BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer talked early this season about how he wanted to avoid leaning too heavily on his first-year starting quarterback, Logan Thomas. What has become abundantly clear now that the Hokies sit on the cusp of another division title, however, is that Beamer and company can’t rely on him enough.
For the second straight week, Thomas played a role in every Hokies touchdown as they recovered from a slow start and held on late to defeat North Carolina, 24-21. The victory was the 250th in Beamer’s career and gave Virginia Tech 10 wins for the eighth consecutive season — the longest such streak in the nation.
The ninth-ranked Hokies (10-1, 6-1 ACC) moved just one Virginia loss from clinching the ACC Coastal Division title and earning a berth in the league’s championship game for the fifth time in seven years. Yet it was only about six weeks ago when some wondered whether Thomas might be in over his head at quarterback after he threw for just 125 yards in the Hokies’ only loss, 23-3 to Clemson.
“It was a drastic change to the Clemson game to the Miami game to the rest of the season after that,” said running back David Wilson, who was held under 100 yards on Thursday for the first time in seven games. “Now he looks like an all-American quarterback to me. He’s just making plays left and right when we need them.”
Though Thomas didn’t put up the sort of gaudy numbers on Thursday that he had in recent weeks, the redshirt sophomore’s impact on the game was undeniable. He finished 19 of 32 passing for 195 yards, throwing for two touchdowns and running for one more. But it was the manner in which he scored that made his performance particularly impressive.
With Virginia Tech clinging to a 10-7 lead after halftime, Thomas showed off the powerful running style that has separated him from his peers this year. On a third-and-two play, he took an innocent-looking quarterback sneak 23 yards, bouncing off Tar Heels tacklers before waltzing into the end zone.
Known for his strong arm, Thomas ended the third quarter by displaying the improved accuracy coaches have raved about for more than a month. Facing third and nine, he threaded a pass to wide receiver Jarrett Boykin (career-high 10 catches for 106 yards), who juked his way down the field for a 39-yard reception. Thomas then capped off the drive with a perfectly placed ball to D.J. Coles, who was running a fade route in the end zone and ended up with a four-yard touchdown catch.
“His poise rubs off on the other guys,” Beamer said of Thomas. “He’s to the point now where I think he makes the people around him better.”
That final score proved to be the dagger, though North Carolina (6-5, 2-5) mounted a late charge. First, quarterback Bryn Renner found wide receiver Erik Highsmith for a five-yard touchdown pass midway through the fourth quarter. The duo connected again on a 64-yard completion later in the quarter, and running back Ryan Houston scored from two yards out to draw the Tar Heels to within three with less than three minutes remaining.
North Carolina recovered the ensuing onside kick, but officials ruled the ball had not traveled the required 10 yards and Virginia Tech was able to run out the clock.
The game couldn’t have started worse for Virginia Tech, despite a senior night atmosphere that gave Lane Stadium an electric feel.
On the first play of the game, North Carolina defensive lineman Sylvester Williams burst through the line untouched, sacking and stripping Thomas. UNC’s Tydreke Powell recovered the fumble on Virginia Tech’s 20-yard line. Two plays later, running back Giovani Bernard gave North Carolina a 7-0 lead with a four-yard touchdown run.
It looked as if the Hokies might go down two scores as North Carolina drove to Virginia Tech’s 5-yard-line on its second possession. But defensive tackle Luther Maddy and safety Antone Exum forced Tar Heels running back Ryan Houston to fumble and sophomore Derrick Hopkins recovered the ball to give Virginia Tech new life.
From there Thomas took over, starring on an 18-play, 95-yard scoring drive that took nearly eight minutes and lasted into the second quarter.
Thomas had a third-down conversion in which he outran Powell to the sideline and, while being hit, threw a dart to Coles for a 19-yard catch. Later in the drive, facing third and 19, the 254-pound Thomas bounced off North Carolina cornerback Charles Brown for an 18-yard-gain and then moved the pile for two yards on fourth and one. Soon thereafter, Thomas found tight end Chris Drager in the end zone for an 11-yard catch that capped off the team’s longest drive of the season and reignited the capacity crowd of 66,233.
The Hokies could have piled on more in the second quarter when they started their next drive on North Carolina’s 34-yard-line, and on first down Wilson (21 carries, 82 yards) picked up 33 yards. But instead of giving the ball to Thomas at the 1-yard-line, the Hokies went back to Wilson, who lost four yards on two carries.
They had to settle for a 23-yard field goal by place kicker Cody Journell, perhaps proving one and for all that Thomas has morphed into this offense’s most valuable player. And if he has his way, he’ll get another big stage to shine on next Saturday when the Hokies travel to Charlottesville for their regular season finale.
“Playing in the big games gets you prepared for bigger games down the road,” Thomas said when asked whether he would like Virginia to beat Florida State on Saturday to make the annual battle for the Commonwealth Cup a division championship game. “I don’t know about the rest of the guys, but I’d like to see [Virginia] go out there and win and make it mean a lot more next week.”