As the minutes ticked closer and closer to kickoff, the knot in my stomach turned tighter and tighter. Was it excitement for the end of a long off-season? The overwhelming buildup of nerves heading into a renewed rivalry game? Surely it was both.
It had been twelve years since the Hokies and Mountaineers last met, which for many had been twelve years too long. For those of you who never had the opportunity to attend Virginia Tech during the annual series, the West Virginia game always had a different feeling to it. The aggression was palpable.
The series has never been like other match-ups considered rivalries by Tech fans. The venom spewed at Miami was borne out of a flourishing program's desire to prove themselves against a national powerhouse and has rapidly shifted into a tussle for divisional superiority. The Commonwealth Cup has become less and less intriguing over the years, progressively devolving into a must-win game if only to be saved from twelve months of crowing by family and friends.
Playing West Virginia was always a nasty affair. The tension was felt in the parking lots, in the stands and on the field. Batteries were thrown and couches were burned. Over the final decade, the stakes were raised as both programs regularly found themselves in the Top 25. Each team would take great pride in not only claiming victory over their neighbors, but also rubbing the other's noses in their fallibility. Sure, the reprieve was blamed on conference realignment, but tensions had grown so high that by 2005 Hokies fans weren't exactly sad to see its end.
Both programs had since moved on, but it was clear Sunday night that the fanbases hadn't. As the FedExField parking lots remained locked and traffic backed up around the stadium early Sunday afternoon, Mountaineers and Hokies were slinging the traditional trash talk back and forth as though more than a decade hadn't passed since they were last used with such regularity. The intensity in the stands had clearly transferred to the players, for the energy on display from the Hokies and the Mountaineers was reminiscent of the juice from the rivalry's hayday.
So there they were, playing for a trophy that advertises a fading industry, like print media and yellow cabs; a trophy that memorializes a shared regional institution and symbolizes the many commonalities between the two fanbases. And boy did they not disappoint.
Though the rivalry instantly felt familiar, both interested parties spent the game familiarizing themselves with the many fresh faces on their respective sidelines. Despite all of the turnover on defense and a starting quarterback that hadn't taken a snap in nearly two years, the Mountaineers proved to be a dangerous team. For the Hokies, it took almost two quarters for the offense to get their sea legs, but once comfortable they proved how talented they are.
Josh Jackson lived up to the billing as a heady, sneaky athletic quarterback who has an extremely bright future. The much maligned running game displayed an intriguing collection of skillsets, between Steven Peoples' burst inside the tackles, Deshawn McClease's tenacity and Travon McMillian's balance. The offensive line (plus freshman H-Back Dalton Keene) had a number of strong drives. And Cam Phillips and Sean Savoy made big play after big play.
The offense's early growing pains reared their head early as their inability to convert on third down forced an already thin Hokies' defensive line to stay on the field against Dana Holgorsen's multi-dimensional attack. As the game wore on, you could see how gassed the Tech defense was — best exemplified by the severity of Terrell Edmunds' fourth quarter cramps.
Bud Foster's group, which has been viewed (once again) as the bedrock of this year's team, showed incredible resilience in the fourth quarter. Despite surrendering two 7-point leads in the second half, they were able to keep WVU off the scoreboard when it mattered most. The fact that the Mountaineers ran 89 offensive plays and gained almost 600 yards of total offense yet only managed 24 points in the loss underscores the extraordinary defensive performance.
In the end, it was the Hokies' new quarterback who came through in the clutch. It was an ending that seemed unlikely two quarters earlier. While Jackson deftly managed the game throughout, a series of incorrect reads and inaccurate throws kept the offense in neutral for most of the first half. But it was Jackson who capped off an 8-play, 47-yard scoring drive in the waning seconds of the first half, running it in from 5-yards out on a beautifully executed inverted veer.
That first collegiate touchdown seemed to shed Jackson of the mounting weight that had begun to bog down he and his offense. From there, the offense began to open up and big plays came one after another. But no play was bigger than Jackson's 46-yard scamper to set up the winning score.
It may have been Week One, but — given the stakes — that run could go down as the play of the season. Who knows, we may end up looking back on that play as the moment Josh Jackson arrived.
I found myself lying awake in bed during the wee hours of Monday morning trying to put the performance in context. I realized that, unlike every other big win I could remember, my mind wasn't speculating on this team's ceiling or what it meant for the rest of the season.
All summer, my mind had been fixated on West Virginia. Not as a measuring stick or a stepping stone. It was focused on beating the Mountaineers and nothing more. I had inadvertently been viewing the game in a vacuum, rather than through a prism of what a win would mean for the season to come.
I didn't grow up in Appalachia. I don't have any family or friends from the region, so the rivalry between the Hokies and the Mountaineers is far more experiential than familial for me. I learned to buy into the rivalry with West Virginia by watching the two teams play and immersing myself in the tension.
So as Tech's rivalry with the Hoos has become more of an exercise in not losing, I had slowly forgotten how much gratification you could feel from a regular season victory. These types of games should end with pure unadulterated excitement and celebration, not an overwhelming sense of relief.
That is what rivalry games are all about. Big hits. Big plays. Big moments. I felt like I was about to have a heart attack during the final 9 seconds, but my god was it fun. I may not be looking forward to a trip to Morgantown, but boy am I excited for the next matchup in this series. 2021 can't come soon enough.