BRISTOL, Tenn. — The section where maroon-clad Virginia Tech fans had filled about one-fourth of Bristol Motor Speedway was sparse by the time Tennessee’s John Kelly made a mundane four-yard run to the end zone to give the Volunteers their sixth touchdown of the night.
At that point, despite the surroundings, Tennessee didn’t need to be flashy. The Volunteers just needed to take the opportunity given — in this case the fifth fumble the Hokies had lost to set up the latest score. Kelly’s touchdown drove No.17 Tennessee to a 45-24 win over Virginia Tech at the racetrack, which fans exhausted and sunburnt from a full day of tailgating were leaving with increasing frequency.
The game had fizzled out after an exciting start — the early promise of an upset in front of a record-setting crowd of 156,990 gathered to see a famous racetrack play host to the “Battle at Bristol” giving way to a blowout.
“An incredible atmosphere, this was so fun to play in front of, it’s something I’m going to remember for a long time, something you get to tell your kids about, grandkids about,” senior fullback Sam Rogers said.
“But once we’re on the field, we take pride in that it’s still a football game. . . . You want to feed off it and the situations where it’s good, but you can’t let yourself get too high or too low. I think we did that, we got ourselves too high when we were up 14-0, we didn’t stay the course. You can’t do that against a good team.”
Early on, Hokies quarterback Jerod Evans looked impressive as he muscled his way through a third-down conversion then threw a seven-yard touchdown pass to Rogers to get Virginia Tech on the board first with 4:32 left in the first quarter. On the Hokies’ next possession, running back Travon McMillian took off for a 69-yard touchdown run on a misdirection and Virginia Tech was up 14-0 with 2:48 to play in the first.
But the Hokies’ confidence after the fast start proved fragile, and Tennessee chipped away as ball security became a bigger problem. Evans fumbled the ball away and Micah Abernathy recovered on Virginia Tech’s 5 to set up Joshua Dobbs for a five-yard touchdown pass to Jauan Jennings for Tennessee’s first score, and the Volunteers put up 31 consecutive points.
Virginia Tech lost four fumbles in their opening win against Liberty.
“We’ve got to do a better job either teaching, or understanding or emphasizing ball security,” Hokies Coach Justin Fuente said. “We’re going to look at it and come up with a plan. What we’re doing, what we’ve done in the past hasn’t been an issue, so obviously we need to change or modify it to give ourselves a chance.”
Dobbs was nearly infallible in front of the enormous crowd, heaving a 38-yard touchdown pass to Josh Malone and a 23-yard touchdown pass to Alvin Kamara before adding a 27-yard touchdown run with less than seven minutes remaining.
The senior finished 10 of 19 for 91 yards and three touchdowns in addition to a team-leading 106 yards on the ground. Dobbs’s total on the ground was bested only by the Hokies’ McMillian, who finished with 127 yards on 14 carries.
Bristol Motor Speedway lies almost exactly halfway between Virginia Tech’s campus in Blacksburg, Va., and Tennessee’s campus in Knoxville, Tenn. The historic meeting it featured Saturday night was a success in celebrating the middle ground between college football and NASCAR culture.
Droves of fans had arrived in cars, trucks, buses and RVs hours before kickoff to tailgate the day away beneath Bristol’s hot sun.
Country star Jennifer Nettles kicked the game off by crooning the national anthem as the crowd sang along. They held up cards that created an enormous, fluttering American flag with “USA” spelled out in the center, and red, white and blue fireworks exploded just before a flyover was conducted. “Proud to be an American” had the crowd swaying and singing again at halftime.
The event also highlighted the history of both storied programs — Peyton Manning represented Tennessee during the game’s coin toss, and Frank Beamer and Bruce Smith stood for Virginia Tech.