BLACKSBURG, Va. — It was by no means pretty, but Virginia Tech’s worst season in 20 years will end with a bowl game.
After watching its offense struggle mightily for long stretches Saturday, the Hokies’ defense delivered a turnover in the nick of time, paving the way for Virginia Tech to secure a 17-14 victory over Virginia on a blustery day in Blacksburg. The win makes the Hokies bowl eligible for the 20th straight season, the third-longest streak in the nation.
Virginia, meanwhile, has lost nine consecutive games to its in-state rival, the longest losing streak either team has endured since they began playing each other in 1895. But unlike the blowouts of the past two years, the Cavaliers had a chance to win late in the fourth quarter.
Virginia took over possession at its own 24-yard line with 3 minutes 38 seconds remaining in regulation after Hokies place kicker Cody Journell missed a 42-yard field goal wide left. But on third down, Virginia Tech cornerback Antone Exum stepped in front of Virginia wide receiver Tim Smith to intercept a wobbly pass by Cavaliers quarterback Michael Rocco.
Smith said after the game there was “definitely a lot of holding” by Exum on the play, and replays seemed to back him up.
Virginia Coach Mike London decided not to use his two timeouts on the Hokies’ ensuing drive, and it allowed Virginia Tech to set up Journell for a 29-yard field goal as the clock expired. It went right through the uprights and the Hokies stormed the field in celebration.
“We don’t want to be ‘those guys,’ ” said quarterback Logan Thomas, who completed just 18 of his 38 passes for 129 yards. “We don’t want to be that team that doesn’t make a bowl and we don’t want to be that team that breaks the streak against U-Va.”
London was asked about his clock management during a postgame news conference, but his answers didn’t provide any clarity. At first, London said he hoped Virginia’s defense would be able to cause a turnover or knock the Hokies back. But when a reporter told London he could have had about 40 seconds left on the clock instead of allowing a field goal attempt with four seconds remaining had he used his timeouts, London could only say, “I’ll have to go back and look at it again.”
Virginia was ultimately done in by an offense that couldn’t solve Virginia Tech’s blitz-heavy approach. The Cavaliers were just 3 for 14 on third down, mustered only 30 rushing yards on 20 attempts and finished with a season-low 217 total yards.
Rocco finished 14 for 29 for 177 yards and connected with Smith on a 42-yard touchdown pass that tied the score at seven heading into halftime. Redshirt sophomore Phillip Sims split snaps with Rocco until leaving the game early in the third quarter with a hand injury.
Still, Virginia managed to take its first lead against the Hokies since 2009 when defensive linemen Eli Harold and Jake Snyder caused a Thomas fumble early in the third quarter. Cavaliers defensive tackle Brent Urban returned it 16 yards for Virginia’s first defensive touchdown of the year. It gave the Cavaliers a 14-7 lead.
Eventually, though, Virginia’s defense wore down with Thomas churning out 89 rushing yards on a career-high 29 carries. Virginia Tech ran 95 plays Saturday; the Cavaliers had just 56.
“I know the streak is what it is and people continue to keep talking about it, but that gap has been narrowed in recruiting,” London said. “They won on the field, but the gap is closing.”
The Cavaliers had a chance to extend their lead, but rather than attempt a 38-yard field goal later in the third quarter, London elected to fake it. The Hokies stopped holder Jacob Hodges two yards short of the first down, changing the complexion of the game.
Virginia Tech soon responded with its longest drive of the year in terms of plays (15), and three Virginia defenders were forced to limp to the sideline with injuries in the process. Thomas ended the 85-yard march with a four-yard touchdown run that tied the score at 14 heading into the fourth quarter.
“I thought we showed what we were made of when things didn’t look good today,” Coach Frank Beamer said. “Some of those other teams have had more wins than this year and we could have had more wins this year, but it probably makes it a lot more significant that we were just fighting like heck to get to a bowl game.”
That was exactly the thought running through Virginia Tech linebacker Bruce Taylor’s mind as the senior clutched the Commonwealth Cup in his left hand 30 minutes after the Hokies’ latest triumph against Virginia.
Virginia Tech has held bragging rights over its in-state rival for 2,919 days, but for a moment, Taylor thought his Hokies career — and the streak — might be over. So already, he had plans to fill the trophy with “a few beverages and drink from it.”
“With this being my last game in Lane Stadium, I would have been heartbroken, worse than you’ve probably ever seen if we wouldn’t have gotten it done,” Taylor said. “This thing ain’t leaving my sight.”