BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech is bound for a second-tier bowl saddled with its worst record in 20 years. But on a wickedly cold Saturday afternoon, the Hokies distinguished themselves by trusting in one another, overcoming their own shortcomings and extending two remarkable streaks.
Tech defeated Virginia for the ninth consecutive year and earned its 20th straight bowl bid with a 17-14 victory that was as unsightly as both teams' seasons.
"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," quarterback Logan Thomas said, reciting the Hokies' mantra throughout the week. "That's the way we had to approach this game."
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Lane Stadium, Blacksburg, VA
Thomas played the game like a linebacker, bulldozing his way to 89 yards on 29 bruising rushes. Given his skittish passing — 18-of-38 for 129 yards — the Hokies (6-6, 4-4 ACC) needed every last inch before Cody Journell's final-play, 29-yard field goal.
"You kind of go to something until the well dries up," Thomas said. "If I have to run the ball, I'll do it."
Thomas "just kept fighting," linebacker Bruce Taylor said. "He didn't have a lot of spectacular plays, but he made plays when we needed him to."
Ditto the Hokies overall. They epitomized grinding and rallied from a 14-7 third-quarter deficit that, given their dearth of offense, appeared exponentially larger.
After Thomas' 7-yard touchdown pass to Randall Dunn early in the second quarter, Tech netted 52 yards combined on its next six possessions. Worse yet for the Hokies, Brent Urban's 16-yard return of a Thomas fumble gave the Cavaliers (4-8, 2-6) their first lead early in the third quarter.
Part of it was Virginia's defense. In his final game, senior linebacker Steve Greer had a career-high 19 tackles; cornerbacks Demetrious Nicholson and Maurice Canady were stout against the pass.
Part of it was Tech's offense. The Hokies averaged a scant 3.1 yards per rush, and Thomas' longest completion was 13 yards.
"The defense played one heck of a game other than one miscue," Thomas said. "They kept our offense in the game. I'll say our defense went out there and won it."
Indeed, except for a Detrick Bonner missed tackle that Tim Smith turned into a 42-yard touchdown reception, the Hokies were brilliant defensively.
The Cavaliers' 30 yards rushing, 187 yards passing and seven first downs were season lows. They gained only 68 yards on 22 second-half plays.
Bonner had 10 stops and two pass break-ups; linebacker Jack Tyler had nine tackles, and cornerback Antone Exum intercepted Michael Rocco with 3:21 remaining to set up Journell's decisive kick.
Pressuring Rocco was critical, and both of Tech's sacks came after intermission.
"It changes guys," Taylor said of the pass rush. "They start worrying more about the rush than receivers downfield. I was able to get a few good shots on him the second half, got to him a little bit."
Tech's biggest stop was arguably on special teams.
Leading 14-7, Virginia lined up for a 38-yard Drew Jarrett field goal on fourth-and-8. With a chance to lead by two scores, coach Mike London elected to fake, and Chase Williams tackled holder Jacob Hodges 2 yards shy of the first down.
London cited swirling winds and Jarrett's limited range for the fake, but 8 yards is a long way, especially with a chance to go up 10 points. Compounding the failure to convert, Tech promptly drove 85 yards for the tying touchdown.
"It says a lot about this program that even though this is a down year, everybody stayed together," Tyler said.
London asserted that a tight game spoke volumes given the Hokies' recent smackdowns of the Cavaliers.
"That gap has been narrowed, in recruiting," he said. "They've won on the field, but the gap is closing. I talked to our players about that."
Such talk is unlikely to satisfy fans weary of losing to Tech and frustrated by three last-place Coastal Division finishes in the last four years. Nor should it. The orange-and-blue faithful have every right to expect results, starting next season.
Meanwhile, Tech prepares for a postseason invitation despite its worst record since a 2-8-1 clunker in 1992. Any bowl — the Russell Athletic, Sun or Music City is most likely — is more than a month away, and as darkness fell Saturday, Taylor was still clutching the Commonwealth Cup awarded to the Tech-Virginia winner.
"When we come together as a team," he said, "we're decent. We're not bad at all."
Nothing more, nothing less.