Sunday, August 29, 2004

Virginia Tech opened its season by getting Bush-whacked.

Tailback Reggie Bush became the focal point of the Southern California offense — through the air, not on the ground — as the defending national co-champions escaped FedEx Field with a 24-13 win over Virginia Tech last night. Bush caught three touchdown passes, including ones from 53 and 35 yards, as No. 1 USC showed why it is in line for another championship.

“I felt with my speed and my ability I could go out and beat them,” said Bush, a sophomore who finished with five catches for 127 yards. “I watched them on film and felt they weren’t fast enough, and it proved correct.”

Southern Cal’s quest for a second consecutive national title got an unexpected scare last night as Tech led at halftime and trailed only 14-13 in the fourth quarter, but Bush’s third score — a 29-yard pass from Matt Leinart — assured the Trojans of a happy flight back west.

A FedEx record crowd of 91,665 — mainly Virginia Tech fans — saw an effective if less than spectacular game from Leinart. The Heisman Trophy candidate completed 19 of 29 passes for 272 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Virginia Tech quarterback Bryan Randall made enough big plays to keep his team in the game. The steady senior rushed for 82 yards and threw for 153.

The game turned on a questionable offensive pass interference call against receiver Josh Hyman, who gave the Hokies the lead before halftime with a 12-yard touchdown catch. Hyman came back from ahead of cornerback Ronald Nunn to make a catch at USC’s 20, seemingly giving Virginia Tech the momentum. But Hyman was called for pushing off, although replays showed nothing more than incidental contact.

Instead of a first down deep in Trojans territory, the Hokies were faced with a first-and-25 and soon were forced to punt.

“That was a big call in the ballgame,” said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, whose team came into the season unranked for the first time since 1998. “You talk abut where the ball was and where it ended up and what happened after that. You can’t blame the officials. I don’t know how you all saw it. But I thought it was kind of questionable.”

The reversal gave USC a boost. Leinart dropped in a perfect pass to Bush, who got inside cornerback Eric Green and past safety James Griffin. USC’s sophomore speedster caught the deep ball in stride and burst into the end zone for the 53-yard play with 1:55 left in the third to give the Trojans a 14-10 lead.

The Hokies managed to cut the margin to 14-13 on Brandon Pace’s 42-yard field goal with 7:55 left. A defensive holding call and a personal foul for a late hit by USC’s Darnell Bing helped the Hokies.

The Trojans sealed the victory with another quick score. Leinart dropped in another deep pass, this time a 46-yarder to Steve Smith to the Virginia Tech 29. On the next play, the Hokies blew coverage, and Bush was left all alone down the right sideline. He made the grab at the 5 and cruised in for his third touchdown to make it 21-13.

The Hokies never seriously threatened after that. Randall fumbled on Virginia Tech’s final series, and Southern Cal recovered to seal the win.

Virginia Tech took its first lead at 10-7 late in the second quarter after USC’s Ryan Killeen missed a 35-yard field goal. The Hokies went on a 10-play, 80-yard drive, finishing it with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Hyman with 6:19 left before intermission. Tech scored on second-and-9 from the 12 as Randall hit Hyman on a quick sideline pattern, and the freshman flanker made his first career catch memorable by slipping past cornerback Kevin Arbet and across the goal line.

Randall showed his versatility on the drive. He found tight end Jeff King for a 22-yard gain to get into USC territory and threw a pinpoint pass to Richard Johnson in the middle of several defenders for a 16-yard gain to USC’s 23. The 6-foot, 228-pound quarterback then danced 10 yards for a first down when he reversed his direction after nearly being hammered in the backfield.

The Trojans first went ahead on Bush’s 35-yard touchdown catch. USC linebacker Lofa Tatupu set up the score with an athletic interception as he tipped the ball to himself and then rambled 32 yards to the Virginia Tech 47.

Five plays later, Leinart dumped a pass just over the line of scrimmage, and Bush took advantage of his speed in the open field to outrun defenders to the end zone with 5:57 left in the first quarter.

Virginia Tech answered with a nine-play scoring drive, culminating with sophomore Brandon Pace kicking the first field goal of his career, a 35-yarder, to cut USC’s advantage to 7-3 with 1:42 left in the quarter.

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