The story of redemption that took center stage in Virginia Tech’s thrilling 20-17 overtime victory against Georgia Tech Monday night revolved around place kicker Cody Journell and his game-winning field goal following an offseason marred by off-the-field troubles. But without the exploits of seldom-used wide receivers Corey Fuller and Demetri Knowles, the Hokies could be staring at an 0-1 record right now.
Many would consider Fuller the fourth-best football player in his family behind brothers Vincent (seven-year NFL veteran), Kyle (second-team all-ACC cornerback) and Kendall (a Hokies recruit from Good Counsel considered to be the best cornerback in the country, according to Rivals). A track and field athlete at Kansas before transferring to Virginia Tech before the 2010 season, Corey Fuller was summoned into spur-of-the-moment duty against Clemson last October and looked overwhelmed by the situation in a 20-3 loss.
But when the Hokies saw wide receivers D.J. Coles and Marcus Davis both hobbled by injuries late in the fourth quarter Monday, Fuller got another chance. This time the redshirt senior delivered.
Fuller finished with a career-high five catches for 82 catches, including two receptions on Virginia Tech’s last-ditch drive of regulation. His final catch of the night, on fourth and four, set the stage for Journell’s score-tying 41-yard field goal.
Fuller also had a timely fumble recovery after Davis lost the ball at the end of a 35-yard reception just before Knowles’s touchdown grab in fourth quarter.
“It meant a lot. Honestly, I knew I had it in me. I just had to step up,” Corey Fuller said afterward, as Kyle nodded his head in agreement, a proud grin on his face during Virginia Tech’s postgame news conference. “I knew I could make those big plays. I just . . . let loose.”
Coach Frank Beamer added that Corey Fuller may not be playing second fiddle to his brothers much longer. At a recent practice, an NFL scout approached Beamer asking about Fuller. It just underscores the progress he has made in the past year.
“Corey was fast, but football-wise he wasn’t quite the receiver you think he has become,” Beamer said. “He’s developed into a . . . threat.”
He wasn’t the only unsung offensive hero on a night when quarterback Logan Thomas admitted he “played like garbage.” Though Beamer praised his signal caller because “when Logan needed to be on target, he was on target,” Knowles’s first career catch opened the door for Thomas’s end-of-regulation heroics.
Beamer and the Hokies’ offensive coaches have raved about Knowles’s speed since he arrived on campus last year, and the Bahamas native showed it off when he streaked past Georgia Tech cornerback Rod Sweeting for a 42-yard touchdown pass that gave the Hokies a 14-10 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Sweeting was called for pass interference on the play.
Knowles, who played high school football in Lynchburg, was only in the game because of an injury to Davis (six catches for 82 yards). Thomas knew where he wanted to go with the ball based on his pre-snap read, and when he saw a player who “can run by pretty much anybody on the East Coast, in America really. I just put it out there.”
Knowles said he had a Bible verse and the pregame words of his father running through his head before the play: “Whenever you get in, you make the most of it.”
“I think that’s what I did. He should be proud of me, I guess,” Knowles said with a sheepish smile. “Hopefully I made people in Lynchburg proud, people in the Bahamas proud. And I can tell you one thing: Hokie nation has a whole island cheering for us now.”
Added Beamer, who compared Knowles to former Hokies wide receiver Bryan Still, “I don’t think that’s gonna be the last defensive back he runs by.”
***With the offense struggling much of the night, Virginia Tech’s defense answered the bell time and again. The Hokies were particularly stout up the middle stopping Georgia Tech’s power running game. Middle linebacker Jack Tyler finished with a career-high 17 tackles, and whip linebacker Jeron Gouveia-Winslow and defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins added a career-high 11 tackles apiece.
But the defense was breathing a sigh of relief after allowing a 13-play, 72-yard touchdown drive that gave Georgia Tech a 17-14 lead with just 44 seconds remaining in regulation. Tyler and Gouveia-Winslow both said fatigue played a role as the Yellow Jackets had the ball for more than 22 minutes in the second half.
Tyler was particularly peeved because Georgia Tech running back Deon Hill scored his fourth-quarter touchdown on a pass play the Hokies worked on extensively during practice. A missed assignment left him wide open on a short crossing route.
Beamer’s only regret was that his defense wasn’t able to stop Georgia Tech on fourth and six earlier in the drive.
“It was pretty deflating just because all the hard work we put in all summer and to prepare for this game, that was the last thing you wanted, to throw the game away with less than a minute left,” Tyler said.
Overall, though, Virginia Tech held the Yellow Jackets to 288 yards of offense, nearly 170 less than their average last season. Bud Foster’s unit then sealed the deal when linebacker Bruce Taylor pressured Georgia Tech quarterback Tevin Washington into throwing an interception directly to cornerback Kyle Fuller on the Yellow Jackets’ only possession in overtime.
“For 59 minutes, we were spectacular,” Tyler added. “For that last minute, for some reason we weren’t all there. Thank goodness our offense bailed us out in the end and we helped them out with the overtime stop.”
***The Hokies played the same five offensive linemen all game. Redshirt senior Michael Via received all the snaps at right guard over redshirt sophomore Brent Benedict. Virginia Tech struggled to run the ball at times. It was the first time since beating Nebraska in 2009 that the Hokies gained fewer than 100 rushing yards and still won. In his first collegiate appearance, redshirt freshman Michael Holmes gained 54 yards on 13 carries. Thomas added 40 yards on the ground.
***Monday was the fifth overtime game in Virginia Tech history, and the second in a row following last year’s loss to Michigan in the Sugar Bowl. It was the first-ever overtime game played at Lane Stadium, and the first time the Hokies have emerged with a win since 2003.