Heinz Field, a stadium so nice that they adorned it with two giant ketchup bottles topping the scoreboard. For whatever reason, playing there has been the Hokies' kryptonite since it opened play in 2001. Coming into that first game at Heinz Field, Virginia Tech had thoroughly dominated the series with the Pittsburgh Panthers, running up a record of 7-1 in the all-time series (with a 30-23 1997 loss the lone blip on the radar). But since that time, the Hokies are a mere 1-6 against the Panthers (the only win a 19-9 victory in Blacksburg in 2013) and more importantly, 0-4 at Heinz Field. So is there something to this notion that Heinz Field holds extra special bad juju for Tech? Or are the Hokies just the victim of bad luck, circumstance, or something else?
Nov. 3, 2001: Virginia Tech @ Pitt- 38-7 L
The Hokies came into this match up with the Panthers at 6-1 and ranked #12 in the country. They were coming off of their first loss of the season the week prior, a disheartening 22-14 loss at home to Syracuse, who had sacked Grant Noel in his own end zone with 2:24 remaining to end all hope of a Hokie comeback.
Tech was at this point showing its fatal flaw that year: quarterback. Perhaps the coaching staff didn't account for the loss of Michael Vick after only two seasons (and one redshirt year), perhaps the double-blow of losing Vick and an erstwhile effective backup, Dave Meyer, was just too much to account for, or perhaps they simply had trouble replacing Michael Vick because Michael Vicks don't grow on trees. At any rate, Bryan Randall was their long-term plan, but fourth-year junior and No. 3 QB from the year previous, Grant Noel, had the leg up in 2001, and had basically been given the job even after his 13-32 passing performance in the 2001 Tech Spring Game (Can you ever remember Tech let ANYONE get 32 reps of anything in a Spring Game!? Yeesh). And to this point in the season, Noel had more or less been cromulent (either you watch the Simpon's or else the definition of that made-up word, meaning perfectly average, was lost on you), which was fine since the plan was to feed Lee Suggs the rock nearly every down that year. But the plan changed Week 1 when Suggs tore his ACL against UConn and was lost for the year. Losing Michael Vick AND Lee Suggs? Now that would be tough to overcome. And it was.
Entering this game, Tech was still riding Keith Burnell, a player who had bided his time behind Shyrone Stith, Andre Kendrick and Lee Suggs, and had yet to fully cede playing time to the #1 recruit in the 2001 class, Kevin Jones, despite the freshman being the more effective back to that point (granted in limited carries). This game would serve as the impetus for the reigns to finally be let go, as Burnell slogged to a 9-carry, 27-yard scoreless day, adding one catch for another measly 3 yards. Jones, by comparison, never got going either, toting the rock 4 times for 1 yard and adding 2 receptions for 12 yards. In fact the Tech rushing offense as a whole was held to 15 yards on 25 carries, an average of 0.6 yards per carry (not the lowest in this series unfortunately). But it was likely a result of Grant Noel's anemic line of 15-29 for 118 yards, no TDs and 2 INT (one returned for a TD), 2 sacks, 5 rushes for -18 yards and 2 fumbles, 1 lost. Basically, just like in the Miami game later that year (known by some as the Grant Noel Game or the Ernest Wilford Game), Noel's play gave the Hokies no hope to win. Short of a Ronyell Whitaker blocked field goal return for 71 yards, the Pitt defense shut the Hokies out and held them to 8 first downs and 155 total yards. This one can be explained by the Noelian Factor.
Nov. 8, 2003: Virginia Tech @ Pitt- 31-28 L
Tech came into this one ranked #5 and perhaps as confident as ever, coming off of perhaps the program's biggest victory to that point, a 31-7 undoing of #2 Miami at Lane Stadium the week prior. They were perhaps a little overconfident (I'm being kind) despite being beaten by Pitt the previous two years, and it showed. The Hokies defense allowed the Panthers to throw all over them, giving up 303 yards through the air to Rod Rutherford (108 of those and 1 TD to Larry Fitzgerald, which was nothing compared to the 5 catch, 105-yard, 3 TD introduction Larry made to the crowd at Lane and the rest of the world the year prior) and 446 total yards in all.
Pitt led a back-and-forth game 24-21 entering the 4th quarter, but the Hokies reclaimed their first lead since the 8:33 mark of the 2nd Quarter just over a minute into the fourth with a 13-yard Kevin Jones score. But that's when the Tech offense stopped and the Panthers were able to mount a game-winning Lousaka Polite TD (and it seemed at the time inevitable) from 2-yards out with just :13 ticks on the clock for the 31-28 win.Tech let one get away late. That game served as a turning point for that talent-rich 2003 team, as they dropped 3-of-their-last-4 (with the lone win coming on a missed PAT in OT vs. Temple...), including the Hokies' last loss to Virginia. Often known as the Kevin Jones game for the fact that Jones reset the Tech record book that night with 241 rushing yards (since reset by Darren Evans' 253 against Maryland in 2008), and because of perhaps the best spin move I've ever seen this side of Braxton Miller's spin move against Virginia Tech, on an 80-yard TD. As Tech was leaving for the ACC, this would be the last game between the two teams until 2012.
Sept. 15, 2012: Virginia Tech @ Pitt- 35-17 L
For the first time in almost nine years, the Hokies and the Panthers did battle, once again at Heinz Field, for what was originally scheduled as a home-and-home (and then the latter of the two games was absorbed into a conference game once the Panthers left the Big East for the ACC), and just like where they left off, it wasn't a very happy time for Hokie fans. In between those two games was sandwiched close to a decade of near-dominance that we likely never see again in Blacksburg (how many teams put together 8-consecutive 10-win seasons?). You could say that the 2003 team, whose lack of heart and effort that spurned the "Team United" 2004 group, and the 2012 team that brought us back to reality on Logan Thomas (aka why the hell is our future No. 1 overall draft pick looking this bad!?) were shocking bookends to that most-prolonged period of success in Virginia Tech history. And this game is where that 2012 season, already off to a rocky start despite the Hokies' 2-0 record and #13 ranking entering this one, started to fall apart, and the rust of the Beamer era really started to show.
Pitt was all over Tech that day, picking off Logan Thomas three times and jumping out to a 21-0 in the first half (for which Tech could only offer a Cody Journell field goal before the break). I was on my way to a Tennessee-Florida game as a birthday present for my then girlfriend, and had to rely on the staticky IMG Radio signal...which I stopped trying so fastidiously to relocate after Logan's 2nd INT. As a result of the game, I didn't really feel so bad about my folly of abandoning Virginia Tech to go into the belly of the lion and be packed like a sardine into Neyland Stadium. At any rate, this is where Tech's 2012 troubles really started, as they made Tino Sunseri look like a Heisman candidate and gave up 254 yards on the ground, while only finding their way to 59 of their own. I don't really want to write anymore about how bad the Hokies were that day, but if you want the full blow-by-blow, have at it with the film review I did shortly thereafter. Also, that initial fact I included about Tech's home-and-home series with Pitt being absorbed by their in-conference schedule once the Panthers joined the ACC was not innocuous nor inconsequential. It prompted the ACC to force the Hokies in 2012 (in their home portion of the home-and-home, after already fulfilling the road portion) to count their home game vs. the Panthers as a home conference game, making them travel to Miami (of all places) two years in a row the very week before journeying TO Boston College. That was good for nearly 4,000 miles of travel in a week's time for the Hokies, all because the ACC thought Tech was receiving an unfair advantage by having an extra ONLY NOW-conference home game despite the fact that they had already played the road portion, as mentioned above, and had scheduled it well before any inklings of Pittsburgh leaving the Big East had ever come out. Apparently Virginia Tech's Athletic Department was being penalized for not being psychic. So basically, this one can be blamed on the running game, the play of the DBs and Logan Thomas.
Oct. 16, 2014: Virginia Tech @ Pitt- 21-16 L
I do have to admit, at this point in my Hokie fanhood, I was in the middle of a burnout that I'm still coming out of to this day thanks to my malaise with and the haze that existed over of Beamer's final years. Therefore, I did not watch this game (hell, I didn't even know Tech had a game, or who they were playing it was so severe). But when Hokie Twitter started percolating late in this one, I tuned in to see the Hokie rally-to-be when Michael Brewer hit Cam Phillips for a 14-yard TD to cut it to a 21-16 Pitt lead with 4:52 to go. This was finally happening! This was the year Tech was going to get off the scheid at Heinz Field (though I wasn't feeling as butthurt as the Tennessee fans who had lost, what was it, 11-straight to Florida were). I don't have to tell you at this point, but just for thoroughness: It wasn't happening. This wasn't the year. Michael Brewer could only march the Hokies 14 yards on their final possession and Pitt escaped with a well-deserved win. Again, the Hokies were completely unable to run the ball on the Panthers, totaling 26 yards on 22 carries on the ground (still not the worst in the series...sigh, because the Hokies only ran for 9 yards on 33 carries a year ago in Blacksburg...and that is not a misprint).
So that's where the Hokies stand at Heinz Field; 0-4 all-time and losers of 6-of-their-last-7 in the series. As former Hokie and Tech Twitter personality Dwight Vick opined this week, Tech fans are blowing this 0-4 thing out of proportion, because it's not like the Hokies were going to Heinz field and losing every other year since they stopped playing Pitt once they left the Big East in 2004. But I argued, in a way, that makes it worse, because it feels like that much longer since Tech has gotten a win in the series (forgetting 2013), not only one that came in Pittsburgh.
So what is the reason that the Hokies haven't fared well at Heinz Field? Is it the hubris of coming in ranked 3-of-the-4 times at Heinz Field? The ignorant comments by former Hokie corner Detrick Bonner in 2012 about "welcoming Pitt to the conference" suggest that's a possibility. Despite possessing one more national championship in the sport than the Hokies do (and that would be one if you're counting), Pitt has not really been viewed as a powerhouse since Tony Dorsett left campus. Sure, they've produced some of the best individual talent to play in the NFL over the last decade (Fitzgerald, LeSean McCoy and Darrelle Revis to name a few), but I don't think anyone would regard them as anything more than an above average-to-good team during that time. They've been eminently forgettable save those (and perhaps some other) individuals. Yet Tech, who has spent most of that time at least somewhat in the national spotlight, has been unable to win there. Is it that no one not named Kevin Jones seems to be able to run the ball there (and even he struggled in 2001)? Or that their great receivers; Antonio Bryant, Fitzgerald, Kris Wilson (a WHO? to non-early 2000 Big Easters), Devin Street and Tyler Boyd, always seem to produce in those games? All of those are possibilities. But if you want my opinion, it's the ketchup.
So, the keys to this year's game/getting out of Heniz Field with a win are:
- Run the ball at least semi-competently
- Don't give up a big game to one (or more) of their receivers
- Don't make their quarterback look like a Heisman Trophy contender if he's not
- Don't let Grant Noel or Logan Thomas be your quarterback (or Marcus Vick for that matter, who threw two picks in the Kevin Jones game)