The environment in Morgantown, West Virginia came as no surprise to Ben Taylor. The Virginia Tech linebacker, who anchored the Hokies’ defense from 1998-2001, grew up in Bellaire, Ohio. A small town in the eastern part of the state, it sits along the Ohio River, directly across from Wheeling, W.Va., and the state’s northern panhandle.
About 90 minutes away from Morgantown, Taylor played with and against a number of players in high school who went on to play for the Mountaineers. He was surrounded by West Virginia fans on a daily basis. It created some extra nerves for Taylor on the 1999 trip in early November to Mountaineer Field knowing he’d have a bevy of family and friends in attendance.
“I’ve been around WVU culture and people for a lot of my life,” Taylor said. “They’re intense. They get after their football. They love their football up there and get a little rowdy, of course. You hear some of the stories, but leading up to that game, you know it’s going to be hard fought. They’re tough. They just get after it. Being in that atmosphere, it was a night game, you never really fully expect what’s going on.”
The Hokies entered the contest with a perfect 7-0 record and National Championship aspirations in front of them. Meanwhile, Don Nehlen’s squad was in the midst of a down year with a 3-5 record, but hungry to ruin Virginia Tech’s perfect season.
Taylor’s suspicions about the atmosphere that night were quickly fulfilled.
“I’ll never forget when we walked in for the pregame out onto the field, I remember the entire student section, it was filled up pretty early,” Taylor said. “We ran out there to warm up and they’re chanting, ‘Corey Moore’s mom’s a whore.’ The entire stadium is saying that. I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God. Here we go.’ That was a little taste of what we got throughout the game.
“As you’re in the game, you get into the flow and you don’t really see the stands a whole lot as you’re playing. It’s just an atmosphere that is rowdy. Being a night game and everything associated with that, it’s why you play college football. That’s the beauty of college football.”
Virginia Tech appeared to put the finishing touches on a hard-fought win when Shyrone Stith punched it in the end zone from six yards out to give the Hokies a 19-7 lead with 4:59 left in the fourth quarter. However, the West Virginia offense that had been stifled all game scored a touchdown to cut Virginia Tech’s lead to 19-14 with 3:15 remaining.
All the Hokies needed to do was run some clock. The offense fed its workhorse Stith, who picked up 18 yards on the first two carries of the drive. Then, disaster struck. Stith fumbled the next handoff and the Mountaineers recovered, just 32 yards from paydirt.
Facing a third-and-13, Brad Lewis fired the go ahead 18-yard touchdown to Khori Ivy. The ensuing two-point conversion attempt failed, but West Virginia took its first lead of the game, 20-19, with 1:15 left on the clock.
“It was definitely deflating, especially with that defense we had,” Taylor, who finished with seven tackles in the game, said. “Anything is possible with Mike Vick, so you never hung your head. You never knew what was going to happen with Mike Vick.”
“Anything is possible with Mike Vick.” It’s an apt description of exactly what happened next. Vick engineered a drive down the field, including the legendary 26-yard scamper down the sideline.
“Usually in some of those magical seasons that you have, you have a game like that where an underdog is at their place and you have to find a way to gut it out,” Taylor said. “I had a feeling this is one of those great seasons where you have a come-from-behind or signature-type win to figure out a way to get it done when things aren’t going right. That’s exactly what that was.”
The Hokies drove 58 yards in just over a minute behind four big chunk plays from Vick to set up the field goal unit at the WVU 27. Frank Beamer sent Shayne Graham out for the 44-yard field goal with five seconds remaining. Taylor locked arms with his teammates and anxiously examined the scene in front of him.
Right down the middle.
“Once it hits, we’re just going crazy because there’s no time left and running on the field,” Taylor said. “I never had that kind of experience before, a walk-off type of football game. It was pretty crazy.
“[The West Virginia fans were] completely silent. I didn’t hear one word from them, no cussing. I think there’s a healthy respect because we’re both blue-collar type of schools in how we approach and attack things. There’s a healthy respect there in my mind, maybe there isn’t.”
Virginia Tech’s 2001 trip to Morgantown in Taylor’s senior season was less eventful, but more satisfying. Bud Foster’s defense limited the Mountaineers offense to a mere 173 yards of total offense. The Lunch Pail Defense picked off three passes and recorded five sacks en route to the 35-0 shutout victory. Taylor led the Hokies with 11 tackles in the matchup.
“It was the first year they were installing their new offensive system,” Taylor said. “It was the spread attack. I remember being coached up by Coach Foster. The guy, he’s a genius. He knows exactly how to attack certain offenses. That’s exactly what we did.
“We had their zone reads down pat. We had that system down pat. They couldn’t do anything. We beat them 35-0. We brought pressure. We knew their routes before they knew their routes. We were running underneath of them. It was just a total defensive dominating performance. Just one of those games where you knew what was happening and you felt the vibe. We just put it on them.”
It was the third shutout that the 2001 Hokies pitched in the first five games of the season. The team jumped out to a 6-0 start but went 2-4 down the stretch to finish 8-4. Still, it was one of the more dominant defenses in Virginia Tech history, finishing third in the country allowing 14.8 points per game.
“We had so many good players on that defense,” Taylor said. “If you go to the front four with David Pugh and Chad Beasley, those guys set the tone up front. If we could have had a little bit more on offense. Our defense, we were rolling. We had a great, cohesive group. We loved each other. Really, that’s what it came down to was playing some nasty defense. Play some Bud Foster nasty defense and just that love we had is what I remember distinctly from my senior year on defense. Just what a great group of people.”
The 2021 version of Virginia Tech returns to Morgantown this Saturday for the first time since 2005. When the two teams meet at noon, the Hokies will have held the Black Diamond Trophy for 6,195 days and intend to keep it in their possession for the foreseeable future.
Virginia Tech has held the Black Diamond Trophy for 6192 days. #Hokies
— Black Diamond Trophy (@BlkDiamondTrphy) September 15, 2021
Taylor has liked what he’s seen from the Hokies this year.
“I tell you what, I’m starting to see guys flying to the football again,” Taylor said. “Coach Hamilton is starting to get those guys moving. [Braxton] Burmeister, he seems to have a nice leadership role with that group of guys. He’s starting to come into his own. The one thing we’ve had over the years at that quarterback position is some speed when we’ve been productive. He’s got some wheels on him. Whether that was Michael Vick, but I know he’s one of the fastest guys on the team if I’m reading stuff correctly. Adding that element to the offense is really what can take us to the next level. I’m really enjoying what we’re doing so far on defense, and I’ve enjoyed watching the first couple weeks.”
It’s fitting that Taylor recognizes a defense that flies to the football. It’s what defined his four-year career at Virginia Tech. The All-American finished his career with 318 tackles and 31 tackles for loss. Taylor was inducted into Virginia Tech’s Hall of Fame in 2017.
After spending some years coaching college football, he’s settled into a role as a teacher to open up more free time with his family, including coaching his son’s middle school football team. His legacy in the eyes of Virginia Tech fans everywhere continues to live on.
“It’s one of those things where whenever you watch football, you recognize people who play with a passion for football and play with a passion for their buddies,” Taylor said. “I’m not playing for myself, I’m playing for all of those guys. I think that’s what it all comes down to. That was instilled pretty early with Coach Foster with his philosophy and being excited for each other. It doesn’t have to be mechanical. You still celebrate with your buddies at all times whenever they’re doing something. Just being happy for each other and know that there’s stuff that tears a team apart.
“I think that’s why those defenses over those years were great, because it was x’s and o’s, yes, but it was how guys played for each other. That’s what I truly tried to emulate. We had some good times.”