The Miracle in the Shoe: A Night Hokie Fans Will Never Forget
September 6th, 2014, a day that I will always remember. Part of the reason I decided to go to Virginia Tech and up-root my life from Texas was the rich football history that had materialized over the course of my first 18 years of life. From 1994-2011 Virginia Tech Football was a major powerhouse on Saturdays. College Gameday, Enter Sandman, Primetime matchups in Lane Stadium, ACC Championships, just the many things that enticed me to fall in love with Blacksburg, VA. It was the beginning of my Junior year, and to be frank I had been pretty disappointed in the previous two seasons. Sure, we made bowl games and had winning seasons, but the magic was on the way out of the door. Frank Beamer's days of glory were fading, and the Hokies just were not what they used to be. So, when they traveled to Columbus, OH on that Saturday, my expectations were low. Ohio State was ranked #8 in the country, Urban Meyer was a winning coach, and many believed they would contend for the College Football Playoff that year as they were stacked with talent across the board on both sides of the ball. I was hoping for just a good game, at least for the majority of the length of the game. What I got, however, was far beyond anything I could have imagined. That night would wind up being, in my opinion, the biggest win in Virginia Tech history over the last 10 years. I got to know some of the guys on that 2014 squad throughout my four-year stay and was lucky enough to reach out and talk to a few of them to get a sense of what the experience was like for them.
A Hostile Environment
Ohio State is one of the toughest places to play in the country. Their stadium, known as "The Shoe", for its unique shape, is must-see on Saturdays. Over 100,000 screaming fans packed the house that night. Per OL Augie Conte "that was the biggest crowd Tech had ever played in front of" stating that it was "one of the most hostile environments of my career". OL Jonathan McLaughlin remembered the pre-game bus ride stating as the Hokies went past Main Street all he could see was a "sea of red, people everywhere, with some flipping us the bird". QB Michael Brewer added that "you don't see that on the road in the ACC". Lebron James even made an appearance on the field pre-game, coming to see the fellas ball out. While the environment wasn't pleasant, Virginia Tech knew exactly what they were going in to and were prepared for what they received. It was loud, it was nerve wracking, it was everything they thought it would be. McLaughlin stated that "he could not hear anything at the line, I had to ask what the plays were, I could not hear what the QB (Brewer) called". The Hokies started inside their own 5 four times and the OSU Student Section was right behind them bringing the noise. The Hokies had practiced silent cadences and hand signals throughout the course of the Summer and weeks leading up to the game. Once the initial chaos wore off, Virginia Tech soon showed that they were not afraid of the Buckeyes. Little did they know several hours later the whole place would be quiet and all that could be heard was "Lets Go, Hokies".
A Simple Offense
The 2014 Hokies offense was a young team, one that really did not have a ton of experience together or veteran presence. Isiah Ford, Bucky Hodges, Marshawn Williams and Cam Phillips were all freshmen. Sam Rogers was just a sophomore. Michael Brewer had just transferred in, only having several months of experience and time to learn the offensive scheme. So, what do you do with a young and inexperienced team? Well, you keep it simple. Scot Leoffler was the OC in his second year with the Hokies. He also had an insatiable appetite to beat his former HC in Urban Meyer. Leoffler was known for his more in-depth offensive scheme, running more pro-style formations. For this game, however, he thought a simplistic gameplan was the best shot at a chance to pull off the upset. A big part of the game plan was to put in simple terms mixing in customized plays here and there. The Hokies knew the OSU defense was talented with a strong line and LBs that could run with the opposing players. They needed to play fast and attack the Buckeyes whenever they could. If one corner played softer than the other, they attacked that side of the scheme. Fortunately for the Hokies their defense helped them out and made big plays, fueling the offense to do their part. If you want to beat a good team, you have to score in the Red Zone, and for the most part the Hokies did this. Brewer stated that the late second quarter TD pass to Sam Rogers was a "broken play, and Sam was where he was supposed to be, a great example of why we kept it simple". The game began rough for Brewer, getting picked off by Eli Apple deep in OSU territory stopping any hopes for a first drive TD. However, he would answer on the next drive to put the Hokies up 7-0. Prior to the Rogers TD Williams would rush for a 14-yard TD and the Hokies would lead 21-7 at the half. Joey Bosa would force a second half fumble and the Buckeyes would tie the game 21-21. The Hokies would take the ensuing drive and cap it off with a TD from Brewer to Hodges to regain the lead. From here on out the Hokies would never relinquish the lead, culminating in one of the most memorable interceptions in Tech history.
A Bear Front Defense
In order for the offense to be in the game, the defense needed to step up. This was an all-time Bud Foster defensive performance. Foster and his staff spent the whole summer prior to the game analyzing film, trying to find weaknesses in the Buckeye offense. It was clear that with J.T. Barrett in for three-year injured started Braxton Miller, the Hokies needed to scheme a defense that would wreak havoc on the young QB/OL and rattle him into bad decisions due to unremitting pressure. RB Ezekiel Elliott was also another factor, with the Hokies clear on the fact that in order to win this game, they must contain the run and get to the quarterback. Boy did they do that. Ohio State had seen minimal bear front defensive schemes, if any at all. A simple scheme that places 8 in the box, man on man coverage, and one deep safety. If run effectively, it wreaks havoc on opposing offenses. Bud Foster knew this, and Bud Foster ran it perfectly. In conversation with Michael Brewer the team knew they were going to run the bear front all summer stating that Foster "made it known to keep quiet with the media when discussing the defense leading up to the game". He knew they had not seen much of the scheme and that the Buckeyes would have a time trying to anticipate where the rush was coming from. The Hokies pressured Barrett multiple times, sacking him seven. The pressure spurred Barrett into throwing three interceptions as well. He would go a whopping 9-29 with just one TD. Elliott would rush for only 32 yards and Barrett, being constantly under pressure, would lead the team with 70 rushing yards. While OSU was on the run most of the night, with some help, they managed to keep the game within seven late in the fourth quarter. The Hokies had just missed a FG to keep it a one possession game. With less than a minute to go OSU was in VT territory. Barrett would drop back in the pocket and Deon Clarke would sack him for a loss of nine back to the OSU 49 forcing a timeout. On the ensuing play, Barrett let a deep pass go. Safety Donovan Riley, replacing an injured Kendall Fuller, read the play beautifully and jumped the ball, returning it 63 yards for a TD with just 0:46 on the clock. The Hokies would secure the shocking upset 35-21.
A Win for the Ages
With the combination of a simple offense and bear front defense, Virginia Tech walked into The Shoe and stunned the #8 team in the country. They were able to "ride the roller coaster, roll with the punches, and just keep working" as Augie Conte summed the evening up perfectly. "We weren't surprised with our success, we were ready, we put it all together (per McLaughlin)". Brewer reminisced on the win stating " I remember Coach Beamer and I giving each other a big hug shouting 'we got em' and getting back to Blacksburg at 3-4 in the morning and there were hundreds of people waiting for us going crazy. That was when I realized Hokie fans were awesome, it was so cool to see". Ironically this team did what no other could in 2014 as Ohio State would go on to win the 2015 College Football Playoff with a third string quarterback. Unfortunately, VT finished the year at just 7-6. While the year was disappointing given the start, I think it's safe to say that September night in 2014 will live in the hearts of many Hokie fans for years to come, and I thank them for that. This team, in a sense, was something special and completed a once-in-a-life-time moment.