Stop me if you’ve heard this: The Cincinnati Bearcats are facing the Virginia Tech Hokies in a bowl game. This year’s Military Bowl will be the fourth bowl matchup between the teams, which is certainly not the most postseason meetings between two teams, but feels unnaturally high for programs without a prearranged conference affiliation (like the Pac 12 and Big Ten sending USC and Ohio State to the Rose Bowl).
It will be the fourth matchup between the programs since the beginning of 2009, and three of those will have taken place in a bowl game.
Regardless of your opinion on the historical strength of these two programs, the series is remarkably even. Lets take a look at some history before getting into some notable matchups:
All-time series record: Virginia Tech leads, 6–5
First meeting: 1947
Last meeting: 2014
Current streak: Virginia Tech won the last meeting
Record in Cincinnati: The series is tied, 1-1
Record in Blacksburg: Virginia Tech leads, 3-2
Record at neutral site: Cincinnati leads, 1-0
Record in bowls: Virginia Tech leads, 2-1
January 1, 1947—Cincinnati 18, Virginia Tech 6
While the Bearcats are frequently remembered being a barren wasteland for much of the 20th century, there were still a few solid teams. The 1904 Bearcats went 7-1 under Amos Foster. The 1933 and 1934 Bearcats went 7-2 and 6-2, respectively, winning the Buckeye Athletic Association title in each season. The first truly great UC team, in my eyes, came in 1946.
The Cincinnati Bearcats—along with many programs nationwide—shut down football operations for World War II in 1943 and 1944. When the team returned in 1945, it took a year to get back up to speed. They finished 4-4 under new head coach Ray Nolting. The ‘46 team was captained by Bearcat great Elbie Nickel and featured a cobbled-together roster of players new to the university in the wake of the war. They managed to finish the regular season 8-2, earning the programs first-ever bowl berth.
The Sun Bowl was played on New Year’s Day 1947 and pitted the Bearcats against another program in its first postseason game—Virginia Tech.
The weather was brutal. The temperature was a reported “25 degrees without a trace of sun” and the wind whipped through the barren El Paso landscape, making the game brutal to watch for its 10,000 spectators. After a scoreless first half, the Bearcats recorded a pair of touchdowns in the third quarter, easing their way to an 18-6 victory. The Hokies offense got stifled to the tune of a 369-34 total yards advantage for UC.
A major storyline from the game was the officiating. “The four officials who worked today’s Sun Bowl game had better not meet UC players in a dark alley,” wrote The Enquirer, “because brother, it would be plain mayhem.” The story noted that one writer in the press box quipped that “UC players would have had to have their hands tied behind them to avoid being penalized.” We’ve been complaining about officiating for at least 71 years.
August 31, 1985—Cincinnati 31, Virginia Tech 15
The 1985 win over Virginia Tech reminds me a bit of this year’s team.
They were coming off a season in which they finished 2-9, their only victories over not-yet-FBS Akron and rival Louisville. To open the season they hosted historically strong Virginia Tech, who would go on to have a down year. The parallels to this year’s opener against UCLA are clear.
In front of fewer than 16,000 fans at Nippert, the Bearcats were led by sophomore Danny McCoin in his first season at starting QB. He threw a pair of touchdowns, but it was the stalwart defense that surprised fans and nailed down the victory. More parallels to Desmond Ridder and the 2018 defense.
The D forced four fumbles and intercepted two passes, the special teams unit blocked a punt, and the Bearcats locked down a Hokies team that finished the previous year 8-4. Star running back Reggie Taylor provided pop in the backfield.
The Bearcats used the momentum from the unexpected win to start the season 3-0 before things fell apart. They’d finish the season on a 2-6 run.
September 6, 1986—Cincinnati 24, Virginia Tech 20
The 1986 Hokies were much better. The ‘85 team lost in Clifton and finished 6-5, but the ‘86 group was poised to bounce back, and they’d host the Bearcats in Blacksburg on Opening Night with revenge on their minds.
The Bearcats had something to say about that.
Quarterback Danny McCoin had a career night, completing 30-of-47 passes for 350 yards and two TDs. Halfback Reggie Taylor ran 23 times for 126 yards, putting him over 3,000 in his career and atop the all-time rushing yards list.
With the Bearcats driving, down three points, late in the fourth quarter, they pulled off a miracle. I’ll let the Enquirer’s Tom Groeschen take it away:
Four plays later, Scott Tackett—a backup fullback from Beechwood High School—caught another one from McCoin, this time in the end zone. The touchdown gave UC the lead with 14 seconds left and the Bearcats held on for a massive victory.
The Hokies would go on to finish 9-2-1 and 20th in the AP Poll. The Bearcats lumbered to another 5-6 finish against a difficult schedule that pitted them against three top-10 teams in a five-game span in the second half of the season.
Regardless, it was their third win against Virginia Tech in as many tries.
September 16, 1995—Cincinnati 16, Virginia Tech 0
After their 0-3 start against the Bearcats, the Hokies regained control of the series. The 1987 Hokie team squeaked out a one-point win in Blacksburg. The ‘88 team won by 27 in Clifton. The ‘91 team blasted the Bearcats 56-9 in Blacksburg. The series was tied 3-3 when the teams met again in Virginia in 1995.
Virginia Tech had entered the season at #24 in the AP Poll and figured to dominate Cincinnati at home. The Bearcats were a hapless 2-8-1 in 1994 and opened the ‘95 season with a pair of losses to Kansas and Kansas State. The Hokies opened with a loss to Boston College but were still 14.5-point favorites over Cincinnati in Blacksburg.
The Bearcats clamped down VT, winning 16-0 and allowing the Hokies to run just one play in UC territory in the second half. Five forced turnovers by Cincinnati were the story of the day. Brad Jackson played a role in four of them. It was Tech’s first time shut out at home in 79 games and their first shutout, period, since 1991. They haven’t been shut out since.
The Hokies won their final 10 games, finishing 10th in the AP Poll. Cincinnati meandered to 6-5.
January 1, 2009—Virginia Tech 20, Cincinnati 7
The 2009 Orange Bowl marked the unofficial arrival of Cincinnati football onto the national stage.
The 2007 team was good. They tied the 1951 team for most wins all-time with 10. The 2008 team used the Hawaii Exemption to schedule 13 regular season games and took advantage—winning 11, the most in the history of the program. For their troubles, they earned a trip to the Orange Bowl, the first BCS Bowl trip in the program’s history.
The Bearcats struck first, scoring on a Tony Pike to Mardy Gilyard touchdown pass on the game’s first drive. Quickly though, Virginia Tech’s top-10 defense adjusted and Cincinnati’s offense dried up. The Hokies connected on a field goal in the final seconds of the first half to take a narrow 10-7 lead, but the Bearcats failed to score again, falling 20-7.
The disappointing outing capped off the best season in program history and set the stage for one that would be even better. The Bearcats finished the year ranked 17th, the Hokies 15th.
September 29, 2012—Cincinnati 27, Virginia Tech 24
The first regular season matchup between the teams since 2006 took place in the Butch Jones era. The Bearcats and Hokies squared off at FedExField in Landover, Maryland in front of 46,000 fans.
The Bearcats struck first, as Tony Miliano connected on a pair of first half field goals. The Hokies answered with a Logan Thomas touchdown run to take a 7-6 lead into the half. Midway through the third quarter, the Bearcats finally found the end zone when Munchie Legaux hit Kenbrell Thompkins on a 29-yard pass.
Then came the VT comeback. A Hokie field goal opened the fourth and a Logan Thomas touchdown put the bad guys back in front 17-13 with 8:37 left.
Cincinnati hit a homer in the form of a 76-yard scramble by Ralph David Abernathy IV to cap off a pass from Legaux. The ‘Cats were back on top with 7:51 left. Then a six-play, 93-yard drive by the Hokies put Cincinnati back in a hole with under two minutes left.
The Bearcats weren’t dead.
Cincinnati came roaring back down the field. Facing a 3rd & 10 with 20 seconds left at the 39-yard line, Legaux dropped back, got hit as he threw, and lobbed one down the sidelines for Damon Julian who slid underneath the pass in the end zone, miraculously putting Cincinnati ahead for good with 13 seconds left.
It was the highlight of the 2012 season, at least until an even more spectacular win in the Belk Bowl gave the Bearcats win #10 in December. The Hokies floundered, finishing 7-6.
December 27, 2014—Virginia Tech 33, Cincinnati 17
Deja vu? The 2014 edition of the Military Bowl also featured Cincinnati and Virginia Tech, and get ready to see highlights of this game Monday. The ‘Cats were coming off a share of the AAC title, finishing the regular season 9-3 under Tommy Tuberville.
A Gunner Kiel touchdown pass to Chris Moore put Cincinnati on top early, but things quickly unravelled. The Hokies went on a 27-3 run and knocked Kiel out of the game. With backup QB Munchie Legaux still recovering from a devastating injury the year prior, the Bearcats turned to walk-on Michael Colosimo, who bravely navigated the attacking defense and kept things interesting.
He finished the afternoon with 54 yards on the ground to go with 70 yards through the air and a touchdown pass to Chris Moore, but the Bearcats didn’t have enough for the comeback, ultimately falling short 33-17.
Monday’s Military Bowl is the second consecutive meeting for the teams in the contest and, more unbelievable, the third consecutive in the state of Maryland.
The last time the Bearcats faced VT, the starting QB that had engineered the big season was knocked out. The last time the Bearcats faced Hokie head coach Justin Fuente, he was with the Memphis Tigers, and we know how that game went.
These two teams have a weird history, but the Bearcats have motivation on their side with the Hokies and their head coach. A win for the red and black this year would tie the series 6-6 and match the 2008 team for the second most wins in a season in Cincinnati football history.