With the Hokies embroiled in a tie game and facing third down with just more than 12 minutes remaining in the second quarter, Thomas rolled to his left and lofted a pass to wide receiver Josh Stanford. In the process, though, he left his body open to a devastating hit delivered just below his chin strap by UCLA linebacker Jordan Zumwalt.
Zumwalt was called for roughing the passer because of the high hit, but that† mattered little to the Hokies’ bench. For the first time in three years as Virginia Tech’s starting quarterback, Thomas lay prone on the turf, unable to get up initially.
“When I saw him, I was really scared,” wide receiver Willie Byrn said. “He didn’t look good. His eyes were glossed over.”
Thomas said after the game he briefly lost consciousness. His next memory was walking woozily to the sideline with the help of trainers. He described his injury as “concussion-like symptoms.”
Thomas’s final college snap came just two plays after he steamrolled through UCLA linebacker Myles Jack and carried a cavalcade of Bruins’ defenders on his back en route to a 25-yard gain.
“Worst thing I’ve ever had to go through. I’d rather hear [reporters] talk bad about me all day long than have to watch a game from the sideline,” said Thomas (3 of 11 for 46 yards and a team-high 49 rushing yards). “I kind of pride myself on being healthy, but this was one of those I couldn’t really prevent. I guess he got a 15-yarder, but it wasn’t what I thought it should’ve been.”
From there, redshirt junior Mark Leal took the reins under center, but he couldn’t get the Hokies into the end zone.
Late in the third quarter, the Hokies did catch a break when UCLA’s Shaquille Evans muffed a punt and long snapper Eddie D’Antuono recovered the fumble at the Bruins 12-yard line. But after three plays, Virginia Tech (8-5) was forced to settle for a 22-yard field goal by place kicker Michael Branthover (DeMatha) that cut its deficit to 14-10.
UCLA (10-3) then embarked on a 12-play, 85-yard touchdown drive and the rout was on from there. Leal (12 of 25 for 130 yards and two interceptions) soon heaved a desperation pass as he was being sacked directly into the arms of Jack, who returned it 24 yards for a touchdown.
The Bruins scored four touchdowns in the fourth quarter, including a 59-yard strike from quarterback Brett Hundley to Evans with less than six minutes remaining.
UCLA’s 42 points were the most Virginia Tech has allowed in a bowl game since a 52-49 loss to California in the 2003 Insight Bowl. It’s also the most lopsided bowl loss the Hokies have suffered since a 42-3 defeat to North Carolina in the 1998 Gator Bowl.
Zumwalt (10 tackles, one interception) and Hundley (387 total yards, four touchdowns) were named co-MVPs of the game.
“I’m disappointed that Mark didn’t play better,” Coach Frank Beamer said of Leal. “I’m disappointed that we didn’t function better as an organization.”
The game began with Virginia Tech’s vaunted defense, which entered Tuesday ranked No. 4 in the nation, giving up yards on the ground and committing penalties like it never had before. It took UCLA just 1 minute 34 seconds and six plays to take a 7-0 lead when Hundley broke a tackle by Hokies defensive end Dadi Nicolas on a seven-yard touchdown run.
Thomas and Virginia Tech responded before the first quarter ended when tailback J.C. Coleman, starting in place of injured redshirt freshman Trey Edmunds (broken tibia), tied the score at 7 with a one-yard plunge into the end zone.
But Hundley proved to be too much the Hokies. The redshirt sophomore finished with 161 rushing yards, including an 86-yard touchdown, the most yards Virginia Tech has ever given up to a quarterback in a bowl game. The Hokies allowed a season-high 447 total yards.
Thomas, meanwhile, tried valiantly to re-enter the game, and spent halftime “showing off his counting skills to the trainers,” Byrn said.
During a TV timeout as the Hokies prepared for their second drive of the second half, he even stood in the middle of the offensive huddle wearing his helmet. Soon thereafter, though, Thomas was given the grim news that his career was officially over.
He reacted by throwing his shoulder pads and wrist bands to the ground, kicking them in disgust.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
“The worst thing for me is just watching the guys play without me,” Thomas said. “That’s what made me more sick than anything.”