ORLANDO — Ever since Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer’s worst regular season in 20 years ended, rumors have been rampant that he will initiate wholesale changes to a much-maligned offensive coaching staff. For much of Friday night, it appeared they could go out in embarrassing fashion.
But in a game dominated by defense, the Hokies awoke from the dead just in time, defeating Rutgers, 13-10, in overtime to win the Russell Athletic Bowl and avoid their first losing season since 1992.
In a fitting conclusion to the lowest-scoring game in this bowl’s history, the winning points came when the Hokies were forced to settle for a 22-yard field goal by place kicker Cody Journell during their first overtime possession. His counterpart, Rutgers redshirt freshman Nick Borgese, missed wide right on a 42-yard field goal to end the contest. It was Journell’s third game-winning field goal of the season.
Virginia Tech’s defense was its lone saving grace, considering the offense finished with a season-low 196 yards. The Hokies (7-6) kept Rutgers’s offense out of the end zone the entire game, the Scarlet Knights’ lone touchdown coming off a bad snap to Logan Thomas on the second play of the night.
Rutgers (9-4) ended the game with just 196 yards.
“It’s just great to be that team that didn’t end with a losing season and hopefully we can do bigger and better things next year,” said cornerback Antone Exum, who was named the game’s most valuable player .
In his postgame news conference, Beamer again declined to comment on any looming staff changes. But at the end of the third quarter the Hokies appeared completely lost, with more yards in penalties (85) than on offense (80). Somehow, though, they only trailed 10-0.
Virginia Tech’s offense finally awoke when Thomas completed consecutive passes of 32 and 25 yards to begin the fourth quarter, the Hokies’ longest plays of the game to that point. After watching his unit suffer too many “negative plays” facing a ferocious Rutgers defense, offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring said the Hokies went to more maximum protection fronts.
Virginia Tech was forced to settle for a 25-yard field goal by Journell after three straight runs left the ball at the 11-yard-line, but the momentum soon turned for good. After the Hokies dropped three would-be interceptions earlier in the game, and had another by cornerback Kyle Fuller overturned by a questionable pass interference penalty, Scarlet Knights quarterback Gary Nova overthrew his intended receiver, and the pass fell directly into the arms of Exum.
Thomas soon responded by throwing his best pass of the night, finding wide receiver Corey Fuller for a 21-yard touchdown in the corner of the end zone that tied the score at 10 with 10 minutes 56 seconds remaining in regulation.
“It was a big sense of relief,” Stinespring said. “We were able to change the field. You saw the whole football team respond because we were able to get some plays down the field.”
Still, Virginia Tech’s defense gave the offense five more chances to score the go-ahead points in the final nine minutes of regulation, including a fumble recovery by defensive end Tyrel Wilson in Rutgers territory. But all the Hokies could muster was three punts, a 51-yard field goal attempt by Journell that landed in the end zone, Thomas’s second interception and a turnover on downs.
In what could be his final game in a Virginia Tech uniform, Thomas finished 15 of 39 for 193 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. The redshirt junior is considering declaring for the NFL draft, but looked shaky most of the night behind an offensive line that allowed four sacks.
“I still have a big decision in front of me, and either way it goes, I’m glad to be a Hokie,” Thomas said after the game.
Luckily for the Hokies, Nova was even worse. He completed just 17 of his 40 passes for 129 yards as the two teams combined for a Russell Athletic Bowl-record 21 punts.
Virginia Tech couldn’t have asked for a worse start, as disaster struck on the second play of the game. A poor snap by Hokies center Caleb Farris eluded Thomas and rolled to the end zone. Thomas recovered it and appeared to have a knee down in the end zone before the ball was jarred loose and recovered by Rutgers linebacker Khaseem Greene.
But following a conference on the field, the Big 12 officiating crew ruled it a Scarlet Knights touchdown and Virginia Tech found itself in a 7-0 hole 17 seconds into the contest.
That, though, only proved to be the first of several lowlights for the Hokies’ offense. They ended the first quarter with 12 yards on 21 plays and were held scoreless in the first half for the first time this season, entering halftime with minus-11 rushing yards and as many punts (six) as first downs.
“There were two good defenses on the field tonight and that’s kind of how the game went,” Beamer said.