ORLANDO, Fla. – Virginia Tech kicker Cody Journell drilled a 22-yard field goal in overtime, and Rutgers kicker Nick Borgese misfired from 42-yards out on the Scarlets Knights’ possession, enabling the Hokies to rally for a 13-10 overtime victory in the Russell Athletic Bowl on Friday night at the Florida Citrus Bowl.
The Hokies closed the season by winning their final three games and finished the season with a 7-6 overall mark, thus extending their streak of consecutive winning seasons to 20 and avoiding their first losing season since 1992. Tech also snapped a modest two-game bowl losing streak.
“I give Rutgers a lot of credit … I’ve got a lot of respect for that program,” said Tech coach Frank Beamer, who improved to 9-11 in bowl games at Tech. “But I’m proud of our guys, too. It’s kind of like nothing comes easy for us. It’s work. But we’ve got a bunch of guys who will hang around, and we’re not always pretty, but we hang on and keep working at.
“I think that says a lot. Rather than getting down … a couple of times this year we could have shut it down, but these guys never did. We’ve always hung together and kept playing. To me, that’s what this game is all about, and it’s what life’s all about.”
Plagued by an inconsistent, struggling offense, Tech entered the fourth quarter down 10-0 and with just 79 yards of offense. But the Hokies’ defense got stop after stop in the second half, and both sides of the ball came up with huge plays.
The first came when Logan Thomas completed a 32-yard pass to Dyrell Roberts and followed that with a 25-yard completion to Corey Fuller. Those two plays set up a 25-yard field goal from Journell that cut the Rutgers lead to 10-3 with 12:14 left in the game.
The second – and arguably the biggest – came moments later when cornerback Antone Exum intercepted a pass by Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova and returned it 32 yards to the Rutgers 21. That put the Hokies in perfect field position with 11:11 remaining.
The interception marked the fifth of the season for Exum, who was named the game’s MVP.
Tech capitalized on the Exum interception. On third-and-10 from the 21, Thomas threw a perfect pass to Fuller toward the corner of the end zone, and Fuller hauled it in for the touchdown. Journell’s extra point tied things at 10 with 10:56 left in the game.
“We had that play drawn up earlier in the game, and it was just bad miscommunication between me and Logan,” Fuller said. “I was telling him, ‘Let’s go back to it.’ It was a good route. The safety wasn’t over there, and they (Rutgers’ defense) were leaving me man-to-man with the slot corner. We took advantage of it, and luckily, we got the touchdown.”
“I never lose hope in the guys on the other side of the ball,” Exum said of Tech’s offense. “We knew that they would, at some point, make the plays that needed to be made for us to take the lead. Our job is, honestly, to get as many three-and-outs as possible and give them the opportunities to put points on the board, and I thought we did a good job of that.”
Journell nearly won the game in regulation for the Hokies, but his 51-yard attempt with 2:20 remaining came up just short, and the game ultimately went into overtime.
In the overtime period, Rutgers won the toss and elected to play defense first. On second down, Thomas fired a 19-yard strike to Marcus Davis to get the Hokies inside the Rutgers 5. The drive stalled, and Tech settled for the 22-yarder by Journell.
Rutgers (9-4) then got the ball, and on its first play, Nova was sacked by Tech’s Derrick Hopkins for a 6-yard loss. Two completions by Nova netted just six yards, and Rutgers sent out Borgese for the 42-yard attempt. He missed it wide right, sending the Tech sideline storming onto the field to celebrate.
“Nothing came easy for us,” Beamer, again, said. “Nothing in life is easy, and these players are all winners. How they reacted to adversity, they kept together, and I couldn’t be more proud. We’ve won some more games over the years, but I think this group is special.”
Tech’s defense played outstanding in this one, holding the Scarlet Knights without an offensive touchdown – Rutgers’ only touchdown came when Khaseem Greene recovered a botched snap by Tech’s Caleb Farris in the end zone on Tech’s second offensive play. But the Hokies’ defense was particularly good in the fourth quarter and overtime, as that unit gave up just one first down in that span.
The Scarlet Knights finished with just 196 yards of offense, including only 67 on the ground. Tech sacked Nova, who completed just 17 of 40 for 129 yards, three times and intercepted him once – though the Hokies dropped at least three interceptions in the game. Tech finished with 12 tackles for a loss.
Tech also finished with 196 yards, as the Hokies struggled to muster much against a good Rutgers defense. Thomas completed 15 of 39 for 193 yards, with the touchdown and two interceptions. J.C. Coleman led all receivers with five catches for 39 yards, while Davis caught four for 62 and Fuller hauled in two for 46.
“They played us tough the entire game,” Thomas said. “Every little thing we did, they made it tough. All of our read plays, they had it read out pretty well, and in the passing game, they were playing with us. They were showing one thing and then would drop out and show us another. We finally got into a groove with what we were expecting them to do. We were sort of feeling them out, just like a boxer.
“We finally got the off balance, and we got into a matchup that we liked on the touchdown. Corey did a great job of winning, and I just put it out there for him.”
The win and the season marked the ends of the careers of Tech’s 17 seniors. In the past four years, the group guided the Hokies to a 39-15 overall mark.