ORLANDO, Fla. -- You knew it, I knew it, everybody knew it: The Russell Athletic Bowl would be a defensive struggle between two highly skilled groups at Rutgers and Virginia Tech.
But did anybody expect the slog that ensued?
Gary Nova and Logan Thomas did nothing to dispel the notion that they are quarterbacks who have yet to live up to their full potential. Virginia Tech finished with 3 total yards rushing. Rutgers averaged 1.7 yards per carry. Virginia Tech averaged 2.7 yards per play. Rutgers averaged 2.5 yards per play.
It was almost as if they were playing a game of "anything you can do, we can do worse!" Virginia Tech owned that game within the game in the first half. But in the fourth quarter, boy, that was all Rutgers. Virginia Tech overcame a 10-0 deficit to tie the game thanks to a host of Scarlet Knights errors, then Cody Journell made a 22-yard field goal in overtime to give the Hokies a 13-10 victory Friday night, preserving a 20th consecutive winning season.
"Nothing comes easy for us," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "It's work, but we got a bunch of guys that will hang on, and keep working at it. Rather than get down a couple times this year, we could have shut it down, and these guys never did. We always hung together and we kept playing. That's what this game is all about. That's what life is all about."
This game unfolded the way the seasons have unfolded for both teams. Neither has had much success on offense, though their issues have been different. Thomas has been way too turnover-prone, and we saw that on the second play of this game, as he couldn't handle a bad snap and fumbled in the end zone. Rutgers linebacker Khaseem Greene recovered for his team's only touchdown on the night.
Thomas sailed balls left and right. He threw two interceptions. At halftime, the Hokies had 73 total yards of offense, and Thomas was 10-of-21 for 84 yards. Rutgers was not much better on offense, and much of that falls on Nova, a quarterback who gets easily rattled when the pressure gets to him.
Viewers have seen it many times this year, and Virginia Tech saw that on film as it prepared for this game.
"We got after him all day," Virginia Tech linebacker Jack Tyler said. "Our defensive line played great, got great pressure and you can have Tom Brady back there as the quarterback, and if you get pressure on him, he’s going to be very average. And that was our game plan going in. He had a tendency down the stretch to turn the ball over a little bit and we knew if we got to him we could make that happen."
Rutgers led 10-0 into the fourth quarter, but that was through no effort from its offense. Virginia Tech played well defensively enough to hang around, well enough to drop three shoulda-been interceptions. So you almost felt as if it was a matter of time before somebody on the Hokies side came up with a game-changing interception.
Enter Antone Exum.
His interception early in the fourth quarter allowed Virginia Tech to score the only offensive touchdown of the game, as Thomas threw a 21-yard pass to Corey Fuller to tie the score at 10. We have seen a similar scenario play out all year -- struggling Virginia Tech offense gets bailed out by the defense.
We've seen it play out at Rutgers, too. But tonight, there was not much the Scarlet Knights defenders could do to help their woefully anemic teammates on offense. In the fourth quarter, Rutgers ran 19 plays for 12 yards. Twice on third and long, Rutgers ran the ball, too scared to allow Nova to perhaps win the game.
Two straight games now, Rutgers has blown late leads and Nova has thrown interceptions down the stretch to cost his team. Nova finished 17-of-40 for 129 yards and that crucial interception. But coach Kyle Flood was unwavering in his support of his embattled quarterback after the game, saying confidently that Nova is his starter headed into the spring.
There is not as much certainty at Virginia Tech, where Thomas is faced with a decision about whether to return or go to the NFL draft. His body of work this season and on Friday night indicates he would be foolish to leave. Perhaps he gets a high enough grade from the NFL draft advisory board because all his measurables scream, yes, you are an NFL quarterback!
If that was his final game at Virginia Tech, it was not his prettiest. Check that. It was not pretty for either offense, period. Or for football, period. The teams combined for a bowl-record 21 punts. Good defense, bad offense? Depends on your perspective.
"It was the prettiest game for our defense," Tyler said with a smile.