By Mark Giannotto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2011; 2:26 AM
MIAMI GARDENS, FLA. - Over the past month, Virginia Tech's players and coaches attempted to enjoy the fruits of their remarkable turnaround to this season. It began in such embarrassing fashion - with two consecutive losses; one came against division I-AA James Madison - and yet ended so spectacularly.
Try as they might to savor their 11-game winning streak, though, an unmistakable refrain developed amongst the Hokies: Any sort of validation needed to include a victory in Monday night's Orange Bowl.
But after standing toe-to-toe for one half with Stanford, Virginia Tech's season ended exactly the way it started - with another loss to a top-five opponent. The Hokies could not overcome a disastrous start to the second half, falling to the Cardinal, 40-12, at Sun Life Stadium.
Trailing 13-12 at halftime, the game got away from Virginia Tech in a matter of moments. Stanford, which finished the game with 534 yards of offense, scored touchdowns on its first four possessions after halftime, while the Hokies were held scoreless in the second half.
"They came in, put their foot on the gas immediately," running back David Wilson said of the second half. "We were still at the starting line. They pulled away and next thing I knew it was 40-12."
First, it was Stanford fullback Owen Marecic, who capped a nine-play drive that chewed up nearly nine minutes with a one-yard touchdown run to begin the half. Early in the drive, sophomore cornerback Jayron Hosley, who had intercepted Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck during the first half, dropped what could have been an interception for a touchdown.
Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor only made matters worse when he threw just his fifth interception of the season to Stanford defensive back Delano Howell on the Hokies' ensuing drive.
Luck made no such error given an opportunity to shut the door on Virginia Tech's season.
Following a 56-yard run by running back Stepfan Taylor, Luck hit tight end Coby Fleener for a 41-yard touchdown pass. On the Cardinal's next possession, he found Fleener again, this time for a 58-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
At that point, Stanford led 33-12, the game essentially over before the Hokies knew what hit them. Luck had completed eight of his nine passes to begin the second half, for 163 yards. He finished the contest 18 of 23 for 287 yards - 201 of which came in the second half - and threw four touchdown passes. Fleener had a career-high 172 receiving yards, and added a third touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter. Luck's performance earned him Orange Bowl MVP honors.
Virginia Tech can blame a defense that gave up too many big plays, and an offensive line that could not give Taylor nearly enough time to find receivers or open up running lanes for the Hokies' talented running backs.
Virginia Tech's three running backs accounted for just 44 yards on the ground the entire game. Taylor, meantime, was sacked eight times.
"They were blitzing us a lot and I think that just got in our heads," right tackle Blake DeChristopher said.
That constant pressure conspired to make Taylor's final game in a Virginia Tech uniform an inauspicious one. He completed just 16 of his 31 passes for 222 yards and rushed for only 22 yards due to all the sacks. He did, however, deliver perhaps the signature moment of his career during the first half.
Facing third and goal from the 11-yard line in the second quarter, Taylor scrambled to his left and then avoided Marecic, who also plays linebacker, with a deft 360-degree spin, stopping just before his feet touched the Cardinal sideline at the 19-yard-line. A moment later, he fired a dart toward the end zone and running back David Wilson made a diving catch to give Virginia Tech its first and only lead of the contest, 9-7.
It would not be enough on this night, though. The Hokies defense held Stanford without a touchdown on its first three drives of the game, and even forced a safety after Stanford senior running back Jeremy Stewart broke loose for a 60-yard touchdown run to open the scoring.
But that was only the first big play the Hokies defense would allow. Shortly after Taylor's heroic touchdown throw, Luck responded with a 25-yard strike to tight end Zach Ertz. By the end of the game, Stanford had seven plays of 25 yards or more.
"I think it was right there and then just a couple of long plays against our defense, and then the game got away from us a little bit," said Coach Frank Beamer, who is now 1-19 against top-five opponents during his 24-year tenure in Blacksburg. "I think [Stanford] did some good things, but we helped them be good."
Ultimately, though, the Hokies just couldn't match the firepower to keep up with Luck and the Cardinal.
Afterwards, few in the Hokies locker room could explain exactly why things unraveled so quickly - and so unceremoniously - in the second half. They credited Stanford's adjustments and relentlessness, but ultimately there was a sense of disappointment following a close first half.
At one point during his postgame news conference, Beamer put his arm around Taylor's shoulder - two stoic men dealing with a letdown as best they could regardless of what their pregame rhetoric had been.
This was not the way the quarterback with more wins than any other signal caller in Virginia Tech history was supposed to go out. This was not the way the Hokies run was supposed to end.
"They just outplayed us in all parts of the game today," Taylor said. "I'm still proud of my boys for the way they fought this whole season. Unfortunately, we didn't win the last game like we wanted to, but it's a heckuva season. It's nothing to hold your head down on."