The 1998 Music City Bowl: Bud Foster
by Will Stewart,
TSL Extra, Issue #14

On December 29, 1998, the Hokie football team entered the frigid, wet cold of Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville with nothing less than the future of the program on the line. The heady days of the mid-1990's, with two ten-win seasons and a pair of Alliance Bowl bids, were starting to fade in the distance.

Of greater concern to the Hokies was a lackluster 1997 season (7-5) that had ended with a 42-3 pasting at the hands of North Carolina in the Gator Bowl, followed by a decent 1998 season (8-3) that was marred by opportunities missed.

The Hokies had led in all three of their losses but had seen them slip away, including a humiliating home defeat at the hands of the Temple Owls. After starting out 5-0 with impressive road wins at Clemson (37-0), Miami (27-20 in OT), and Boston College (17-0), the Hokies held a 17-0 lead against the Owls late in the first half. Temple strung together three straight TD's and hung on for a 28-24 win that knocked the high-flying Hokies back to earth.

They would drop two more big leads, squandering a 21-3 advantage at Syracuse (the Orange won 28-26) and losing a 29-7 half time advantage over Virginia in the last game of the season (the Cavaliers won 36-32).

The 8-3 finish was haunted by thoughts of what might have been. Tech had suffered through key injuries to quarterbacks Al Clark and Dave Meyer, forcing them to move safety Nick Sorensen back to his original quarterback position for starts against Boston College, Temple, and UAB.

Even when Clark was at the helm, the offense had been anemic at times, particularly against Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, and the Hokies and their fans were left wondering what the team could have done had they had a more potent offensive attack.

The defense, on the other hand, was stellar. The Hokie defense featured a fearsome pass rush, led by Big East Defensive Player of the Year Corey Moore, who had 13.5 sacks. The team as a whole registered 48 sacks, more than four per game. They coupled that fierce pass rush with an amazing 23 interceptions.

The special teams did their part, turning in a team-record 12 blocked kicks. Between the two of them, the defense and special teams scored a remarkable 9 touchdowns, adding significantly to the Hokies' points per game average of 31.2.

The Hokies were very much perceived, rightfully so, as a defensive and special teams unit with a mediocre offense.

Bud Foster was in his fourth year as the Hokies' defensive coordinator and his 12th year at Virginia Tech overall. He had seen good defenses at Tech before, and he knew the Hokies were sitting on top of a special unit, not just for 1998, but beyond.

"Defensively we were pretty good that year," Foster recalls. "Corey Moore came into his own, Jamel Smith and Michael Hawkes started for the first time, and we had a lot of guys there that were really good players for us. If Iím not mistaken, we were top 10 in just about every category that year, too. Loren Johnson, Keion Carpenter, those guys had great years as seniors.

"We really did some good things on D that year. We lost three games that season, and the three games we lost were all heartbreak losses. It just showed how close we actually were to being an elite football program."

In retrospect, that's a true statement (Michael Vick would light that candle the next season) but going into the Music City Bowl, Hokie fans weren't sure. The team had lost eight games in two seasons, hardly the hallmark of an elite program, and if they didn't pull off a win against Alabama in the Music City Bowl, it would be their third bowl loss in a row -- not a good thing.

The Lowdown on the Tide

Foster respected the challenge that Alabama presented. Like the Hokies, they were a young team, and they were improving. "Going into that game, I remember, Alabama had a good football team that year, too. I felt good about our plan going in. Also, we were getting ready to play one of the most storied programs in college football and it looked like they were back right again. I just know they were kind of getting some things turned around."

Alabama featured running back Shaun Alexander, who not only had 1,276 yards rushing but had caught 26 passes for 385 yards. He had scored 17 TD's and was the total package, an NFL prospect all the way. Junior offensive tackle Chris Samuels (6-6, 285) was a formidable force, as well.

But what really made the Tide roll was its redshirt freshman quarterback, Andrew Zow. Zow reminded the Hokies of James Brown, the Texas QB they had squared off against in the 1995 Sugar Bowl. Zow had been handed the starting job midway through the season and had made some mistakes along the way, but he had thrown for nearly 2,000 yards and had 11 TD's against only 7 interceptions. He was a threat to run as well as pass.

Add in the fact that the Hokies were 0-10 all-time against Alabama, including a 77-6 pasting in 1973, and the Hokies were up against a titan. At a time when they needed a win, Tech was facing a tall order.

The Game

By now, you know what happened. The Hokies dominated Alabama with their characteristically strong defense and special teams, and their opportunistic offense.

The mismatch along the line of scrimmage was evident from the beginning. The Hokies scored easily on their first possession. Shyrone Stith returned the opening kickoff to the Tech 43, and after the Hokies picked up a first down, Al Clark evaded an eight-man rush and scooted up the right sideline for a 43-yard TD. Less than three minutes into the game, the Hokies were up 7-0.

The Tech defensive line brought the heat on Zow immediately. Corey Moore sacked Zow on his first pass attempt, and when the Tide lined up to punt, Keion Carpenter, playing in his final game, blocked it. The Hokies had possession deep in 'Bama territory, but Clark squandered it with an end zone interception.

On Alabama's second possession, the Hokie defense fooled him again when defensive end Ryan Smith dropped back into coverage on a zone blitz. Duped by the scheme, Zow threw it right to him, and Smith returned it to the Alabama 36 yard line.

"Any time you can get to that quarterback early and make him think about some things, it's always a plus," Foster noted about Tech's quick defensive start. "We didnít do it out of blitz pressure as much as we did our front four. If you can get that kind of pressure there and then throw in a couple of extra guys, it gives that QB even more to think about."

Tech squandered this opportunity as well, when a personal foul on Smith's return pushed the ball back to the 49 yard line of Virginia Tech. The Hokies moved the ball to the Alabama 25, but then Shayne Graham missed a 42-yard field goal in the wet, cold conditions.

Alabama responded with their one bright spot of the game, an awesome 18-play, 75-yard TD drive that took nearly ten minutes off the clock and made the score 7-7 with 9:56 to go, first half. Zow completed eight straight passes on the drive, and the Tide converted three third downs and a fourth down.

But even though the Tide had been successful on the drive, they seemed to spend all their energy and luck making it down the field. Zow ran for his life repeatedly, and the Tide got a break from a Tech penalty and a bad call from the referee on a trapped Alabama reception that kept the drive alive. Sure, Alabama went 75 plays in 18-yards, but the entire drive was a near-miracle that wasn't likely to repeat itself.

It didn't. Tech controlled the remainder of the first half but could only add a field goal, and they took a 10-7 lead into half time.

The Hokies were dominating the game, but they only had a three-point lead to show for it. Nothing was a done deal, because their defense had failed them in all three losses during the regular season (with a nod and some credit to the opponents), and it could possibly repeat itself.

No dice. Corey Moore would have none of it.

Moore and his mates continued to hassle Zow constantly in the second half, and the freshman finally made a huge mistake, throwing an interception to Tech's Phillip Summers deep in Alabama territory. Summers returned it to the 2 yard line, and a couple of plays later, Lamont Pegues scored to make it 17-7, Hokies.

Then Moore blocked a punt, Tech's second of the game, and the Hokies took over at Alabama's 29. One pass interference penalty and one 4-yard Shyrone Stith run later, the Hokies had pushed their lead out to 24-7, with 5:08 to go in the third quarter.

From that point on, with the Hokie defense hounding Zow, it was just a matter of running out the clock. Alabama continued to press, and they contributed to the Hokies' cause by bobbling a punt on their own 20 that Tech recovered and drove in for a touchdown.

The final stroke came with 7:33 to go in the game when Zow launched a pass under heavy pressure that Tech's Anthony Midget picked off and ran 27 yards untouched for the TD.

Four second half touchdowns by the Hokies, with all four coming after Alabama turnovers or Hokie special teams plays. In the end, Tech won going away, 38-7. The Hokies only outgained Alabama 278-274, but they had just one turnover -- a harmless one -- to Alabama's four.

(Incidentally, in one example of how sometimes the time of possession stat means nothing, Alabama held the ball 36:17 to Tech's paltry 23:43.)

"They had the Alexander kid, who was a great player," Foster acknowledged, and Alexander did indeed get 142 of Alabama's 274 yards. "They had some speed receivers. They spread us out. We were able to get pressure on them, though, and we stopped the run. We did a couple little things, a couple little wrinkles we threw in, and forced them to throw a pick early. We took them out of some formations they wanted to use, and we didnít give up any big plays.

"That particular bowl game, we had the ice storm (earlier in the week)," Foster recalls, "and they were traveling us all over to find us a practice site. Our kids didnít bat an eye. I remember Alabama, they were complaining about this and that, but our kids were very resilient, and we went out and played that way."

The Aftermath

The rousing victory over a traditional power put the 24th-ranked Hokies back on the college football map. Tech had been there once before with Sugar Bowl (1995) and Orange Bowl (1996) trips, but they had slipped off with their mediocre 1997 season and embarrassing 1998 Temple loss.

The national media sat up and took notice of the whipping the Hokies laid on the Tide, and the win set the stage for Tech to be highly ranked (preseason #13) to open the 1999 season. You can argue that had the Hokies lost to Alabama in this bowl, they would not have been ranked as highly to start the 1999 season, and even with the 11-0 regular season, might not have climbed to #2 in the BCS rankings in 1999.

So in a big way, the Music City Bowl set the stage for Tech's national championship game appearance the following season.

Foster, and everyone else associated with the Tech program, knows that. "That win opened a lot of eyes for our football players as far as yeah, we can compete with the big national programs. It carried over to the 1999 season. It was just a great win for our program to beat the type of team and tradition and history that Alabama has."

While the win brought national attention to the Tech team, it brought attention to Bud Foster, as well. Around that time, Bob Stoops left his position as defensive coordinator at Florida to be head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners, and Florida's Steve Spurrier asked to interview Foster for the position of Gators defensive coordinator.

Was this the game that cemented the national reputation that Bud Foster now has? "Maybe," Foster says. "After that game is when Steve Spurrier called me. A lot of people recognized that maybe weíd played pretty good D over the years. I think game helped my career a little bit."

It is a matter of Tech football myth and legend whether or not Spurrier ever offered the job to Foster, and whether or not Foster declined it, but one thing is true: Foster did not leave for Florida, and he is still at Virginia Tech, where he is becoming widely regarded as the most likely successor to Frank Beamer, should Beamer step down any time soon.

That is a matter for the future, but when looking at Tech's football past, one thing is clear: the Music City Bowl ranks not just as one of the most enjoyable Tech bowl wins of all time, but as one of its most important.

Note: TSL Extra writer Art Stevens contributed material to this story.



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