By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 4, 2008
MIAMI, Jan. 3 -- For a few, fleeting moments Thursday night, it seemed the Orange Bowl would be the final feat of resiliency in a Virginia Tech football season defined by that quality. The Hokies had already begun their season cast as healers for a still-grieving campus and reprised it after a crushing loss. Now, they appeared poised to end it with the boldest comeback yet.
But, no, that would be too simple. What about the group of unknowns from Kansas on the other sideline, the other team fit for a storybook? In its 24-21 loss in the Orange Bowl before 74,111 at Dolphin Stadium, No. 5 Virginia Tech rallied from a 17-point, first-half deficit but was ultimately unable to overcome No. 8 Kansas's initial onslaught or the three interceptions -- two by Sean Glennon, one by Tyrod Taylor -- that led to 17 Kansas points.
The Hokies and Coach Frank Beamer sank to 0-3 in Bowl Championship Series games, this Orange Bowl moving beside the 2000 and 2005 Sugar Bowls in team infamy. Kansas, whose place in the BCS was questioned because it lost to Missouri, a higher-ranked conference rival, validated its selection and, depending upon 11-1 Ohio State's result in Monday night's national championship game, could finish the season with the best record among the 65 teams from BCS conferences.
But the Hokies (11-3) had their chances. Virginia Tech trimmed a 17-0 Kansas lead to 17-14 and then cut a 24-14 advantage to three when Glennon beamed a 20-yard touchdown pass to Justin Harper with three minutes remaining. But when Jud Dunlevy's onside kick nestled into Raymond Pendleton's arms, it became clear this feel-good season would not end that way, and the senior class with the most wins in Tech history would lose its final game, the team's fourth bowl loss in five years.
"I thought we were going to do it," Beamer said. "I mean, we had it."
Tech's quarterback play conjured nightmares from last year's Chick-fil-A Bowl, when Glennon committed four turnovers in a second-half collapse. Thursday's errors came less suddenly but were every bit as destructive, negating Justin Harper's memorable 84-yard touchdown after a lateral on a punt return and Branden Ore's 116 yards and touchdown in three quarters.
Two of the interceptions were most costly. With 11 minutes 56 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Virginia Tech embarked on a drive from the 9-yard line. On third and eight, Glennon dropped back, near his own end zone, and threw down the middle of the field to Harper on a post pattern, into double coverage. Safety Justin Thornton swooped and intercepted the pass, then raced to the 2-yard line. Quarterback Todd Reesing dived into the end zone on the next play, giving Kansas a 24-14 lead with 10:57 left, enough cushion to salt away the game.
Kansas took its lead by capitalizing on quarterback mistakes. After replacing Glennon on the third play of Tech's second possession, Taylor took one step back and threw toward Harper, who was running an out pattern to the left sideline. Taylor made two mistakes on the throw. First, he stared at Harper from the moment the ball was snapped. Second, and more damning, he threw in the general vicinity of Aqib Talib, among the best cornerbacks in the nation.
Harper slipped, but it would not have mattered. Talib darted in front of Harper, snared the pass and bolted 60 yards down the sideline. No one had a chance to catch him; by the time he reached the 10-yard line, Talib started high-stepping and shaking the ball in front of him. Kansas's vaunted offense had inflicted minimal damage, yet the Jayhawks took a sudden 7-0 lead.
Kansas sacked Virginia Tech four times in the first quarter, two each for Taylor and Glennon. Kansas's defense particularly vexed Taylor, who was sacked on his first two snaps for a combined loss of 19 yards.
Kansas's defense, overshadowed for much of the year by its offense, terrorized Tech's quarterbacks all game. The Jayhawks sacked Tech quarterbacks six times and held Taylor and Glennon to a combined 14 of 31 for 171 yards.
Still, the Hokies had four opportunities to tie the game or take the lead, the first of which stung most. After moving the ball 74 yards in six plays, their momentum peaked. Virginia Tech faced fourth down on the 8-yard line, about one foot away from a first down. Beamer considered going for it, "but we had the momentum," he said. "Let's get it tied up, and let's take it from there."
Before the game, during warm-ups, the Hokies mimicked their field goal protection. Chris Ellis, acting as a virtual blocking dummy for the blockers, noticed he was sneaking through the line far too easily. "I told them to tighten that up," Ellis said.
But when Dunlevy lined up to tie the game with a 25-yard field goal, Kansas linebacker Joe Mortensen burst through the middle of Tech's line, between Sergio Render and Brandon Holand, and blocked the attempt.
"Everybody on the sideline thought we were going to come back," Ellis said. "The blocked field goal kind of deflated that. Without that blocked field goal, things could have been different."
After halftime, Virginia Tech surged back using -- what else? -- special teams. Eddie Royal caught the Jayhawks' first punt of the second half and sprinted directly to the right. At the beginning of the play, Harper lined up near the line of scrimmage, then ran back toward Royal. As Royal ran right, Harper wheeled behind him, and Royal tossed him the ball.
Kansas never saw it coming. Harper raced down the left sideline, behind a wall of blockers. Once he cut back at the 35-yard line, nothing stopped his path to the end zone.
The momentum had changed. Three of Kansas's first five plays lost yardage. A first-and-goal from the Tech one turned into a interception by D.J. Parker. The Hokies were not just climbing back into the game, but taking it back the neck and throwing it on the ground.
It was going to be a fitting end to a memorable season. But the Hokies can only hold on to those feelings, and hope to forget the long, painful walk off the field at the end of the game.
"It hurts," linebacker Xavier Adibi said. "It's real tough to look into some of those guys' eyes right now and, you know, say goodbye."