The 1996 Orange Bowl:
Nebraska 41, Virginia Tech 21
by Will Stewart,

Click here for the game recap with stats

Big, strong, deeper team wears Hokies down. There's your game analysis.

Seriously, it doesn't take a genius to figure this one out, so I'm probably not going to stick to too much "analysis." Instead, I thought I'd just converse on a variety of topics that I thought were important before, during, and after the game.

Overall, it was a decent showing by the Hokies, one that certainly earned us a little respect in the eyes of people who were paying attention. Those who only looked at the final score or listened to the idiotic ravings of guys like Lee Corso of ESPN and Greg Cote of The Miami Herald don't have a clue of how close the game was. The difference was only 3 points, at 24-21, with about 4 minutes to go in the 3rd quarter.

As I said a few days ago, in order to win, the Hokies needed the following:

  1. Tech needed to play a mistake-free game.
  2. Nebraska needed to play a subpar game.
  3. Tech needed some breaks.
None of those three things happened. Instead, here's how it went:
  1. Tech donated 7 points to the Huskers on a fumble return for a TD in the second quarter.
  2. Nebraska played a near perfect game, except for some dropped passes. The Huskers had only 3 penalties, and no turnovers. It's hard to beat anybody when they play like that.
  3. The Hokies got almost zero breaks from the refs and the bouncing ball. Tech had one fumble, which Nebraska returned for a TD. Nebraska had one fumble, which bounced harmlessly into a Nebraska lineman's hands as he lay on the ground. That sums up how things went in the "breaks" department.
Given all that, it's a testament to the Hokies that until Nebraska took a 31-21 lead and then stopped the Hokies on Tech's next possession, this game was up for grabs. I was thoroughly impressed with Tech's ability to take punches from Nebraska and come right back. Until the Hokies were stopped with the score at 31-21, Tech was able to counter every Nebraska score with a score of their own.

I'm proud of my boys.

Being There vs. Watching it on TV

An interesting thing happened to me when I got back home from the game and watched my tape: I realized that the Hokies had put up a pretty darned good fight. I somehow missed realizing how close the game really was as I watched it in the stadium.

I think I started worrying big time when the Huskers shredded the Hokies for 45 yards in three plays early in the second quarter and took the lead, 10-7. When Nebraska tacked on another TD on the fumble return to make it 17-7, I realized it was going to be an uphill battle, one that the Hokies weren't likely to win, given Nebraska's penchant for wearing teams down.

Watching the game on tape, however, I came to realize that Nebraska didn't prove they could stop our offense until mid-late fourth quarter. The Hokies shredded the vaunted Nebraska defense for over 400 yards of offense on the game. Ken Oxendine gained over 100 yards rushing in the first half against a defense that was giving up less than 90 yards per game. Basically, until they were trying to come back from two scores down in the second half, the only time the Hokies were stopped was when they shot themselves in the foot with penalties or the ill-fated fumble.

The problem, of course, was that we couldn't stop their offense, either. As long as we could counter punch and stay within one score, anything was possible, but the pressure was on our offense, and once we got down by two scores, it slipped from our grasp.

In the meantime, Druck and Oxendine really made a name for themselves. The NFL scouts, already drooling over Druck, got a chance to see him come through with a big-time performance against a big-time defense, which upped his pro stock even more. As for Ox, on the way out of the stadium, a Nebraska fan asked me, "Who's that Oxendine kid? What year is he?" Husker fans aren't used to seeing a running back slice through their defense like that.

Being Part of the Big Time

Speaking of the big time, I went to the Coors Light tailgate party before the game and took the Orange Bowl History tour, which consisted of entering a tent and checking out pictures and video of past Orange Bowls.

This game is drenced in tradition. Penn State, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Miami, Notre Dame - they're all part of the Orange Bowl's illustrious history. Standing there in that tent, I started to realize just how huge an accomplishment it was for the Hokies to play in two straight Alliance Bowls and to be a part of all that History, with a capital H.

The Bowl Alliance aside, and pundits such as Fowler and Corso aside, Tech was there, and deservedly so. Now, when people scan a list of the scores from past Sugar and Orange Bowl games, Tech's name will be there, for all to see. Hokie fans should be very proud and should take a second to really think about the magnitude of the accomplishment.

I'm not doing a very good job of conveying what I felt while I stood in that tent, but suffice it to say, I was a little overwhelmed. For a second, I felt a little intimidated, but then I thought of Druck, Ox, Cornell, and that big Tech offensive line, and I thought, "Aw, to heck with it. We belong here just as much as any of those other teams."

What if You Had an Orange Bowl, and Nobody Came?

The "atmosphere" in the stadium detracted a lot from the magnitude of the game, however.

The Hokie fans were their usual, hysterical selves. There's nothing quite like the crowds Tech has seen at the Sugar and Orange Bowls the last two years. Those fans are the hardcore fans, the ones who go nuts, and when you've waited a month and travelled about a thousand miles to see a game ... well, then you do get a little crazy when it finally starts.

For those of you who weren't there, I wish you could have been in Tech's corner of the end zone when Marcus Parker scored the Hokies' first TD. I mean, it was insane. I jumped around like an idiot, and since I was at the end of an aisle, I moved out into the aisle while I was celebrating, and I almost turned my ankle on the steps. The threat of injury was enough to dampen my enthusiasm a little, but other than that, I don't think there was anything that would have settled me down.

The rest of the world, however, was not very enthused by this game.

Reports said that Nebraska had sold about 7500 tickets for this game, but I can vouch for the fact that the Huskers had maybe 3,000-4,000 fans there, tops. The famed "Sea of Red" was more like "A Little Red Puddle in the Corner of the Stadium" at the Orange Bowl.

And the neutral fans? Ha, don't get me started. Attendance figures were reported to be about 51,000, but it certainly didn't look like that many people. The fickle "fans" of Miami are starting to really annoy me. First, they abandon their Canes because they're not winning the national championship, and then they purchase thousands of tickets for the Orange Bowl and then just don't show up. Ticket sales were reportedly 64,000, which means that 13,000 people paid at least $60 and then found something better to do.

Part of that has to do with the fact that Orange Bowl ran a special deal in which fans could purchase tickets for this year's game and be assured of getting tickets for next year's national championship game. Ergo, thousands of fans bought seats merely to assure themselves of getting seats next year.

This is the result of the Bowl Alliance, and of American society in general. It's reached the point where if you're not playing for the championship, then people don't care. It's ridiculous, and it was evidenced by the low turnout from the Husker fans, who found various reasons to not support their team by travelling to the game. But if this game had been for the mythical national championship, they would have showed up in droves, even if the opponent was Akron.

All in all, it added up to a private little party for the Hokies in a stadium that was much too big for the event. I found myself looking around and thinking that it had probably been over a decade since Nebraska had played in front of a stadium that empty. Sad.

But There are More Important Reasons to be Bummed

At first, I was disappointed that we didn't win the game. But the next day, when I saw the picture in the paper of Jim Druckenmiller walking off the field arm-in-arm with Ricky Bustle, it hit me: there's a whole mess of great Virginia Tech players that we'll never see again in a Tech uniform.

In the end, that's what makes me sad. Most of the class that is getting ready to graduate was recruited when Tech was 2-8-1, and what they've done is nothing short of amazing.

In particular, I think we'll miss Druckenmiller. Knowing that that big hoss was in the pocket was one of the most secure feelings I've ever had. Druck could take a hit from a Mack truck and keep on going, a fact which enabled him to stand in the pocket and deliver perfect strikes in the face of a heavy pass rush. He is a top-notch quarterback, and if he had played for us in 1994, the sky may have been the limit. Can you imagine Druck having both Antonio Freeman and Bryan Still to throw to, as DeShazo did that year?

Looking Forward to Next Year

Some Hokie fans are shuddering and shaking, fearing a 6-5 or even 5-6 record next year. We're losing massive amounts of talent, they reason, and we won't be anywhere near as good.

Well, you're not giving the guys who are left behind any credit. What you've got to realize is that even if we have to replace Cornell Brown, Myron Newsome, Billy Conaty, Bryan Jennings, Druck, and the rest, we can do it. Tech has reached the status of a powerhouse program, in my opinion, bolstered by longevity in the coaching staff and one of the best strength and conditioning coaches in the country. We'll be back. Get used to success, because we've got the key ingredients in place to keep it going.

With 6 built in wins (Pitt-Temple-Rutgers and 3 out of conference patsies), all the Hokies have to do is win a couple of other games (against the likes of BC, WVU, and UVa) and we're once again winning 7 or 8 games, a level that we didn't reach once from 1987 to 1992. And thanks to the Big East's bowl tie-ins, we're virtually guaranteed of going somewhere every year, as long as we don't stink (which isn't likely).

So cheer up, Hokie fans! We'll still get to see our heroes play in the NFL, and before you know it, we'll have new heroes to cheer. Guys like Carl Bradley, Ricky Hall, David Pugh, Shayne Graham, Shyrone Stith, and old favorites like Ken Oxendine. Life is good!

Next Up: Next Year

It's been fun doing these game reports in this, Hokie Central's first football season. It's also been hectic, very much so. I'm going to go lay down in a corner and go to sleep now.

Kidding aside, I hope everybody has enjoyed reading them. I don't pretend to know a whole lot about football, but I hope I've kept them entertaining enough for you (did you like the "Little Red Puddle" crack?).

We'll see you back here next year. Until then, keep reading Hokie Central for the latest Hokie news and reports on how the basketball season is going!

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