There are all sorts of reasons why Virginia Tech orchestrated its biggest comeback ever under Coach Frank Beamer on Saturday, from quarterback Logan Thomas’s poise on and off the field to a resurgent defense that dominated the final three quarters of a 41-20 win. But the Hokies’ deluge began and ended with the exploits of wide receiver Marcus Davis and running back J.C. Coleman.
Virginia Tech had eight plays go for more than 20 yards and either Davis or Coleman was involved in five of them, part of an afternoon when the Hokies gained a season-high 525 yards.
Davis finished with five catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns, while Coleman had a career-high 183 yards. It’s the most yards a true freshman has ever gained under Beamer. Even more impressive: Both delivered explosive moments just when it seemed the Hokies were on the brink of a disastrous loss.
Davis came through first. With Virginia Tech trailing 20-0 late in the first quarter, he got the offense going with a 40-yard reception. It set up running back Martin Scales’s four-yard touchdown run.
Then, just before halftime, Davis ensured the Hokies would capitalize on an interception by safety Detrick Bonner, emerging wide open down the sideline for a 42-yard touchdown catch that narrowed Virginia Tech’s deficit to 20-17 entering the locker room.
“We knew once they started stepping up that we could run past them,” Davis said of Duke’s defensive backfield. “Once we got up, we started pounding them. You could tell they really didn’t want to play with us anymore. We just had to keep stepping on it and keep fighting them.”
Thomas echoed those thoughts after the game, saying the Hokies entered Saturday with the belief that Duke’s secondary wouldn’t be able to keep up with their wide receivers on passes over the top of the defense. It happened again midway through the third quarter when Davis streaked down the sideline and leapt in the air for an underthrown ball from Thomas.
Davis won the battle with the Duke cornerback covering him and came down with a 47-yard touchdown that put Virginia Tech up 31-20. He now has seven catches of more than 19 yards since the second half of the Cincinnati game, a moment Thomas now calls the turning point for an offense that has totaled 1,089 yards and 92 points over the past 10 quarters.
“Marcus is a superior athlete to anyone on our team,” Thomas said. “I expect him to win every jump ball and I expect him to win every one-on-one matchup.”
Coleman’s play was more of a surprise. Before Saturday, he had just 136 rushing yards all season and was announced as the starter the morning of the game. He was slowed early along with the rest of the Hokies, but exploded in the second half, showing off the quickness that made coaches enamored with him in the first place. He picked up 159 yards on nine carries after halftime.
His 86-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, just after Virginia Tech’s defense forced a turnover on downs when Duke had the ball in the red zone, clinched a much-needed Hokies victory.
For the game, Virginia Tech averaged 6.9 yards per carry, three yards above the team’s season average entering Saturday.
“We just needed something. And I thought JC was that guy today,” Beamer said.
***It was a very encouraging day for a Virginia Tech defense that was in shambles coming into this one. The Hokies sacked Duke quarterbacks five times, almost doubling their total for the season, and also forced four turnovers.
The key giveaway came with less than two minutes remaining in the first half, when Bonner reeled in an interception after a pass from Duke quarterback Sean Renfree bounced off the hands of wide receiver Conner Vernon. After the game, Bonner said “it gave us a spark, it gave us excitement.”
“Forcing turnovers, getting pressure on the QB, that’s been our M.O. since Day One,” linebacker Bruce Taylor said. “We had kind of gotten away from that the past few weeks. The D-line probably had the best day of their season.”
That they did. Defensive end James Gayle finished with a team-high nine tackles, including a sack and 2.5 for loss. Defensive tackle Luther Maddy also had his best game in quite some time, notching two sacks and recovering a fumble. The sophomore had been battling an ankle injury in recent weeks.
“Luther is probably, in my opinion, one of the best pass rushing defensive tackles in the ACC,” Gayle said. “You got to watch him at practice. He just showed what he can do today.”
***Speaking of injuries, Hokies center Andrew Miller appears to have suffered a potentially devastating one. The redshirt junior fractured his ankle early in the third quarter and never returned to the game. Virginia Tech will update his status Sunday, but it seems he could be lost for the season at this point.
The injury was particularly bad because the Hokies were already without guard David Wang (ankle/knee) and guard/center Caleb Farris (ankle). In Miller’s place, senior Michael Via slid over to center and redshirt sophomores Brent Benedict and Matt Arkema manned the guard positions.
Via, who has played at four of the five spots on the offensive line during the course of his Virginia Tech career, had some issues snapping the ball to Thomas at times. It will be something to watch this week with Clemson on tap next.
***As for the ACC, North Carolina handed Miami its first conference loss of the season, which officially means the Coastal Division is wide open. The Hokies, Hurricanes and Duke all have one ACC loss thus far. More on that Monday.
We’ll close things with a thought from Beamer on the Homecoming crowd at Lane Stadium. They groaned and even booed Saturday, but ultimately left happy following Virginia Tech’s huge surge.
“I can’t fault our fans. It’s disappointing,” Beamer said of falling behind so early. “On the way here today, I could see that they were trying to urge us on coming to the parking area there. They wanted us to play better, and then it’s disappointing when we start out the way we did. I understand that. But they were there for us at the end and they were loud like they normally are. I was glad we were able to give our fans something to cheer about.”