Some of you are probably too young to remember (one day you’ll say that, too – trust me). It was 2001, in Lane, prior to stadium expansion and it was the final game of the regular season. Miami was ranked #1, VT #13. Miami had such luminaries on the field as Clinton Portis, Jeremy Shockey, and the estimable Ed Reed among many others. This was back in the day when they really were the "U." Not a few Hokies think this game yielded the greatest moment in the history of Lane: When VT blocked a punt in the fourth quarter that Brandon Manning scooped up and scuttled into the end zone to put us within striking distance of an incredible upset.
I was at that game. I took a colleague – also a lifelong Miami fan. He was as pale as Casper at that moment. Lane went off the hook. Personally, I’ve never seen it quite as frenzied. My friend thought the Hurricanes were goners – the undefeated season flashed before his eyes. I think he was genuinely worried about me, too, as I jumped all over the place high-fiving other Hokies even ten rows below.
But we lost that game 26-24. Ernest Wilford dropped what appeared to be an easy two-point conversion after the touchdown. As high as Hokie Nation was a few seconds before, we all came crashing back to the turf, along with the ball that glided through Wilford’s hands. (For the record, he went on to have a great career at Virginia Tech and even played for the Jacksonville Jaguars. We still love you, Ernest.)
Miami then annihilated Nebraska in the National Championship Game.
When he was interviewed after the close call in Blacksburg, Ed Reed, one of the greatest DBs ever to play the game noted that the Hokies "played like their hair was on fire." It’s still one of the best compliments from an opposing player that I’ve ever heard.
I don’t know about you. But my hair still feels on fire from Saturday night.
Virginia Tech played with a confidence, composure, and passion that was reminiscent of that gutsy performance against the Hurricanes more than a decade before. This time we didn’t come up short, however. That is why, for me, the Ohio State victory outpaces by a mile that Miami game. If we had knocked off #1 Miami that year, that wouldn’t be the case.
Virginia Tech only had three penalties in the 2001 game against the Hurricanes. But Grant Noel threw five interceptions, and never was pulled from the game – I’m not kidding. It was painful to watch. Reed was one of his best receivers that day, unfortunately.
Five interceptions and we still almost beat the #1 team in the country – a team loaded to the gills with NFL talent. How in the hell does that happen? Well, how did we just beat Ohio State on the road in their season opener at home with three turnovers and ten penalties?!
I’m sure there are numerous factors that account for this shocking outcome. I won’t dwell on all the ones that I can think of. I’ll conclude with Captain Obvious that it was a "combination of things."
However, if I were pressed to sum it all up as tersely as possible, I’d say bottom line: We wanted this game a lot more than Ohio State did. Our coaches coached this way; our players played this way; our fans "fanned" this way. We were not going to let turnovers and penalties hold us down. We were desperate for a win like this. When Hokies truly get desperate, and completely sick and tired of losing big games against elite programs, this is precisely what we are capable of doing.
Call it the hair on fire factor.
The problem is that players, coaches, and fans can’t just whip up this sort of frenzy whenever we choose. In a certain respect, it just happens, when the circumstances are right and we are receptive to the fire.
To clarify: I’m not suggesting that leaving absolutely everything you have on the field (or in the stands, or in front of the TV) is not up to you. The hair on fire mode, though, is a notch above this. When a team is in this mode, it always "moves on to the next play," as Michael Brewer so elegantly put it when pressed to describe how he kept ticking after his miscues and the big hits he took.
There is no other option, when there is fire coming off your noggin.
You move on, whether it’s a touchdown or an interception or a terrible penalty: you move on. Until there is no more moving on to do, for that game. No single mistake or misstep is allowed to quell the focus and effort. Nor is a huge touchdown.
That’s why Bucky Hodges will be exercising solo with Beamer very early this week after his doodle dance in the end zone in the 4th quarter. It’s not so much that he celebrated a bit too much, as it is that for a moment his mental discipline threatened to flag. That stuff is like a contagion. As Barney Fife used to say, you have to "nip it in the bud."
The challenge now for this team is to move on to the next game. East Carolina’s program may not be as sexy as Ohio State’s. But what if they come into Lane with their hair on fire? We better be ready to douse it, one play at a time.
Sometimes you not only can fight fire with fire, you must. Let’s hope this is a hair on fire season.