If You Don’t Believe, Don’t Even Get on the Bus
The Virginia Tech Football team was reeling. It was September 2019 and the season was off to a start no one expected. After a losing record in 2018 that showed flashes of promise, the Hokies were supposed to contend for the division crown - the ACC Coastal - with a more experienced defense and several weapons on offense.
True freshman receiver Tayvion Robinson had been touted all through summer practice and would be playing and showing off his electric moves. The receiving corps, which in 2018 was mostly comprised of underclassmen, had another year of experience under their belts and were surely improved. And on defense, the previously inexperienced players were now deemed ready to help the team contend.
But the opening game had been a disappointment. Traveling to Boston College just after it had been announced that longtime, legendary Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster would be retiring after the season, the team was looking for a nice statement to open the year. Though there were moments of excellence on both sides of the ball, five turnovers proved too much to overcome. Boston College eked out a win that any seasoned college football fan would call lucky.
It was only one game, though, and there was plenty of time to regroup and attack the schedule that lay ahead. But in the next two games, the team again played flat, struggling to get past Old Dominion and Furman, both times giving up a decent amount of points and scoring just enough to get by. The next game would begin their long ACC slate for the remainder of the schedule. It would be against Duke, under the lights at Lane Stadium, with a nice opportunity to jumpstart the rest of the season.
After watching the Hokies take the field in dazzling all-white uniforms that were only made brighter by the lights of Lane Stadium, a loss unfolded unlike any I can recall. After some promising early defensive stands, VT slowly unraveled as the game progressed, producing little offensively while allowing Duke to gain yards and points almost at will.
I tried to keep hoping and hoping as the night went on, but the Hokies just couldn’t get things going. A deep touchdown pass by Tech made things more interesting for just a minute. But when Duke faked a punt late in the game and soon after scored a touchdown, the decimating defeat was complete at 45-10.
The Hokies stood at 2-2 with two ACC losses and a poor outlook for the rest of the season. If they lost to Duke at home, what would happen when they played an away game against Miami the following week? The media took the Hokies’ apparent downfall and ran with it, criticizing the Virginia Tech coaching staff and reminiscing about the glory days of Virginia Tech Football that now seemed long gone. In my 20-plus years of following Tech Football, never had there been heat on the team like there was that week.
The program was seemingly in a tailspin and everyone was trying to make sense of it. As Miami loomed ahead, my concern deepened and I didn’t expect them to win. Over the years, Foster was a defining figure in the Virginia Tech Football world. His ferocious defenses - playing with pride and intensity - created game-breaking moments and made me so proud to be a Hokie. Time and time again, Foster’s Lunch Pail Defense took on supposedly superior teams and ground out amazing performances.
In 2014, they marched into the Horseshoe against Ohio State, stood tall against a team that few people thought they could hang with and dominated the game. Though that game is a single, shining example, there are many others to pick from throughout Coach Foster’s tenure, like contests against Miami in 2003 or Clemson in 2007.
Speaking recently in an interview, Foster stated, “I just felt like I wanted us to be aggressive, attacking — let’s don’t let the offense dictate to us. Let’s dictate to the offense.” And now, watching footage of past Hokies games, I recognize more than ever what he means. With the Lunch Pail Defense hitting on all cylinders, I can’t imagine trying to move the ball down the field against a pack of such motivated, hungry players.
Foster further described what he wanted the LPD to embody: “But, you know, the mindset of us being an attacking, aggressive defense that was going to come out and out-work our opponent. That was going to separate us. We were going to be mentally tougher. We were going to be physically tougher. We were going to be better conditioned. All the way around, people weren’t going to out-work us or out-prepare us.”
The Lunch Pail became a symbol of the hard-working, blue-collar ethic of Tech’s defense under Coach Foster. A beat-up, black metal lunch box with the word WIN painted in orange across the front, it exemplified grit, a hard-nosed attitude and going toe-to-toe with the best teams in college football. Accompanying the team to every game, the Lunch Pail looked as though it had been through many battles itself, with its roughed up exterior and various imperfections, not unlike a Tech player after a game who had given his all for the team.
As the upcoming Miami game got closer and the team tried to regroup before facing what seemed like an insurmountable task, Bud Foster said something that set the tone for the game: “If you don’t believe, don’t even get on the bus.” Facing a desperate situation, Foster not only gave the team hope but demanded their best.
The Hokies weren’t going to give in. This statement, for me, sums up what Bud Foster as a coach and Virginia Tech Football as a team are all about. They will take on challenges, they can play with anyone, and they won’t back down. Here was a team that had been derided on national television since last Friday’s loss, being given little to no chance to beat Miami, yet they were holding strong and would give everything they had to right the ship.
Season after season, Virginia Tech and Miami have played some hotly contested football games. On the Miami side, there’s the history of national titles, four and five-star high school recruits and displays of flash, showmanship and the South Beach culture. Whatever one thinks of Miami, they’re a big name on the national stage and the media take notice when they’re playing.
Parading a giant gold, diamond-encrusted chain every time they score a turnover, in many ways the Miami program is in direct contrast to what Virginia Tech Football is all about: old school determination, humble Southwest Virginia roots and developing unheralded recruits into players that can compete with anyone in the country. If one could compare the rivalry to a movie storyline, it would be the small-town all-American heroes standing up to the showboating team from the big city.
On the morning of October 15, 2019, I went on a trail run with a friend and enjoyed some breakfast at a local southern-style restaurant. I almost wasn’t taking seriously the game that would take place between Virginia Tech and Miami later that day. It was one of those situations where you prepare yourself for disappointment by having low expectations.
It hurts sometimes being a Hokie Football fan because you love your team so much that they’re imprinted in your heart, yet they don’t always win. It hurts even more when they’re having a bad season or have an embarrassing loss. If the game didn’t go well that day, they were on course for both and the rest of the year wouldn’t be very fun.
Finally, kickoff was about to happen. The game was at an NFL stadium and the atmosphere was one of tense anticipation. The crowd was into it and seemed to be expecting a brawl. The Miami Hurricanes were wearing all orange uniforms with white helmets and the Virginia Tech Hokies had a traditional, no-nonsense set of maroon pants, white jerseys, and maroon helmets. My heart thumped like a drum inside my chest as the opening kickoff sailed down the field and Miami took possession. What was going to happen? How bad would it be? As the chains were set up and Miami began their first possession, I was hoping Tech just put up a good fight.
VT’s defense lined up and appeared locked in. First play from scrimmage: a handoff and a one-yard gain. Second down: a weak screen-pass thrown under pressure for about two yards. Then the Lunch Pail Defense drew a line in the sand, showing they weren’t going to give an inch that afternoon.
The Miami quarterback dropped back, was again pressured, and forced a short pass. Chamarri Conner, a heavy shouldered whip linebacker, batted the pass high in the air which was then intercepted by cornerback Jermaine Waller. The Tech players jumped and hooted like a pack of wild dogs and the sideline jumped with joy. The Hokies had come to play.
The rest of the first half unfolded like a dream, as the Hokies scored a total of four turnovers with three coming on interceptions. Their offense was rolling, providing a needed equalizer for the defensive effort, scoring 28-straight points. The Canes were on their heels and no matter what they tried to come up with, it wasn’t working.
Football is a team sport and that day so much effort was being put out by the Hokies on both sides of the ball. But one play, in particular, stood out to me, illustrating the team’s determination to come away with the win. Though Tech led 28-0, Miami had driven the length of the field and was on the verge of scoring a touchdown before the end of the half. Though it would only be seven points, it would give them momentum and put a dent in the Hokies’ charge.
The gassed LPD lined up and rangy linebacker Alan Tisdale took his ready stance before the ball was snapped. Staring down the quarterback before the snap, he vomited a huge stream of fluid through his face mask. It was reminiscent of water being hurled out of a bucket. But Tisdale ignored it, carried out his role and the Hokies made the stop, scoring their third interception. They were truly laying it all on the line.
The second half was very different. The previously unstoppable Tech offense slowed down, gaining only 15 yards in the third quarter. Miami was the opposite, steadily chipping away at Tech’s sizable lead before scoring a touchdown to make it 35-all with barely three minutes left in the game. All they had to do was make the extra point and the comeback would be complete, and after such a heroic effort, the Hokies would go home empty-handed. As Miami lined up for the kick, I was overcome with resignation and discouragement. What a way to lose after such an incredible first half. But then the ball was snapped then kicked and it clinked off the upright for zero points. It wasn’t over.
The Tech offense thankfully came through and used up two minutes to make it 42-35 with about a minute left, leaving victory in the hands of the LPD. This game was going to come down to all of those hours Bud Foster spent on the practice field ingraining the right habits and skills in his players. Miami would have their chance to light up the field, make a show and take the lead. Standing in their way were 11 beaten, weary defenders who would give every last ounce of effort to make sure that didn’t happen.
As Miami began their possession, players on both sides of the ball looked exhausted as they lumbered around before the snap. It was reminiscent of watching runners finish a marathon in the hot sun. Jerseys were covered in grass and dirt stains, looking as though they’d been through three games instead of one. Tech was going full prevent, rushing only three defensive linemen with a wall of players aligned further back. Coach Foster looked on intently from the sideline.
As the clock wound down towards 0:00, the teams battled like two fighters at the end of a long, drawn-out bout. Each fought on, heaving punches here and there, most missing, but some landing with a small effect. Miami landed jab after jab before finding themselves on the Tech 10 yard line with five seconds left to play.
With one of the announcers exclaiming “This is it,” Miami snapped the ball. The Canes ran an army of receivers into the end zone, trying to make a play. But they ran into a pack of defenders on the prowl, who also had a numbers advantage.
Then, just like the beat-up boxer on the ragged edge of exhaustion, the LPD landed one final punch. The quarterback forced a pass into the middle of the end zone and senior safety Reggie Floyd, like a striking cobra, dove in its path, batting the ball away and preserving the win.
The season had been rescued. Virginia Tech Football was back. After being dragged in the dirt for the past week on national television and having every reason to fold, they’d dug in, found focus and determination, and scored a defining win against a top program.
Coach Foster’s statement to the team had not only told them to not give in but to give their best during a dire situation. The team had shown what Virginia Tech Football is all about: working hard, standing up, and never backing down. It was a victory to be immensely proud of and an example for future teams when they encounter similarly adverse situations.