ATLANTA — Before Saturday’s game between No. 1 Alabama and Virginia Tech kicked off, even many of the orange-and-maroon clad fans who trekked to the Georgia Dome assumed the end result was a foregone conclusion. The Crimson Tide, winner of two consecutive BCS championships, would simply be too much for the Hokies, just eight months removed from the program’s worst season in 20 years.
Their hunch wasn’t off, but few could have guessed the unlikely trifecta that ultimately did in Virginia Tech.
For the first time in Coach Frank Beamer’s 27-year tenure, the Hokies allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown, a punt-return touchdown and an interception return for a touchdown in the same game. It was “Beamer Ball” at its worst, and the Crimson Tide cruised to a 35-10 victory at the sold-out stadium.
Alabama’s Christion Jones was the unlikely star of the night, scoring three touchdowns in three different ways. In the first quarter, he returned a punt 72 yards to the end zone. In the second quarter, he returned a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown. The junior then capped off his evening with a 39-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter, beating Virginia Tech safety Desmond Frye with starter Kyshoen Jarrett sidelined by cramping.
Beamer said after the game the two special teams breakdowns were the result of using too many young players on his once-vaunted unit, and noted he would “absolutely” consider playing more veterans going forward.
“It’s no excuse. We’re gonna evaluate our personnel,” Beamer said. “The points that we gave them, it shouldn’t happen in a ballgame. Those were critical.”
Jones’s heroics masked what was otherwise a stellar performance by Virginia Tech’s defense. The Hokies kept Alabama’s vaunted rushing attack in check and held the Crimson Tide offense just two touchdown drives. Quarterback A.J. McCarron, the nation’s most efficient passer a year ago, completed 10 of 23 passes for 110 yards and also threw an interception.
But it would be more than enough with the Hokies’ revamped offense – led by new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler – sputtering in much the same way it did at the end of last season.
Quarterback Logan Thomas completed only 5 of 26 pass attempts for 59 yards and threw a momentum-crushing interception that Crimson Tide safety Vinnie Sunseri returned for a touchdown early in the second quarter. Thomas was fooled by Alabama’s coverage, said Beamer, who called the play a “turning point” in the game.
But Thomas left the field “encouraged,” particularly with how Virginia Tech’s new offensive line held up. The Hokies actually outgained Alabama, 212-206.
“Most of us have smiles on our face because we know how good we can be,” said Thomas, whose cringe-worthy stat line was due in part to a plethora of drops by his receivers.
Thomas’s pick-six came just a few minutes after tailback Trey Edmunds sent a jolt through the crowd on the third carry of his career. The redshirt freshman scampered 77 yards to cut Virginia Tech’s deficit to 14-7 with 16 seconds left in the opening quarter. Alabama’s top-rated defense allowed just 76.4 rushing yards per game last year.
Edmunds finished with 132 rushing yards, the first Virginia Tech freshman to top 100 in his debut since 1996. He was the lone bright spot on offense, though. The Hokies advanced the ball into Alabama territory just once, and aside from Edmunds’s long run and a 34-yard completion to wide receiver D.J. Coles in the first quarter, they averaged 1.8 yards per play.
“I wouldn’t say surprised,” Edmunds said of his play. “But just to go out here and do it to the team we did it to, that speaks volumes.”
But Virginia Tech closed the first half exactly how it started the game – with a special teams gaffe that shined a light on a unit that used to be a point of pride for Beamer. Following a 39-yard field goal by Hokies place kicker Cody Journell, which was set up by an interception by senior cornerback Kyle Fuller, Jones broke a tackle on the ensuing kickoff and sprinted to the end zone.
So even though Virginia Tech outgained Alabama, 155-87, held T.J. Yeldon to 22 yards on 11 carries, and became just the 13th school since 2005 to produce a 100-yard rusher against the Crimson Tide’s defense – all before halftime – it began the second half facing a 28-10 deficit.
With so many gaffes, a comeback wouldn’t be in the cards.
“You play a team like Alabama and flaws, if you got them, show up,” Beamer said. “And I think a couple of them showed up tonight.”