BLACKSBURG, Va. — For more than 59 minutes Thursday night, Virginia Tech’s defense delivered a vintage performance. Facing the ACC’s top offense, the Hokies swarmed Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel, sacking him five times, creating two turnovers and even scoring on a fourth-quarter safety.
But with the game on the line, defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s unit wilted on the one play that mattered most and for the second time this season Virginia Tech had a come-from-behind win snatched away in demoralizing fashion.
No. 8 Florida State escaped Lane Stadium with a 28-22 victory over the Hokies, getting the go-ahead touchdown when wide receiver Rashad Greene took a slant route 39 yards to the end zone with 40 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Virginia Tech had one final shot at an unlikely upset when quarterback Logan Thomas hit wide receiver Demitri Knowles on a 35-yard reception, but one play later he threw his second interception of the game to Florida State defensive back Tyler Hunter to seal the Hokies’ fate.
The loss leaves Virginia Tech (4-6 overall, 2-4 ACC) needing to win its final two games of the regular season in order to become bowl eligible for the 20th straight season.
“We got a little mixed up in the coverage we were in,” cornerback Antone Exum said of the deciding play. “We got picked off and [Greene] was running free across the middle. . . . It’s heartbreaking. You never want to lose like that.”
What made it worse was that only moments earlier, it appeared Virginia Tech would emerge with a come-from-behind victory over the Seminoles (9-1, 6-1). After linebacker Jack Tyler forced a safety to draw the Hokies to 20-19 with less than seven minutes to go, Thomas drove Virginia Tech to the Florida State 13-yard-line.
But the Hokies got conservative near the goal line, choosing to call three consecutive runs. The possession stalled when Thomas was stopped for a two-yard gain on third and three, and Virginia Tech place kicker Cody Journell hit a 21-yard field goal that gave the Hokies a 22-20 lead with 2 minutes 19 seconds remaining.
“I was hoping we could have scored a touchdown there,” Coach Frank Beamer lamented.
The conclusion masked what had been a dominating performance by the Hokies’ defense. Virginia Tech outgained Florida State, 385-311, and held the Seminoles to minus-15 rushing yards. But Manuel was at his best in the no-huddle offense, delivering timely completions under duress. He finished 25 of 42 for three touchdowns and one interception.
Thomas completed 19 of his 34 passes for 298 yards and scored two touchdowns (one passing, one running). Wide receiver Corey Fuller added seven catches for 124 yards and a second-quarter touchdown that gave Virginia Tech a 10-6 advantage in the first half.
That lead would be short-lived, though. On Florida State’s ensuing possession, Manuel drove the Seminoles 75 yards in less than two minutes, finding Greene on a 25-yard touchdown pass just before halftime in a sign of things to come.
Virginia Tech didn’t help itself in the first half by not scoring off of two Florida State turnovers. First, seldom-used freshman cornerback Donovan Riley reeled in his first career interception on a tipped pass with Florida State inside Virginia Tech’s 10-yard line on the second possession of the game.
The Hokies caught another break in the second quarter when walk-on Josh Trimble (O’Connell) recovered a muffed punt by Hunter. But the Hokies came up empty after Journell hooked a 43-yard field goal attempt wide left. Still, Virginia Tech entered halftime down just 13-10 thanks to its defense.
The third quarter came to a halt with a scary moment. After leading with his helmet on a tackle, Hokies safety Michael Cole lay motionless on the field for nearly 10 minutes before an ambulance entered Lane Stadium and shuttled him to LewisGale Hospital in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech announced after the game that Cole suffered a cervical neck sprain, had feeling in his extremities and would be discharged from the hospital Thursday night.
But his absence would soon be felt. Following a fumble by Virginia Tech wide receiver Marcus Davis, Manuel finished off an 80-yard drive by targeting Cole’s replacement, freshman Desmond Frye, on a 10-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Greg Dent that put the Seminoles up 20-10.
This time, though, Virginia Tech had a response. Thomas finished off an 80-yard drive with a five-yard touchdown run, a score that left the Hokies trailing by just three points heading into the fourth quarter.
That only made the ending harder to stomach.
“We’re experiencing a year a lot of guys haven’t experienced around here,” said Beamer, who is in the midst of his worst season in 20 years. “Just can’t quite get it going our way.”