VT Beat: Exorcising the Pittsburgh Demon

Heading up to Heinz Field for a game against Pittsburgh dredges up some bad memories for Virginia Tech fans.

There was a time when Virginia Tech dominated the Big East. The Hokies won three Big East Conference championships in five years, in 1995, 1996, and 1999. Even during the 2000 season, when resurgent Miami won the Big East with a 7-0 record, the Hokies went 6-1 in the Big East, 11-1 overall, and finished #5 in the BCS Rankings.

From 1995-2000, Virginia Tech was 35-7 in Big East Conference play. They never finished worse than second in the conference.

But in their last three years in the Big East (2001-2003), the Hokies stumbled. They accumulated a pedestrian 11-10 conference record and finished third, fourth, and third in the Big East. The once-dominant Hokies were just an average Big East team.

Perhaps no team symbolized Virginia Tech’s fall from grace in the Big East more than the Pittsburgh Panthers. From 1993-2000, the Hokies beat the Panthers seven out of eight times, including beatdowns like 63-21 (1993), 45-7 (1994), and 27-7 (1998).

But from 2001-2003, Pittsburgh went undefeated against Virginia Tech. It’s a three-game winning streak that is still active, and as near as I can tell via my research, the Panthers are the only team to claim an active three-game winning streak over Frank Beamer’s Hokies.

(A caveat: South Carolina owns a 4-0-1 record over Frank Beamer that goes W-W-T-W-W.  So technically, they don’t have a three-game winning streak over Frank Beamer, but they do have a five-game streak of no defeats against Frank Beamer. But forget it, I’m rolling.)

All three of Pittsburgh’s consecutive wins over Virginia Tech were painful, or humiliating, or both.

2001: Pittsburgh 38, Virginia Tech 7: When Virginia Tech went to Pittsburgh on November 3rd, 2001, the Hokies were coming off a loss to Syracuse, but even with that loss, the 12th-ranked Hokies were 6-1 and had won 29 of their previous 32 football games.

But Pitt annihilated the Hokies. Virginia Tech’s only touchdown came off a 71-yard return of a blocked field goal. All kinds of bad things occurred that day: VT’s lowest rushing total (15 yards) since 1994, the first time the offense had been shut out since 1995, their lowest point total since 1997, and on and on.

The loss to Syracuse the week before was bad enough, but this humiliating loss sent the Hokies spiraling to a 2-4 finish after a 6-0 start.

2002: Pittsburgh 28, Virginia Tech 21: The Hokies were 8-0 and ranked #3 in the nation with dreams of a national championship in their heads. Then Pitt came to town with freshman wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who caught five passes for 105 yards and three touchdowns.

The Hokies were ahead 21-7 in the third quarter and had just stopped Pittsburgh on 3rd and 9, when Tech’s Ronyell Whitaker committed a boneheaded late hit that gave the Panthers new life. Pitt became a new team from that point on, blowing the Hokies out 21-0 and tagging Tech with their first loss of the season.

From that point on, VT lost to Syracuse, West Virginia and Miami, and finished just 3-4 in the Big East. It was their first — and only — losing record in Big East play.

2003: Pittsburgh 31, VT 28: Virginia Tech was 7-1, ranked #5 in the nation, and fresh off a stirring 31-7 win over the #2-ranked Miami Hurricanes, when the Hokies made their second-ever trip to Heinz Field. Tech’s Kevin Jones had a school-record 241 yards rushing and scored four touchdowns … but it wasn’t enough.

Pittsburgh’s William (Tutu) Ferguson interferes with Virginia Tech’s Justin Hamilton during the 2003 Virginia Tech-Pittsburgh game.

Quarterbacked by Marcus Vick for most of the game, the Hokies had four costly turnovers in this seesaw battle. Leading 28-24 with about four minutes left, the Hokies went for it on fourth and 4 at Pitt’s 30-yard line. Marcus Vick lobbed a perfectly thrown ball to Justin Hamilton, and a Pittsburgh defender grabbed Hamilton’s arm, an obvious case of pass interference. Hamilton couldn’t make the catch, and the referees gave the Hokies a Big East going-away present, failing to throw the flag. Pittsburgh took over on downs.

The Panthers promptly drove 70 yards in nine plays and scored a TD with 47 seconds left, to go up by three. Virginia Tech was knocked from the national championship race yet again, and yet again, the Hokies spiraled out of control, losing five out of their last seven games to finish 8-5 after a 6-0 start.

Since the 2001-2003 late-season Big East fades that featured critical losses to Pittsburgh, the Hokies have been an ACC team that finishes strong. VT is 34-9 in the months of November-January since 2004 (2 November losses, 2 ACCCG losses, and 5 bowl losses), and have managed to rub out the memories of that bad three-year stretch.

The current Virginia Tech players have no tie to those games a decade ago, and Heinz Field will be just another road venue to them. But to the Virginia Tech coaches and staffers who remember 2001-2003, they’ll be looking to exorcise a demon — called it the demon Walt Harris — on Saturday. Harris coached Pittsburgh from 1997-2004 and constructed his Pitt teams for the purpose of defeating Big East bully Virginia Tech. In the end, they succeeded better than any other Big East team.

Saturday, the Hokies get a chance to break Frank Beamer’s longest active losing streak and rid themselves of the sting of the memories of those Walt Harris Pittsburgh teams.

Will Stewart is the founder and General Manager of TechSideline.com, covering Virginia Tech athletics since 1996, when the Interwebs was still just a baby sucking on a paci. Will believes college football is the greatest sport known to Man, even better than women’s beach volleyball and lingerie football. Will occasionally tweets at @WillStewartTSL, but he mostly keeps his tweeter shut and his eyes and ears open.

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