tech’s All-American defensive end Cornell Brown not just holding on the play, but absolutely body-slamming a would-be Miami tackler. With Carpenter still 30 yards shy of paydirt, Cornell simply reached out from behind the Miami player, hooked his shoulder pads, and dragged him to the turf. Somehow, the referees missed it, and Keion’s touchdown stood.

A classic play all-around, and good enough for #6 on our list.

#5: Bryan Still and the Taste of Sugar
Bryan Still returns a punt 60 yards for a TD against Texas, 1995 Sugar Bowl

Despite the successes of 1993, 1994, and 1995, a case can be made that Virginia Tech’s collective ego was still a bit fragile. Sure, they had proven they could run with the big dogs in the Big East by knocking off Miami, Syracuse, West Virginia and Boston College at least once each in that three-year stretch, and Tech certainly seemed to have put themselves back on equal footing with Virginia, having won two of the last three.

But in the glare of the Superdome lights, facing the tradition- and talent-laden Texas Longhorns, and with the nation scoffing at the Hokies and saying that they didn’t deserve an Alliance Bowl bid, would Tech fold up and prove everyone right? Or would they rise to the occasion and scale heights undreamed of in previous seasons?

For most of the first half, Tech took punches from the Longhorns without collapsing, but the Hokies had been unable to punch back. The Tech defense had stiffened after a shaky start, but the offense was unable to get on track, and the Longhorns were one play away from blowing open a 10-0 lead and turning it into a route.

Or, depending upon how you think, Tech was one play away from getting back into the ball game.

With less than three minutes to go in the first half, Texas lined up to punt, and Bryan Still awaited the kick at the Tech 35 yard line. The Hokie coaching staff proved its mettle by faking a block attempt and falling back into coverage, which confused the Texas punt team, resulting in botched coverage.

Still caught the short, low punt on the run at the Tech 40 yard line and broke quickly to one side through a gaping hole. He accelerated to the right sideline, where it seemed as if the Partridge Family bus could have driven untouched into the end zone. With Bill Roth in the booth shouting, "Bryan Still – will – score! TOUCHDOWN TECH!" the Hokie receiver erased most of Texas’s ten-point lead and put Tech back into the game.

To continue the boxing analogy, with that one play, the Hokies came off the ropes. Bloodied yes, and still behind, but grinning and swinging. The rest is Sugar Bowl – and Hokie - history.

#4: 7/10 of a Second
Shawn Smith’s two free throws win the 1995 NIT

This was a case of another Hokie team of destiny. From the moment Travis Jackson’s three-pointer against New Mexico State found net in the quarterfinals, no other team in the NIT’s Final Four had a chance of winning it. Tech dispatched Canisius in the semi-finals in workmanlike, undramatic fashion. The Hokies moved on to the finals, where they met a Marquette team that had already tasted defeat at Tech’s hands earlier in the season.

Earlier in the season, Tech had downed Marquette on the road, 57-54, in a strange game that saw the Warriors (or were they the Golden Eagles by then?) come out and play an atrocious first half and fall so far behind that a comeback was impossible. During that first half, Marquette players yelled at each other and even at the coaches as they bricked shots, walked, threw the ball away, and generally floundered their way to a first half deficit from which they couldn’t recover.

So when the two teams met again in the NIT finals, Marquette had a score to settle. Ordinarily, I would give the advantage in a situation like that to Marquette, but these Hokies were on a collision course with destiny, and despite Marquette’s best efforts, there was no way Tech would be denied.

Bolstered by a late Myron Guillory three-pointer that closed the gap to one point, the Hokies survived a last-second attempt in regulation by Marquette that went awry, and the game went into overtime. With the Hokies down one, and the clock winding down, Shawn Smith pump-faked and took it up in the paint, where he was clearly fouled by a Marquette big man. The NIT refs had the guts to call the foul, and with 0.7 seconds left to go, Smith went to the line for two shots.

Marquette called a timeout to try to ice him, but it was pointless. Smitty smoothly sank both free throws, and the Hokies had their first NIT championship in 22 years. Back in Blacksburg, the fans poured out into the streets in celebration, and any play that causes a spontaneous street party is certainly good enough for #4 on our list.

#3: The Kick
Chris Kinzer’s 40-yard field goal wins the 1986 Peach Bowl

By now, the picture is famous.

Not the picture of the actual kick, but the picture that was taken of Chris Kinzer during the N.C. State timeout that preceded The Kick. It shows The Iceman, Chris Kinzer, calmly resting on one knee on the football field, helmet off and looking bored, as if he was waiting for a bus, not his place in Hokie football history, to arrive.

Game winning kicks were already old hat with Kinzer this season. Had N.C. State coach Dick Sheridan taken the time to ask any of the Hokie faithful, we could have told him that a timeout was wasted in this situation. Call one timeout, call thirty, but when the ball was finally teed up, it was going through. As a matter of fact, it was going to go so straight through the uprights that you could have measured how far off-center the kick was with a six-inch ruler ... if it was off-center at all.

To this point, the 1986 Peach Bowl had been a classic roller-coaster ride for fans of both teams. The twists and turns and big plays this game had seen were enough to last a whole season, and with four seconds left to go, N.C. State led 24-22, but the Hokies were well within Kinzer’s range at 40 yards out. With 17,000 Hokie fans on one side of the stadium, hungry for their first bowl victory ever, and 20,000 N.C. State fans on the other side of the stadium, it was guaranteed that the two sides of victory and defeat were about to be well-represented.

The Wolfpack almost blocked The Kick. They came hard around the corners and gave it their best shot, but Kinzer got it off, and it was straight and true. I watched from my seat in the end zone at the opposite end of the field as The Kick went through, and I remember thinking that it would have been good from 50-55 yards out.

Bedlam ensued, and like all great plays, as I said before, this one had an additional twist.

Kinzer had nailed a game-winning kick against Kentucky earlier in the year and had made the mistake of allowing the Tech team to pile on top of him in the ensuing celebration. He would later say that he couldn’t breath in the pileup, and it had scared the hell out of him. So this time, after the game-winning kick went through, Kinzer ran like the wind, away from teammates and fans who chased him in glee.

Kinzer’s sprint took him over to the N.C. State sideline, where he had a debt to repay. According to Kinzer, the Wolfpack players had been taunting him the whole game and had even roughed him once or twice, and he wanted to make sure that every one of them had seen The Kick go through. He ran down the State sideline, mocking the Wolfpack players and pointing at them, and at the end of his run, he used the wrong finger to indicate that the Hokies were number one. The TV cameras captured Kinzer’s Kodak moment, and a rivalry that would last a few more seasons was born.

#2: The Shot
Bobby Stevens hits a buzzer-beater in overtime to win the 1973 NIT

This was back when the NIT still mattered, back when it was more than just a tournament for 65th place, and back when the entire tournament was played at New Yorkís Madison Square Garden.

In 1973, the NCAA field was much smaller, and only the winners of conference tournaments attended. This meant that in powerhouse conferences like the ACC, the Big 10, and the PAC 10, some very excellent second place (and third, and fourth, and maybe even fifth place) teams were relegated to the NIT. So when the 1973 Hokies stormed to the NIT title, it was indeed a remarkable feat.

That Tech team featured future NBA player, coach, and general manager Allen Bristow, but he would not be the hero in the championship game. He had carried Tech the entire season, at one point setting a Virginia Tech single-game scoring record of 52 points that still stands, but when the NIT championship game was on the line in the waning seconds, someone else came through for the Hokies.

The Hokies won their four NIT games by a total of five points that year, and the championship game was typical of how things went in that tournament for this Tech team. Tech battled Notre Dame into overtime, and with the clock winding down, the Hokies had possession of the ball, down 91-90.

I was too young to know what was going on or to pay attention, but Iíve seen film of the shot that Bobby Stevens made. A Tech player (it may have even been Stevens) missed a shot with about five seconds left to go, and Stevens tracked the long rebound down out on the right wing, close to what is now three-point territory. Stevens heaved a desperation rainbow that seemed to stay in the air forever, and when it came down, it found nothing but net, and the Hokies had won the 1973 NIT title in miracle fashion.

This was back when the NIT featured some of the finest teams in college ball, and Techís improbable run to the title took place on a national stage and was truly a remarkable accomplishment. For those reasons, Stevensí rainmaker lands at #2 on our list.

#1: Druck to Holmes
Jim Druckenmiller hits Jermaine Holmes for a 32-yard TD that breaks UVaís back, November, 1995

"The ball is on the 32-yard line, Druckenmiller the shotgun snap Ö fakes short, firing it deep, into the end zone Ö it is Ö caught! It is caught for a touchdown by Jermaine Holmes, with 47 seconds left! Jim Druckenmiller has engineered the greatest comeback Iíve ever seen!"

If youíre a Hokie fan, you donít even need to hear Bill Rothís call of this play Ė simply reading it sends chills through your body.

In the larger context, the 1995 victory over UVa was "just" a regular season game, one of nine that the Hokies won that year. The victories over Miami and Syracuse were certainly just as important, because without them, Tech would not have won the Big East championship and gone to the Sugar Bowl. The Miami and SU victories were dominated from beginning to end by Tech, and they took place in Lane Stadium, in front of raucous Hokie crowds.

But thereís something about beating UVa in Charlottesville Ö

Tech was dead in the water, being dominated by a talented Virginia team that was on a roll. Even when UVa starting QB Mike Groh was out for a series with an injury, little-used backup Tim Sherman, who would prove to be inept as a starter the following year, came in and marched the Hoos downfield for an easy touchdown against an excellent Hokie defense.

Early in the third quarter, UVa took a 29-14 lead, and in the stands, the partying began. Hokie fans mulled over whether or not they were going to leave the stadium if UVa scored again, and the Hoo faithful loaded up on rum and coke and prepared to sing The Good Ole Song a few more times.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the blowout. UVa forgot to keep playing.

The Hokie defense stiffened, and even the return of Mike Groh couldnít get the Cavalier offense on track. The third quarter ended with UVa still up 29-14, and although the Wahoo fans were still rocking and rolling, the Hokies had a glimmer of hope.

The Cavaliers committed a series of costly miscues and conservative play calls that put Tech into position to win. UVa flubbed a punt snap and later lined up too deep on a field goal and had to waste a timeout. The normally steady UVa kicker, Rafael Garcia, missed the field goal wide left.

But the most costly mistake committed by the Wahoos came on the Druckenmiller-to-Holmes TD, when UVa safety Percy "I think thereís a reason why they call me a Ďsafety,í but I canít remember what it is" Ellsworth bit on Druckenmillerís pump fake. Ellsworth went short for the interception, and Druckenmiller and Holmes went deep for the touchdown.

A year and a half later, the mere mention of this play will lead to a long discussion in which Hokie fans tell you where they were and what they did when Druckenmiller completed the pass to Holmes.

This play had it all: it capped a phenomenal comeback against a hated rival, it sent the Hokies on to the Sugar Bowl, it is the signature play of the greatest quarterback in school history, and it resulted in a classic play-call by a beloved radio announcer.

But the reason this play lands at #1 in this countdown is simpler than all that. As I was working on this feature, I previewed it for a longtime friend and Hokie fan. When I told him what play I had selected as #1, he nodded and said simply:

"Thatís the most excited Iíve ever been as a Hokie fan."

And thatís good enough for #1.

           

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