Powered by a vintage performance from their signal caller and an unyielding defense in the fourth quarter, the Hokies staved off Georgia Tech, 17-10, in their ACC opener Thursday night.
Thomas finished 19 of 25 for 221 yards passing, carried the ball 16 times for 58 yards and played a near-flawless first half.
He accounted for 279 of Virginia Tech’s 276 total yards (the Hokies had two players rush for negative yards).
It also was the first time since last year’s regular season finale, against Virginia, that Thomas did not throw an interception. The performance came as Thomas revealed after the game he played through a strained abdominal muscle that left him unable to throw a pass in practice this week.
“I’ve never really lost confidence in myself. I’ve always been able to move on to the next one, move on to the next play,” Thomas said. “The big thing is just not listening to you guys [reporters] because you guys are annoying.”
In last year’s season opener, Thomas led Virginia Tech on a game-tying drive in the waning moments of the fourth quarter, setting the stage for the Hokies’ 20-17 overtime victory against the Yellow Jackets. Playing on a Thursday night in Atlanta in 2011, he was even better — he accounted for five touchdowns.
This time around, the Hokies’ defense also staked a claim to the spotlight.
Despite Thomas’s injury, offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler began ramming Thomas into the line play after play as the fourth quarter began, hopeful his senior quarterback could put the contest away. But a delay-of-game penalty stalled Virginia Tech’s drive at the Georgia Tech 22-yard-line, forcing the Hokies to settle for a 39-yard field goal from Cody Journell.
On Georgia Tech’s ensuing possession, defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins stopped tailback David Sims for no gain on third-and-short. Georgia Tech Coach Paul Johnson elected to go for it on fourth down, and Hopkins again collapsed the line of scrimmage, allowing linebacker Jack Tyler (Oakton) and defensive end James Gayle to stop Sims short.
“That was probably not the smartest decision in hindsight,” Johnson said. “It was pretty dumb.”
Virginia Tech (4-1, 1-0) had a chance to put the game away on its next drive. But Journell, who missed two field goals and an extra point two weeks ago at East Carolina, missed wide left on a 25-yard field goal. It gave new life to the Yellow Jackets (3-1, 2-1), although it didn’t take long for defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s unit to douse their hopes.
Virginia Tech’s defense has yet to allow a point in the fourth quarter or overtime through five games. Freshman Kendall Fuller, a 2012 All-Met Player of the Year from Good Counsel, iced the victory with his second interception of the season with one minute six seconds remaining.
Georgia Tech finished with just 129 yards rushing, and Tyler noted Foster made several “brilliant” adjustments to shut down the Yellow Jackets after their lone touchdown drive cut Virginia Tech’s lead to 14-10 entering the fourth quarter.
The Hokies started almost as strong as they finished, forcing a turnover on Georgia Tech’s first possession.
Senior Kyle Fuller, playing whip linebacker instead of cornerback against Johnson’s unorthodox flexbone offense, burst through the line of the scrimmage on a perfectly timed blitz and forced a fumble by quarterback Vad Lee.
Freshman cornerback Brandon Facyson recovered the loose ball, and Thomas took it from there.
Two plays later, he found wide receiver D.J. Coles on a 21-yard crossing route that gave the Hokies a 7-0 lead.
Facyson wasn’t done, though. With Georgia Tech driving inside the Virginia Tech 15-yard line on its ensuing drive, the Newnan,Ga., native made a diving interception along the sideline. It was Facyson’s fourth interception in five games, which puts him in a tie for the national lead in that category and one shy from setting a school record for interceptions by a freshman.
Thomas, meanwhile, was sharp early. By the time he finished off a season-long 10-play, 91-yard drive on a five-yard touchdown run with 11:25 remaining before halftime, the Hokies had a 14-0 lead and Thomas had completed all nine of his passes for 121 yards.
When the game was complete, and just as Coach Frank Beamer declared Thursday “a special win,” Thomas lifted his jersey, looked in a mirror and winced before his own news conference.
At that moment, the pain seemed to be worth it.
“He gets a lot of bad rap for his game play by a lot of people, but he stepped up tonight,” Tyler said. “He’s a warrior.”