By Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 1, 2010; D01
ATLANTA -- For Virginia Tech, 2009 was a whirlwind.
The Hokies opened the calendar year with a win over Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1 that stirred high hopes for a talented and young team. They closed the year in a non-Bowl Championship Series game on Dec. 31 after those great expectations vanished during a three-loss regular season.
On Thursday, the No. 12 Hokies defeated Tennessee, 37-14, in the Chick-fil-A Bowl to finish their year on a high and to set the stage for what could be a promising 2010 campaign.
"Us as seniors, we didn't have everything pan out the way we wanted to," linebacker Cody Grimm said. "But to go out like this means a lot to us."
Virginia Tech (10-3) won its fifth game in a row and joined Texas as the only programs in the country to compile a current streak of at least six consecutive 10-win seasons. The victory represented the school's first back-to-back bowl wins. Hokies fan chanted "ACC!" as the Virginia Tech struck a victory for the beleaguered Atlantic Coast Conference and got its first win over a Southeastern Conference opponent since 2003.
"Tonight was important," cornerback Rashad Carmichael said. "It was a perfect way to finish our season."
With 117 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries, freshman running back Ryan Williams broke Virginia Tech's single-season rushing record set by Kevin Jones in 2003. Williams has rushed for 1,655 yards this season, and with an emphatic performance in his final game, made a case for his Heisman Trophy candidacy heading into the 2010 season.
"He's for real," Coach Frank Beamer said of Williams, who did not play in the fourth quarter after spraining his ankle. "He's a great player."
Virginia Tech wore down the Volunteers (7-6) with weapons and dominated them with an engulfing defense. The Hokies recorded six sacks and limited Tennessee to just five yards rushing and 4 of 11 on third-down conversions.
Tennessee looked lifeless after halftime and most of its fans had left before the Hokies were reveled in the victory as confetti rained inside the dome. It was a drab ending to the highly anticipated meeting between schools that area separated by 230 miles but had played only seven times before Thursday.
But the first half did not disappoint. The Hokies went into halftime with a 17-14 lead after a dizzying display in the final minute of the half. The sequence featured a Tennessee interception that set up a touchdown with 18 seconds remaining, then Virginia Tech's go-ahead field goal after time was added to the clock after it appeared to expire.
The game turned on the play that set up the Hokies' field goal before halftime. Wide receiver Jarrett Boykin got behind the Tennessee secondary and quarterback Tyrod Taylor hit him for a 63-yard bomb to the Volunteers 4-yard line. Two seconds were added before place kicker Matt Waldron made a 21-yard field goal as time expired. The swing gave the Hokies momentum heading into the second half, and they did not let go of it.
"I knew that there was time left, looking at the clock when Boykin made the catch," said Taylor, who threw for 209 yards, completing 10 of 17 passes. "It just surprised me that they were playing prevent defense and he was wide open down the middle."
Tennessee Coach Lane Kiffin said: "We were expecting them to take a shot. And for whatever reason, we gave up the big play."
When it was over, the Hokies celebrated on the field, but it was not the kind of party that anyone at Virginia Tech had envisioned for a year that started with tremendous promise. The Hokies' Orange Bowl win established them as contenders before the 2009 season.
The core of the Hokies' top-10 defense returned. Taylor became the established starter at quarterback. And Virginia Tech had a stable of talented running backs and athletic wide receivers with another year in the program.
The problem was the 2009 season did not go as planned. Virginia Tech opened the season with a loss to Alabama in Atlanta, and then back-to-back defeats torpedoed its hopes of a third ACC title and a BCS appearance.
The Hokies' loss to the Crimson Tide in the Georgia Dome immediately dampened expectations for the type of season not seen in Blacksburg in the last 10 years, when Virginia Tech made its only national title appearance in a loss to Florida State. But the Hokies returned to the Georgia Dome on Thursday to put an emphatic stamp on their season.
With a win over the Volunteers and important components returning next season, the Hokies rung in 2010 on a positive note and provided hope that the new year could have an even happier conclusion than 2009.