BLACKSBURG, Va. – Virginia Tech’s offensive players lined up at Miami’s 19-yard line as the clock ticked toward one minute remaining Saturday night. The Hokies, trailing by four, had fourth down and 1 as they tried to again answer Miami’s second-half surge. Nothing less than a touchdown would do if Tech wanted to avoid an 0-2 ACC record.
The Hokies prepared to run a short pass play. From his booth high above Lane Stadium’s field, quarterbacks coach and play caller Mike O'Cain looked at Miami’s defense for a few seconds and decided another play would work better. Tech’s coaches called timeout with 1:01 remaining.
The players jogged to the sideline and huddled. The coaches on the sideline communicated with O'Cain through their radio headsets. Wide receiver Danny Coale noticed the coaches talking and figured O'Cain saw something to warrant a new play. The coaches told Thomas he wouldn’t pass. Instead, they wanted him to keep the ball.
It’s only 1 yard, left tackle Andrew Lanier thought, hoping for nothing more than a first down. Thomas can convert this, tailback David Wilson thought, because he is 6-foot-6 and can cover two yards just falling forward. In the huddle, Thomas’ teammates told him, “Go get it.” If any of them thought about a touchdown, they didn’t say so then.
Thomas took the snap and faked a hand-off to Wilson, who ran right. Wilson sold the fake, and somewhere, his introduction to acting teacher smiled, because he said Susanna Rinehart always claims credit for his best fakes.
Lanier plowed ahead. A huge hole opened up the middle. Thomas ran for it. Lanier heard the crowd roar, and “chills kind of run down my back,” he said. The game had already unfolded almost flawlessly for Thomas, but this seemed almost too perfect.
“I stepped through the hole,” Thomas said. “And there was nothing there.”
Except a clear path to a 19-yard touchdown run that gave the 21st-ranked Hokies a 38-35 victory and kept them in the hunt for their second straight ACC championship. Tech (5-1, 1-1 ACC) avoided its first 0-2 conference start in coach Frank Beamer’s 25 seasons largely because of an opportunistic offense that responded from a dismal showing in its last game, and a coming-of-age performance from its sophomore quarterback.
In his sixth career start, Thomas completed 23-of-25 passes for 310 yards and accounted for all five of Tech’s touchdowns — three passing, two rushing. His only incomplete passes: a throw-away under pressure and a dropped ball by Wilson. The Hokies gained 258 yards in last week’s 23-3 loss to Clemson. They had 482 Saturday. The Hurricanes (2-3, 0-2) scored touchdowns on their first four second-half possessions. Tech punched back with two touchdowns and a field goal.
“I thought our offense came back and answered every call,” Beamer said, and you have to imagine he was talking in terms broader than Saturday’s game.
But if anything was going to deflate Tech’s offense, it would be Miami’s final touchdown. The Hurricanes trailed 21-7 at halftime and 24-14 entering the fourth quarter. Down 31-28 with three minutes left, they faced second and goal from the 30-yard line after back-to-back penalties totaling 25 yards.
But on second and goal, they turned to the man who carried them in the second half: tailback Lamar Miller. At that point, he had 11 second-half carries for 116 yards. He already made plenty of jaws drop, but everybody in Lane gasped when he ran, untouched, for a 30-yard touchdown, giving Miami its first lead, 35-31.
The Hokies couldn’t afford 0-2 in the ACC. Not with Coastal Division rival Georgia Tech basking in a 6-0 record, 3-0 in league play. Not with history stacked against them; no ACC team has ever won the league after starting 0-2. But Thomas wasn’t nervous before starting his final drive at his 23.
“I knew we pretty much had their number,” Thomas said.
He was right. Tech cruised down the field again — passes of 16 and 11 yards, an 18-yard run for Wilson, who finished with 128. Then, the sequence that might have saved Tech’s season: O'Cain changed his play, Wilson sold his fake, Thomas hit his hole, Lanier felt his chills — and he surely wasn’t the only one.