The 1998 Music City Bowl:
Virginia Tech 38, Alabama 7
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 12/29/98
In my game preview, I expressed concern over the fact that every expert, with the exception of ESPN's Lee Corso (who is a circus clown, not a college football expert), was picking the Hokies to win, hands down.
After watching this game twice, once live and once taped, I can see where they were coming from now. After a nip-and-tuck first half, the Hokies cranked it up all over Alabama and cruised to a dominating 38-7 victory behind, get this, defense and special teams.
In retrospect, Alabama really only had two or three players on the field who were capable of hanging with the Hokies: quarterback Andrew Zow - the first-half Zow, not the second-half Zow - running back Shaun Alexander - the receiver out of the backfield, not the runner out of the backfield - and a #97 defensive lineman who was eating Tech's lunch at the line of scrimmage.
Other than those guys, it was the Hokies all the way. Alabama was totally unable to muster a rushing attack, which placed the redshirt freshman quarterback Zow under pressure to make plays, and Zow responded like a freshman, making key mistakes that helped doom Alabama to a lopsided loss.
In the beginning, it was a typical Tech game, as the Hokies squandered ten or more points worth of opportunities offensively and found themselves in a dogfight at half time.
In the end, it was a 38-7 laugher between two mismatched teams, one of which schooled the other in the arts of special teams and defense. And it was a desperately-needed bowl win for a Hokie team that needed to feel that it was the 8 regular season wins that counted, not the 3 regular season losses.
Starting off Slow - Again
As we have seen more than once this year, the Hokie D and special teams blasted out of the gate, only to see the offense squander opportunities to score, keeping a potential blowout tight.
The offense got on the board quickly with another 1998 trademark: the opportunistic score from 40+ yards out. After a great Shyrone Stith kickoff runback, the Hokies moved the ball downfield, and when Alabama rushed eight players on a passing down, Al Clark tucked and ran for a 43-yard score, untouched.
Immediately, the defense and special teams started playing "Can you top this?" Corey Moore got a sack on Bama's first play from scrimmage, and after the Alabama drive stalled, the Tide lined up for a punt. ESPN talked up the Hokies' punt-blocking prowess, and showed a shot of five-time punt-blocker Keion Carpenter.
So Keion did the only thing he could do. He blocked another one.
With the Hokies pumped up and ready to take a 14-point lead, the momentum screeched to a halt and did a 180 when Al Clark threw an awful interception in the end zone.
Bama took possession on their 20, and several plays later, Tech senior and unheralded defensive end Ryan Smith put the exclamation point on his brief Tech career by dropping back into coverage on a zone-blitz and gratefully accepting an easy interception from Zow.
In the mayhem of the return, the Hokies committed a personal foul, and it backed Tech up into their own territory. The penalty probably cost Tech a score, as Shayne Graham missed a 35-yarder after a short Tech drive.
So, after a 43-yard TD run, a blocked punt, and an interception by a defensive lineman, Tech led by a measly 7-0 margin. The ghosts of losses past started stirring around, and Hokie fans started squirming. What came next made many of us, me included, even more nervous, and a little irate.
The Mother of All Drives
18 plays, 75 yards, and 10 minutes. That was Alabama's response to Shayne Graham's missed field goal, and it tied the game up at 7.
That one drive had more drama and intrigue than some entire games. It had it all:
Of course, Alabama would eventually score on a five-yard pass play to knot it up at 7 and to knot up my stomach. Tech was never able to put together three good defensive plays in a row, and Zow looked like a world-beater as he worked the Hokies like a master magician.
Alabama's Last Hurrah
Tech would squander another opportunity on their next drive. It started off well enough with a 38-yard run by Stith, but then Al Clark overthrew him on a wide open route that may have scored a TD. The Hokies would eventually get a 44-yard field goal by Graham, but the underlying theme was one of a Hokie team that was blowing its chances left and right, and might run out of them soon.
Again Alabama got the ball, and Zow stayed hot. He threw his tenth straight completion to take the Tide to Tech's 27-yard line, and no one knew it at the time, but that would be it for the Tide. For the game. Alabama would not seriously threaten again.
Zow threw an incompletion, and then, under pressure from Corey Moore, made yet another freshman mistake, getting called for an obvious grounding. That backed up a once-encouraging Tide drive into a punting situation.
The half ended without incident, and Tech went to the locker room with a precarious 10-7 lead.
28 Points in 17 Minutes
The second half started innocuously enough. Bama had a short possession, and Tech got a long run from Clark, but couldn't do anything with it, either, punting the ball back to the Tide.
The Big Ten refs working the game proved that they're NOT Big East refs by actually calling a Bama hold of Corey Moore that backed the Tide up to their own seven-yard line.
Two plays later, having just been burned by the holding call, the Tide couldn't stop Corey's rush, and Moore hit Zow as the freshman passed. The result was an interception by backup Whip linebacker Philip Summers, inserted into the game because starter Lorenzo Ferguson was injured.
Summers couldn't haul it into the end zone, but two plays later, Lamont Pegues did. 17-7, and cracks started appearing in the Bama dam.
Zow was now throwing more incompletions than completions, but perhaps his most important incompletion wasn't his fault. Trailing by only ten points, Zow found a streaking Shaun Alexander down the left sideline, for a pass that probably would have been a TD, bringing the score to 17-14 but Alexander dropped it.
The Hokies pounced on the opportunity the very next play, blocking another punt and taking possession on Alabama's 32. Aided by a 10-yard Stith run and a questionable interference call, the Hokies scored on a short Stith run, and just five plays after the Tide was starting 17-14 in the face, they found themselves down 24-7, instead.
And they folded up.
The next important play happened after a brief three-and-out by the Hokie offense. Punting from his own 25, "G.I. Jimmy" Kibble absolutely crushed the ball. The Tide punt returner got dizzy running after the punt, which traveled 70 yards in the air, and he muffed it at the Alabama 20. Tech took possession and scored in four plays to make it 31-7.
The Hokies would tack on another touchdown, finally getting the special teams or defensive score they were looking for when Anthony Midget picked off a Zow floater and returned it 27 yards to make the final score 38-7.
In all, the Hokies scored four TD's in 16 and a half minutes. It was an avalanche of points that saw the offense start "drives" at Alabama's 2 yard line, 32 yard line, and 20 yard line. With a short porch like that, even a struggling offense can put up points, and the Hokies did it, burying the Tide under a flood of touchdowns that left them shell-shocked and beaten.
"Beamer-ball," a deadly combination of defense and special teams, was alive and well, and the Hokies had Tech's third win in their last six bowls.
Did the Tech Players and Coaches See This Coming?
In the days leading up to the game, I was struck by how relaxed the Tech players and coaches were. Frank Beamer, normally not a big jokester, kept mentioning his quest to find Shania Twain in Nashville, and in one clip shown on the Roanoke TV stations, the Tech players were fooling around playing leapfrog on the Vanderbilt Stadium turf after a practice was canceled due to ice.
All in all, I didn't see much seriousness from the Hokies, other than Beamer occasionally saying, "Well, let me tell ya, when you talk about Alabama, you're talking about college football," and "Virginia Tech needs to win this bowl game."
Over on the Bama side, a very serious-looking Coach DuBose was comparing the Hokie defense favorably to Tennessee's and was talking about what it would take to beat the Hokies. Maybe it's just DuBose's style, but he looked a little more into it, and a little more focused.
That kind of behavior can point to one of two things:
Fortunately for us, it was the former, not the latter. I've got to figure that when preparing for a game, coaches and players sometimes watch enough film to get a real feeling for what's going to happen.
Going into last year's Gator Bowl, the Hokies probably thought, "Uh-oh. We're going to get killed." And perhaps, going into this game, they felt that the Tide had significant weaknesses that could be easily exploited.
We'll never know. But one thing's for sure. The Hokie defense and special teams got on Alabama early and rode them like a horse, never letting up. The result was a big win and a nice springboard going into the next era of Tech football.
Ruminations and Ramifications
This bowl victory served many important purposes.
1.) It's always a great thing to introduce yourselves to a new group of fans and media with a rousing victory. The Texas media and Longhorn fans still often speak of the Hokies in reverent tones, based on the 1995 Sugar Bowl whipping that Tech handed to them.
Now, Alabama fans and a large portion of the SEC media have met a focused buzzsaw of a Tech team that has left a positive impression on a portion of the country that they rarely get a chance to visit. Tech's normal stomping grounds are Virginia, the Northeast, and South Florida, but because Tech has whipped UAB and Alabama in the same season by a combined score of 79-7, football fans in the state of Alabama know all about the Hokies.
2.) Tech got a bowl win that was almost a necessity. Having lost 2 of 3 games going into the bowl, the last thing the Hokies needed was to drop their third game out of four, and to lose their third bowl in a row.
I think it's reasonable to expect your team to win 50% of its bowl games, and since the Hokies started going bowling in 1993, they're exactly at that percentage, going 3-3. If you start to lose more than 50% of your bowl games, then the whispers start, and if, God forbid, you start stringing together multiple bowl losses, the whispers become shouts, repeated like a mantra by any media source that covers your bowl games.
3.) Being a younger Hokie (only 34 years old), I'm not really impressed by the fact that Tech beat a tradition-laden team like Alabama. I saw nothing more than a mismatch Tuesday night.
But the good thing is, the media does care. Never mind that Tech has beaten better teams than Alabama this year. There are still pundits and talking heads that only pay attention if you knock off one of the big boys, so to them, "This bowl's for you."
Lee Corso in particular can't seem to get over the hump and pick Tech to beat a big-name team. He's completely comfortable predicting Hokie wins against the likes of ECU, but when Tech comes up against a team like Alabama or Texas, Lee immediately picks us to lose.
He'll never change, but each time we do something like this, I think the rest of the media - the ones who actually think and analyze things - take notice.
4.) Not to mention that the Big East Football Conference also needed the bowl win. I'm no fan of the way the Big East is run, but I'm sick of people bad-mouthing the conference, and I'm sick of every sportswriter who can spell "Big Least" writing it into their articles, as if they just thought it up.
Shortly after Tech bombarded Alabama, Miami stuck it to the North Carolina State Wolfpack, 46-23. Now all the Big East needs is a Syracuse win over Florida in the Orange Bowl (don't laugh, it could happen), and the Big East can stand tall and proud in the offseason.
5.) A bowl win makes it more likely that Tech will be highly regarded and will be ranked in the preseason next year. And as we all know, a good preseason ranking does wonders for your mid-season and post-season ranking, if you win your games.
The Hokies return eight starters on defense next year, and thanks to the bowl win, I think this will carry Tech to a high preseason ranking next year, despite the big question marks in the defensive backfield, the offensive line, and losing a two-year starter at quarterback.
6.) Al Clark, just like Maurice DeShazo and Jim Druckenmiller before him, graduated with a bowl victory to his credit.
7.) Lastly, it's just so much easier to get through the off-season if you win your bowl game!
Looking Forward to Next Year
Next year is the beginning of the rest of the Hokie football team's life.
Beginning next year, three years of bumper crops of Tech recruits, headlined by a 1998 class packed with high school All-Americans, are expected to lead the Hokies back to the Alliance Bowl promised land, or more accurately, the "BCS Bowl" promised land.
There are serious road blocks along the way. The Hokies' offensive line still isn't nearly up to snuff, and it will take one or two more years to even hope to return it to the levels it achieved in 1995 and 1996.
The defensive backfield will be decimated by graduation. The Hokies have talented players waiting to step up, but they'll be inexperienced.
And the Miami Hurricanes loom as a formidable opponent for years to come. Wait till you see their quarterback of the future, Kenny Kelly. He's awesome.
(As an aside, I doubt this will happen, but the Big East really should schedule the Tech/Miami game as the season-ender next year, because it's going to be a barn-burner and will likely decide the Big East championship).
Other than offensive line and defensive backs, the Hokies 1999 cupboard will be full. In the Big East title hunt, Tech has home games with Syracuse and Miami, and a road game with a West Virginia team that will be seriously depleted on the offensive and defensive lines.
The future - the immediate future - looks bright indeed, and a big bowl victory over Alabama provides the perfect bridge between now and the seasons to come.
A Job Well Done
Without getting too sappy, let me take this opportunity to congratulate the seniors on their careers and to thank them for the effort they put forth, and for the bowl win.
For most of them, their careers were marked by inconsistency and, in the case of Al Clark, injury. Keion Carpenter and Loren Johnson took their entire careers to put it all together for their final seasons, but boy, did they finish strong. Ryan Smith, a transfer, wasn't here nearly long enough, because he really stepped it up this year, and with one more season, could have taken it up another notch. Pierson Prioleau, after a stellar junior year, had a quiet senior year, but at least he got to enjoy a big victory over his home state Clemson Tigers.
Over on offense, Dwight Vick and Derek Smith were the only constants on a struggling offensive line, and Angelo Harrison never quite got uncorked, seemingly a victim of every one of Al Clark's overthrown or underthrown passes this year. Lamont Pegues provided some great moments and got to go out on a high note, and now he hands the reigns over to Shyrone Stith, Lee Suggs, and Keith Burnell.
And Al Clark, the Human Bruise, now graduates. For the first time in Al's injury-riddled career, I thought I sensed a little quit in him leading up to the bowl game. His ribs were still bothering him, and at a press luncheon he attended two weeks before the game, he almost sounded as if he was ready to throw in the towel.
Perhaps he was ready to quit. But he didn't. If he was pondering it, sanity and the allure of playing his last game overcame his resistance. He came on strong, played the game, and made enough good plays to help carry the Hokies to victory. As usual with Al, we'll never know exactly how badly he was hurting in this game, but he took a lot of shots and never wavered.
That quote - "he took a lot of shots and never wavered" - describes the teams of the last two years pretty well. They got slapped around quite a bit along the way, but they stayed the course and managed to piece together enough wins to keep the Hokies in the Big East title hunt, and to keep them going to bowls.
Now it's time to let the next generation quarterback, be it Michael Vick, Grant Noel, or maybe even dark horse Dave Meyer, strap it on. Bolstered by great defense and special teams, next year's QB gets to start off with plenty of support, and when he makes a few mistakes along the way, hopefully it won't kill us.
Just one question: can we start tomorrow?