CHARLOTTE — It took 18 minutes for Virginia Tech to come to life Thursday night, to reconnect a disjointed offense and pull taut a first-half defense that was so loose it allowed Arkansas to build a 24-point lead with 10 minutes left in the second quarter of the Belk Bowl.
By the time 18 minutes had elapsed in the second half, the Hokies had scored four touchdowns and Jerod Evans had completed 11 of his 13 pass attempts for 123 yards, nine more than he threw for in the first half. The Hokies added one more score for good measure to finish off the Razorbacks, 35-24, at Bank of America Stadium for the program’s largest comeback since 1987, as far back as the program’s record books go.
The victory closed Coach Justin Fuente’s first season in Blacksburg at 10-4 — and the 10-win mark was an important milestone for Fuente. He had brought charts that graphed the Hokies’ declining performance over the past few years to the first few days of practice back in August.
The poster boards pointed to the period between 2004 and 2011, when Virginia Tech had eight consecutive seasons of 10 wins or more, as the standard for the program.
“My message to these seniors — on the way out I usually tell the guys, ‘Don’t do anything to take away from this great team victory,’ ” Fuente said. “Tonight, I told the seniors, ‘Do whatever you want.’ I’m not saying that we arrived or we’re back, but for this season and that group, they worked toward getting Virginia Tech back some of the recognition, the way Virginia Tech football has been thought of. They earned some of that back.”
The Hokies earned it Thursday night with a third-quarter onslaught.
Arkansas held all the momentum, taking a 24-0 at halftime, but it started the second period with blunder after blunder, aided in part by Bud Foster’s recently sharpened defense.
Virginia Tech forced a fumble on the first possession of the half, and Woody Baron recovered at the Arkansas 30. Evans got off two 13-yard completions to Isaiah Ford, who had just one catch for six yards in the first half, then ran in a four-yard touchdown himself.
Arkansas’s next three possessions ended in a punt and two interceptions, each of which led to touchdown passes from Evans. With four minutes left in the third quarter, the deficit was down to a field goal at 24-21.
“I’ve never seen anything turn on us so fast in all three phases,” Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema said.
Travon McMillian’s six-yard run with 12:03 remaining capped a 10-play, 76-yard drive to give the Hokies their first lead at 28-24.
Evans then finished the rally with one more touchdown, a one-yard rush with 6:41 left after Terrell Edmunds picked off Razorbacks quarterback Austin Allen and Anthony Shegog recovered the fumble on the Arkansas 8.
The junior college transfer ended the game having completed 21 of 33 pass attempts for 243 passing yards and two touchdowns. He threw one interception and had two rushing touchdowns.
“The team in general, we understood that we were too emotionally invested in the game . . . to send our seniors out with this win . . . and we were making boneheaded mistakes offensively, defensively. We just lost control like it was the first week of ever playing with each other,” Evans said of the team’s halftime adjustments. “Once we started coming down emotionally and understanding there was a game we had to play, it was a snowball effect.”
Allen had done his best work before intermission. He completed 18 of 31 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns overall but threw three interceptions in the second half.
Virginia Tech’s offense was out of sync from the start. The Hokies opened the first quarter by losing a fumble that the Razorbacks turned into a field goal less than two minutes in. They ended it trailing 17-0 after a nine-play, 90-yard touchdown drive from Arkansas and one costly interception from Evans that defensive back Ryan Pulley returned for 50 yards. Virginia Tech’s defense then left backup tight end Cheyenne O’Grady wide open for a 28-yard touchdown pass to cap an abysmal period.
Arkansas added another touchdown five minutes into the second quarter on a six-play, 54-yard drive that included a 29-yard connection from Allen to wide receiver Keon Hatcher.
It stayed 24-0 into intermission. By then, Allen had 215 passing yards to Evans’s 114, and Arkansas had outgained the Hokies 258 yards to 180.
Virginia Tech fans, the majority of the 46,902 in attendance Thursday, had been silent then. They were the only ones left at the end of the night.