But the ensuing flick of Thomas’s wrist, and the 83-yard gain by Byrn that followed, proved to be the latest example of an offense finding its groove, and Virginia Tech never looked back during a 27-17 victory over North Carolina on Saturday.
“I was actually very surprised by the call, but I know how he is,” Thomas said of Loeffler. “He was ready to attack.”
Thomas’s growing comfort with Virginia Tech’s first-year play-caller was on display for a second straight week. The fifth-year senior once again paced the offense, finishing 19 of 28 for a season-high 293 yards and three touchdown passes as the Hokies dealt with another opponent that chose to stack the box and forced them to win the game through the air.
Thomas was happy to oblige on an afternoon in which he moved ahead of Tyrod Taylor as Virginia Tech’s all-time leader in passing yards.
He found wide receiver Demitri Knowles on a 45-yard touchdown strike in the first quarter and senior D.J. Coles for a nine-yard touchdown early in the second quarter as the Hokies jumped out to an early 14-0 lead. Thomas then closed out the first half by hitting Coles again in the end zone following Byrn’s long reception, this time from five yards out.
Coles now has 11 catches this season, and five have resulted in touchdowns. The Hokies (5-1, 2-0 ACC) entered halftime with more touchdown drives (three) than they had produced in any game since a win over Duke on Oct. 13, 2012.
“Things aren’t just picked up overnight and now we’re all starting to understand it,” Thomas said. “The receivers are getting on the same page as me. I’m on the same page with them. And we’re all on the same page with Coach Loeffler. That’s huge.”
Still, Virginia Tech’s powerful defense would be needed to avenge last year’s 48-34 loss at the hands of the Tar Heels, and defensive coordinator Bud Foster used a hunch to score the decisive blow in the fourth quarter.
Virginia Tech was dealt a surprise after the opening kickoff when sophomore Marquise Williams started the game under center for North Carolina (1-4, 0-2) in place of senior Bryn Renner (West Springfield High), who was dealing with a foot injury. Renner never left the sideline Saturday, but if the Hokies were caught on their heels by Williams’s running abilities, they didn’t show it.
Trailing 21-10 early in the fourth quarter, North Carolina Coach Larry Fedora elected to go for it on fourth and one from Virginia Tech’s 33-yard line, and Beamer used a timeout once the Tar Heels came out in a goal-line formation. During the break, Foster warned his troops a pass could be coming, and moments later Williams was intercepted by cornerback Kyle Fuller to end the threat.
The Hokies now lead the country with 13 interceptions through six games, the same amount they had all of last season.
Once Virginia Tech’s offense failed to capitalize, North Carolina’s Ryan Switzer fumbled a punt return to give the Hokies new life. Running back Trey Edmunds didn’t waste the opportunity, rumbling into the end zone from one yard out to put the contest out of reach.
Switzer also had an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown in the third quarter negated because of a block-in-the-back penalty.
Following its fast start, though, Loeffler’s offense mustered just 64 yards after halftime and the Hokies were actually outgained by North Carolina, 376-341, for the game. Virginia Tech accumulated only 48 rushing yards on 34 carries.
“That third quarter was disappointing and I’ll never apologize for winning. . . . If we played a better third quarter we would have had a heckuva football game,” Loeffler said.
Those hiccups could be overlooked in the aftermath of a win Beamer called a “grind.”
Byrn, meanwhile, was still shaking his head in regret about getting run down from behind on Loeffler’s risky catch-and-run, the result of a sprained medial collateral ligament – or as Thomas joked, “a rusty wheel” – suffered last week at Georgia Tech.
But Byrn finished with a career-high 123 receiving yards, and after a conversation with Loeffler earlier this week about Virginia Tech’s future offensive plans, he left Lane Stadium wondering what his new offensive coordinator will come up with next.
“That’s Lefty. He’s just a smart guy when it comes to that stuff,” he said. “He’ll catch you off guard and I’m excited to see what he’ll do for the rest of the year.”