And though reputations aren’t made in routine victories over foes from the Sun Belt Conference, Thomas made sure Arkansas State knew what sort of threat he can be throwing the ball.
Thomas set career highs in passing yards, attempts and completions Saturday, finishing 21 for 33 for 292 yards and two touchdowns. He did, however, show his inexperience with two fourth-quarter interceptions when the game was already out of reach.
Still, for Thomas it was an important step in his development. He entered Saturday’s game — only the third he’s started as a collegiate quarterback — with the worst passer efficiency rating among ACC quarterbacks and had completed just 43 percent of his passes. By the end of the first quarter Saturday, though, he had completed eight of his first 11 passes for 180 yards.
“My stats weren’t the greatest and I did struggle last week,” Thomas said. “But them being close [to the line] opened it up for me and hopefully it makes this offense more balanced where we can throw the ball down the field and have a good running attack at the same time.
“I think I’m getting better over the three games,” he later added. “I think that’s the most important part: that I keep getting better.”
Play-caller and quarterbacks coach Mike O’Cain said the team was not making a concerted effort to raise Thomas’s confidence after a shaky outing the previous weekend, but admitted that “we did go into the game feeling like we needed to throw the ball more.”
The main beneficiary was wide receiver Danny Coale. The redshirt senior from Episcopal High had a career-high seven catches for 128 yards and a touchdown, moving into sixth place on the school’s all-time receptions and receiving yards lists.
But Coale’s most important play may have been a block that allowed fellow wideout D.J. Coles to take an innocent-looking flanker screen 49 yards for a touchdown with more than five minutes remaining in the first quarter.
Until that point, the Hokies trailed Arkansas State, the second straight week they’ve found themselves in an early hole.
On the Red Wolves’ second play from scrimmage, Hokies cornerback Kyle Fuller bit hard on a double move and wide receiver Taylor Stockemer ended up with a 51-yard reception. Two plays later, Arkansas State quarterback Ryan Aplin scampered in from five yards out to give the Red Wolves a 7-0 lead.
Virginia Tech’s next drive started with a 52-yard connection from Thomas to Coale, but after three straight red zone runs by Wilson, fullback Martin Scales dropped a Thomas pass in the end zone on fourth and one from the 1-yard line.
But that sequence of events seemed to be just the wake-up call Virginia Tech needed. With Arkansas State backed up as a result of the fourth-down stop, Fuller blitzed on second down and forced Aplin to throw it away from his end zone. Officials called intentional grounding on the play, giving Virginia Tech a safety.
“We needed a spark and that was kind of a great spark,” Coach Frank Beamer said.
Coles soon followed with his first career touchdown, and after an interception by cornerback Jayron Hosley, Thomas found Coale for a four-yard touchdown pass.
Virginia Tech’s defense, meanwhile, allowed just 184 yards after Stockemer’s initial reception and sealed the victory early in the third quarter when Hosley got his second pick of the afternoon.
But for Thomas, not everything in the second half went swimmingly. He said his two fourth-quarter interceptions were “bad balls” that he wished he could have had back. One was thrown behind intended receiver Marcus Davis and picked off by Red Wolves cornerback Darryl Feemster. The other was a jump ball thrown in Coale’s direction that landed in the arms of Arkansas State’s Darron Edwards.
And so, on an afternoon that ended with a relatively easy win against an overmatched opponent, Thomas wasn’t the only one trying to keep his improved performance in perspective.
“He’s capable of being a great quarterback, and he’s on that path,” Coale said. “I said it all along, there’s going to be some ups and downs — hopefully more ups than downs — but he’s a great player. It’s fun being out there watching and being a part of his progression.”