There were moments Saturday when it appeared Virginia Tech’s defense would be the lone saving grace for an offense that, at times, elicited boos from a pro-Hokies crowd at FedEx Field.
But defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s unit picked the worst time to suffer a meltdown, and the miscues allowed Cincinnati to escape with a 27-24 victory after a wild fourth quarter in front of 46,026.
In a scene reminiscent of Virginia Tech’s last visit to Landover, when it lost on a heartbreaking last-minute touchdown by Boise State, the Hokies scored the go-ahead points with less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter only to watch Cincinnati wide receiver Damon Julien get behind cornerback Kyle Fuller and reel in a 39-yard touchdown pass with 13 seconds left on the clock for the game-winning score.
“I just made the biggest mistake I could ever make. That’s letting the receiver get behind me. That’s what happened,” a despondent Fuller said after the game. “I take responsibility.”
Virginia Tech (3-2) will now re-enter ACC play next week at North Carolina with two nonconference losses for the second time in three years.
The ending to this defeat was particularly painful, though, given the late resurgence by the Hokies’ offense. Virginia Tech didn’t gain a first down Saturday until 5 minutes 17 seconds remained in the second quarter, but managed to put together two fourth-quarter touchdown drives.
The first came on a three-yard run by Michael Holmes with less than nine minutes remaining in regulation, capping off a drive in which he gained 48 yards on the ground. But Cincinnati came right back, connecting on a 76-yard touchdown pass to running back Ralph David Abernathy IV to take a 20-17 lead.
Quarterback Logan Thomas then responded with his longest completion of the day, a 56-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Corey Fuller that gave Virginia Tech a 24-20 advantage with less than two minutes left on the game clock.
But Cincinnati would soon transform an encouraging effort by the Hokies’ defense into a disappointing one. The Bearcats gained 214 yards in the fourth quarter alone and ended the game with 495 yards of offense.
“After that nice catch by Corey, we thought we had it,” said linebacker Jack Tyler, who finished with a team-high 11 tackles. “With how our defense had played all game, we thought this is our time. We’re gonna make a stop and the game will be over. We just didn’t get it done.”
It was a particularly rough day for Virginia Tech’s defensive backs. Antone Exum committed two face mask penalties and was called for pass interference twice. Michael Cole was the main culprit on Abernathy’s long touchdown catch. And freshman Donaldven Manning got beat by Cincinnati wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (seven catches, 134 yards) on a 29-yard touchdown pass midway through the third quarter when Fuller left the game momentarily with cramps.
Cincinnati quarterback Munchie Legaux completed just 19 of his 42 pass attempts, but finished with a career-high 376 yards passing and three touchdowns.
When the afternoon started, though, it appeared Virginia Tech’s offense would be the goat. The Hokies mustered just 72 yards in the first half, often looking out of sync, unimaginative and incapable of producing anything but a three-and-out on their first six drives.
Virginia Tech suffered from poor field position early on “it limited our playbook,” Thomas said. Play-caller Mike O’Cain said he was more conservative and called more screens than usual because of Cincinnati’s pass rush. Whatever the case may be, wide receiver Marcus Davis (five catches, 101 yards) admitted the offense’s penchant for slow starts has become “troubling.”
The Hokies also got in their own way when Thomas threw an interception inside the red zone in the first half and running back Martin Scales had a three-yard touchdown run called back because of a holding penalty on fullback Riley Beiro in the third quarter. Virginia Tech settled for a 28-yard field goal that proved costly given the frantic finish.
Thomas ended the game 17 of 30 for 242 yards, with a touchdown pass and two interceptions, but most of his damage was done in the fourth quarter when Virginia Tech gained 173 yards and the two teams combined for 31 points.
But the Hokies still managed to enter the second half up 7-6 after Thomas plunged into the end zone from five yards out on fourth and one just before halftime. Virginia Tech’s field position was set up by an interception from defensive tackle Kris Harley, one of two turnovers the defense forced with their counterparts on offense struggling.
That, though, would not be a harbinger of things to come, and the Hokies were left to wonder how they’ll regroup after another demoralizing loss at FedEx Field.
“I thought we had it a couple times,” Coach Frank Beamer said. “There are some positive things out of this, but this is just a tough way to lose.”