NEW ORLEANS – Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons booted a game-winning 37-yard field goal in overtime, as the Wolverines knocked off Virginia Tech 23-20 in a wild Sugar Bowl game played Tuesday night at the Superdome.
With the defeat, the Hokies finished the 2011 season with an 11-3 mark. Tech, making its 19th consecutive bowl appearance, fell to 8-11 in bowl games under head coach Frank Beamer.
“I’m proud of our football team,” Beamer said. “We battled back and showed great heart … Our guys hung in there great. A couple of close calls were probably the difference in the ball game, so I’m proud of our football team and the way they hung in there and battled when things didn’t look great.”
The game certainly wasn’t without its share of zaniness and controversy. But the biggest call of the night went against the Hokies.
Tech lost the coin flip in overtime, and Michigan decided to play defense first. On third-and-5 from the Michigan 20, Tech quarterback Logan Thomas appeared to have thrown a touchdown pass to receiver Danny Coale in the corner of the end zone. Officials originally ruled the play a touchdown, but reviewed it, and then reversed the call, saying Coale didn’t maintain control of the ball.
“I thought it would have been hard to overturn, but they [the replay official] saw some things that I didn’t see, obviously, in that review,“ Coale said. “I thought I had it in there, but I guess I didn’t. He [Thomas] put it in a position where I knew only I could get to it. So I tried to put one arm out and stretch as far as I could. I got out there. I just … it wasn’t a catch.”
The reversal forced Tech to attempt a field goal, and Justin Myer, subbing for starting kicker Cody Journell, pushed a 37-yard attempt wide right. That meant Michigan only needed a field goal to win.
“I just pushed it a little,” Myer said. “I thought I hit it well. I pulled my head up, and it was off to the right. I didn’t quite get the solid contact I wanted. As soon as I hit it, I thought it was good, but when I looked up, I knew.”
The Wolverines (11-2) ran the ball three straight times to set up Gibbons’ attempt. He nailed it, giving Michigan the victory.
For the Hokies, it marked a bitter end to a game in which they dominated statistically. They finished 377 yards of offense and held the Wolverines to just 184. More impressively, Tech’s defense – outstanding all night – kept elusive Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson under wraps. Robinson rushed for just 13 yards and completed only 9 of 21 attempts, though he did throw two touchdown passes compared to one interception.
In the end, Tech hurt itself with costly penalties and turnovers. Tech committed seven penalties for 68 yards, none more glaring than James Hopper’s roughing-the-punter penalties that keep alive a Michigan drive in which it ultimately scored on a Robinson touchdown pass to Junior Hemingway to take a 7-6 lead. The Hokies’ two turnovers led to 10 Michigan points, with a Tony Gregory fumble leading to a Gibbons field goal right before halftime and a Logan Thomas interception leading to a Michigan touchdown that gave the Wolverines a 17-6 lead.
In addition, poor execution hurt. Leading 6-0 in the first quarter, the Hokies went for it on fourth-and-1 from the Michigan 4 and failed to get it. And then a fake punt by Coale late in the game came up short, giving the Wolverines field position that ultimately led to a Gibbons field goal to give Michigan a 20-17 lead with four minutes left in the game.
“I was given the option,” Coale said. “If there was an opening, I could run. If there was pressure, I could punt it. I should have punted it. I thought I could get one yard. I saw an opening, but it closed quickly. I should have punted it, and that was my fault.”
“If they dropped and we had a seam, then we were going to go for the first. If not, we were going to kick and pin them down deep,” Beamer said. “We had that option going. Their guy [Jake Ryan] did a nice job. He looked like he was going outside, and then jumped back underneath and got us.”
Still, the Hokies showed resiliency, coming back to tie the game twice. Trailing 17-6, Tech got a field goal from Myer with 4:48 left in the third and a 1-yard touchdown from Thomas with 10:22 left in the game. Thomas’ pass to Marcus Davis gave the Hokies the needed two points to tie the game at 17.
Then, after Michigan took the 20-17 lead, the Hokies went on an 83-yard march that led to Myer’s game-tying 25-yard field goal with two seconds left in regulation.
“We’ve been there before,” Thomas said. “Against Miami, we had to do it twice – at the end of the first half and then the end of the second half to win that. We’ve been in that situation several times this year and we’ve come out with points on a lot of them.
“So it was nothing. The offense had been clicking all night. They weren’t stopping us. We were stopping ourselves. I knew we could take it down the field, and we did.”
Despite missing the field goal in overtime, Myer was tremendous for the Hokies. He hit field goals of 37, 43, 36 and 25 yards – a Tech bowl record.
Offensively, Thomas completed 19 of 28 for 214 yards, with an interception. Coale caught eight passes for 117 yards, and David Wilson rushed for 82 yards on 24 carries.
But in the end, it wasn’t quite enough.
“Last year, against Stanford, we didn’t get it done in the second half,” Beamer said. “I think if a couple of plays at the start of that half had gone our way, then things would be different. But it didn’t. Walking away from that one, it wasn’t very good.
“I’m about half sick right now. But I’m as proud as I can be of our players and the way they battled back and what we are as a football team. It wasn’t lack of effort or lack of preparation. Our guys played their hearts out. So I feel better walking out of here tonight than I did against Stanford.”