Wilson picked up a career-high 175 yards on the ground and is once again the nation’s leading rusher with 1,360 yards this season. Thomas, meanwhile, accounted for five touchdowns and averaged close to 30 yards per completion. He’s just one rushing touchdown shy of tying Michael Vick’s single-season record of eight by a Virginia Tech quarterback.
But looking at the box score from the Hokies’ 12th straight win in a true road game, Thomas and Wilson weren’t the only stars on this night. So too was Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster. Three days after announcing significant personnel changes for this game, it seemed like every move the coach made paid off.
In his first start of the season, middle linebacker Jack Tyler (Oakton HS) led all defenders with 12 tackles and a sack. Redshirt sophomore defensive lineman J.R. Collins, who moved from end to tackle, wasn’t far behind with 11 tackles. Collins’s replacement at end, Tyrel Wilson, had seven tackles, including 1.5 sacks.
In fact, seven of the Hokies’ eight leading tacklers were either defensive linemen or linebackers, a sign that Georgia Tech’s unorthodox run-heavy offense wasn’t breaking off large chunks of yardage very often. Though the Yellow Jackets ran for 243 yards and averaged five yards per carry, Georgia Tech converted just 5 of its 13 third downs and went 0 for 2 on fourth-down tries. The Yellow Jackets entered Thursday as the nation’s best team on third down, converting at a 57.6 percent rate through nine games.
No stop, though, was more important than when Georgia Tech Coach Paul Johnson decided to go for it on fourth and goal early in the fourth quarter. As quarterback Tevin Washington tried to fall forward, defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins (nine tackles) came bursting through the line of scrimmage and set up linebacker Tariq Edwards for a big tackle.
It should be noted the official box score gave Tyler and Collins credit for the stop, but after the game Hopkins confirmed it was Edwards who delivered the decisive blow on Washington. Regardless, the stop gave Virginia Tech momentum for good.
“Fourth and one, their offense, they had to know they were gonna get it and we stopped them,” Hopkins said. “It changed the game.”
***Speaking of Johnson’s decision to go for it on that fourth down, he offered an explanation during his postgame news conference.
“I felt like we needed to score,” he said. “I think since the second possession of the game, if I’m correct, we didn’t stop them. We needed to go down and score. I thought we could make a yard, and we didn’t. We didn’t do a very good job with the play, maybe we could have had a different play call. We didn’t execute the one that was called.”
To me, though, the real turning point came one drive earlier was the foolish personal foul committed by Georgia Tech linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu when it appeared Thomas had been sacked on third and 19 late in the third quarter. But Attaochu extended the drive when he came in late and punched Thomas in the helmet.
“I just had an overdose of adrenaline,” Attaochu said after the game.
Wilson soon uncorked a 44-yard run around the right edge and Thomas followed suit by turning a routine quarterback sneak on third and one into a 12-yard touchdown run that gave Virginia Tech a lead it would never relinquish.
After that late hit by Attaochu, the Hokies gained 155 yards while the Yellow Jackets were held to minus-14 yards.
***Virginia Tech became just the fifth team since Johnson became coach at Georgia Tech to fall behind the Yellow Jackets in the first quarter and still win the game. The Hokies’ offense picked up 85 yards on its first two drives of the game, but both stalled inside Georgia Tech territory. The Yellow Jackets stormed down the field for an 80-yard touchdown drive to take an early 7-0 lead.
“That kind of worries you because it can eat in the clock,” Coale said. “We weren’t in a panic early on, but we certainly knew after they scored that each possession from here on out, we need to put points on the board. Your opportunities to get the ball are few and far between against a team like this and it was just important that when we got those opportunities, we put points up.”
Added Thomas: “Everyone knew what was at stake coming into the game. We knew we had to go take care of it because we can’t expect anyone else to come out and beat this team.”
***Thomas only threw seven completions on 13 attempts Thursday but three went for touchdowns. I’d argue that along with his 60-yard bomb to wide receiver Jarrett Boykin in the Miami win, Thomas’s first two scoring throws Thursday (a perfectly placed nine-yard pass to Boykin and a dart that resulted in a 63-yard touchdown to Coale) rank up there as his finest throws of this season. Perhaps more importantly, by my count, Thomas picked up a first down or a touchdown on seven of his 18 rushes.
“He’s a load,” Coach Frank Beamer said of his 6-foot-6, 254-pound signal caller. “He’s a hard guy to bring down. He gets a little better all the time. I like the way he threw the ball. He pulled it down a couple times and made a couple plays. I think he sees the field a little better each and every week.”
***Wilson had his fourth fumble of the year in this game, and the ensuing touchdown drive gave Georgia Tech its only lead of the second half.
“It was just sickening to me when I came to the sideline, especially with us to have a big play and be in the red zone and I coughed the ball,” he said. “That was really frustrating and I didn’t want to let my team down. . . . After that they drove down the field and scored and I just wanted the ball in my arms.”
The Hokies get another Thursday night affair next week when North Carolina visits Blacksburg for Virginia Tech’s final home game of the season. Wilson thinks this win could be the catalyst for the remaining two weeks of the regular season, but has some words of caution now that the Hokies have finally gotten a win over a top 25 team.
“Coach Beamer said this is like a championship game. Hearing that from your head coach during the week, you prepare harder, you’re more focused and you come out against a great team, and a great stage - the whole country was able to watch us tonight - and we just came out and executed,” Wilson said. “It’s definitely a confidence booster for us, but at the same time we gotta remember we’ve got more games left.”
That’s all I’ve got from Atlanta. The Hokies are off tomorrow before returning to the practice field Saturday evening, but be on the lookout for some basketball-related material because Virginia Tech’s men’s basketball team gets its season underway Saturday afternoon.