BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech defensive tackle Ricky Walker had never lost to Virginia, so in his final showdown with the Hokies’ instate rival Friday, the senior issued an edict in the huddle during overtime at boisterous Lane Stadium.
“We get a turnover, we win,” Walker said he told his teammates.
Moments later, defensive end Emmanuel Belmar fell on the loose ball after a muffed exchange between ailing Cavaliers quarterback Bryce Perkins and tailback Jordan Ellis to seal a 34-31 win and send the Hokies to a 15th consecutive victory in the 100th edition of the Commonwealth Cup.
In front of an announced crowd of 60,776, Virginia Tech (5-6, 4-4 ACC) ended a four-game slide and kept alive its chance of extending its bowl streak to 26 appearances, an active NCAA record. It needs to beat visiting Marshall on Dec. 1 to become bowl eligible in a makeup game arranged this month. The Hokies had a game against East Carolina set for Sept. 15 canceled when the Pirates decided not to travel because of Hurricane Florence.
“It means everything,” said Virginia Tech quarterback Ryan Willis, a junior transfer playing in his first Commonwealth Cup. “That was for the seniors. I wasn’t going to let them go out a bad note. We still have a chance to turn the season around, and we can still have a winning record if we play our cards the right way.”
The decisive points came on kicker Brian Johnson’s 42-yard field goal.
Two plays before the kick, Willis escaped a sack attempt by linebacker Charles Snowden (St. Albans) that would have left Virginia Tech well out of field goal range.
The Cavaliers (7-5, 4-4) have a second straight bowl berth to look forward to, but that was small consolation after they lost for the third time in four games to close the regular season. Perkins threw for 259 yards and three touchdowns, and he ran for 112 yards on 24 carries.
All of Virginia’s points came after halftime in their second straight overtime defeat. Last week, the Cavaliers lost, 30-27, at Georgia Tech.
“It’s part of the growing pains of building an exceptional program,” said Virginia Coach Bronco Mendenhall, who fell to 0-3 against the Hokies. “Can’t get much closer than we currently are.”
Virginia Tech tied the score at 31 with 1:51 to go in the fourth quarter when tailback Steven Peoples ran up the middle but had the ball knocked out of his grasp at the Virginia 5-yard line by safety Joey Blount before wide receiver Hezekiah Grimsley fell on it in the end zone. Virginia safety Brenton Nelson was the first player near the loose ball but was unable to gain control by the time a handful of Hokies, including Grimsley, closed in.
On Virginia Tech’s previous series, Snowden intercepted Willis with 3:42 left. The Cavaliers took over at the Virginia Tech 11, and kicker Brian Delaney made a 28-yard field goal with 2:41 to play for a 31-24 lead.
“There are so many kids’ names who pop into my mind when I think about this game and what we’ve been through and what they’ve battled through,” said Hokies Coach Justin Fuente, who is 3-0 against Virginia. “It makes you awfully proud and most important just happy for them.”
A 29-yard scoring throw from Perkins to wide receiver Hasise Dubois with 6:51 left provided Virginia with its first lead at 28-24. The Hokies had expanded the margin to 24-14 on the first play of the fourth quarter thanks to Deshawn McClease’s two-yard run around the left side. The fifth touchdown of McClease’s career capped an eight-play, 75-yard drive that included a 45-yard completion from Willis to wide receiver Tre Turner.
But the Cavaliers countered quickly, needing two minutes to go 75 yards, capped by tailback Jordan Ellis’s 12-yard scoring run with 12:55 remaining to trim the deficit to 24-21.
Virginia wide receiver Joe Reed gathered a short throw from Perkins and turned it into a 75-yard touchdown with 3:57 to go in the third, bringing the Cavaliers within 17-14.
Shut out, 10-0, by the Hokies last year, Virginia scored its first points on the opening series of the third quarter when Reed made a one-handed catch in the end zone. Reed secured the 29-yard touchdown reception despite tight coverage from cornerback Bryce Watts, trimming the deficit to 14-7 with 10:30 to go, but Virginia Tech extended the lead to 10 on Johnson’s 31-yard field goal on the ensuing possession.
Two touchdowns in 64 seconds late in the second quarter gave Virginia Tech a 14-0 lead at halftime. The second came when Turner broke through the line of scrimmage on a punt attempt by Virginia’s Lester Coleman and blocked the ball into the end zone. Several Hokies tried diving on the loose ball before Javonn Quillen secured it in the back of the end zone with 1:40 to play.
A wild sequence closed the first half, starting with Virginia returner Chuck Davis muffing a punt and the Hokies’ Rayshard Ashby recovering at the Cavaliers 31-yard line with eight seconds to play. On the ensuing snap, Cavaliers cornerback Tim Harris stepped in front of Willis’s throw for an interception. Harris ran 62 yards down the sideline, but Willis had enough of an angle to push the senior out of bounds at the 10 as time expired.
“It showed that they’ve got character. It showed that they care about each other,” Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster said of the win. “It wasn’t pretty. I thought we played extremely well in the first half. We were not very good on the back end in the second half, but we continued to fight and play.”
Perkins was playing through a sore left ankle that left him in a walking boot following the loss to Georgia Tech. The junior transfer vowed to play against Virginia Tech, and he did so despite playing through a noticeable limp at points.
“I thought they battled and played really hard,” Mendenhall said of his team. “I think they value this game. I think they represented us really well.”
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