But even Thomas couldn’t have predicted that the Hokies would trail Duke by 20 points before the first quarter was complete on Saturday, or that a sold-out homecoming crowd at Lane Stadium would be stunned into silence before showering the team with boos.
“It was panic,” Virginia Tech safety Detrick Bonner said. “I’ve never heard it that silent but I knew we were going to come together and come through.”
That they did, just as Virginia Tech fans everywhere braced themselves for the unthinkable. With 41 unanswered points, the Hokies put together a potentially season-saving barrage that resulted in a 41-20 victory over the upstart Blue Devils. It was Virginia Tech’s biggest comeback ever under Coach Frank Beamer.
The victory also kept the Hokies (4-3, 2-1) in contention for their third straight ACC Coastal Division title, the lone prize left to be won after their worst start to a season since 1992.
“Everyone just kept playing and that’s something special right there. It’s not easy to do,” said Beamer, who moved into a tie for seventh place with former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne on the all-time wins list (255). “A lot of people would panic and start pointing fingers and our guys hung in there.”
A deluge of big plays catapulted Virginia Tech after another sluggish start. Wide receiver Marcus Davis finished with five catches for 144 yards, including touchdown receptions of 47 and 45 yards. Thomas had another strong performance, completing 14 of his 23 passes for 256 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Running back J.C. Coleman had a career-high 183 yards on just 13 carries and ripped off touchdowns of 86 and 45 yards, the two longest runs of the year for Virginia Tech. It’s also the most yards a true freshman has ever gained on the ground under Beamer.
The Hokies’ offense finished with 525 yards, and their previously sluggish rushing attack accounted for 269.
“It kind of took me back to high school days when I had a lot of long runs and everything,” Coleman said “It just felt good to finally be able to break through.”
The defense was able to say the same thing after an embarrassing showing at North Carolina last week. The Hokies held the Blue Devils (5-2, 2-1) scoreless in the game’s final three quarters and limited them to just 93 yards after halftime, including minus-two yards in the third quarter. Virginia Tech finished with five sacks and forced four turnovers, showing glimpses of the unit that began the season with high expectations.
Early on, though, Duke was in control. The Blue Devils entered the game in the midst of its best start to a season since 1992, one win away from ending an 18-year bowl drought.
Duke started the game explosively when wide receiver Jamison Crowder streaked past cornerback Kyle Fuller and reeled in a 62-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Sean Renfree. And it got worse for Virginia Tech.
Following two more Duke field goals, Hokies running back Tony Gregory bobbled a swing pass and Blue Devils safety Jordan Byas snatched the ball from his hands. Byas then returned the interception 20 yards for a touchdown that put Duke ahead, 20-0.
It was the second-most points a team has scored against Virginia Tech in the first quarter since Beamer took over the program in 1987, and the deficit had Lane Stadium in a state of disbelief.
“I don’t blame them for being stunned, because we were, too,” linebacker Bruce Taylor said.”
But with the crowd ready to turn on the home team and the Hokies’ season perhaps hanging in the balance, Thomas and company finally answered the bell. From that moment on, Virginia Tech outgained Duke, 509-159.
Running back Martin Scales immediately responded with a four-yard touchdown run before the first quarter ended, a score set up by a 40-yard pass from Thomas to Davis.
The game’s momentum changed for good just before halftime. Duke had just methodically moved the ball to Virginia Tech’s 29-yard line, but Blue Devils wide receiver Conner Vernon couldn’t reel in a throw from Renfree. Bonner caught the tipped pass for an interception.
One play later, Thomas found Davis streaking past the Blue Devils’ secondary for a 42-yard touchdown pass. Virginia Tech entered halftime down 20-17, but the tide had officially turned.
“I thought we had the game won at that point,” defensive end James Gayle said. “I could tell by the ways guys were clicking, a loss wasn’t gonna happen. We weren’t gonna let it happen.”