With 10 minutes left in the second quarter of the Belk Bowl, it seemed inconceivable that the Hokies could score a point, let alone win the game 35-24.
Yet after turning in a thoroughly deflating first half, Justin Fuente's squad managed to flip the contest from a game that sent Hokies fans scurrying for the exits to one that featured Tech going on a remarkable 35-0 run after halftime. The game stands as the largest comeback in program history, and sends the class of seniors out with the 10-win season that's eluded the Hokies for the last few years.
"I'm not saying, 'We've arrived' or 'We're back' or any of those things, but this group has gotten us closer to how Virginia Tech has been thought of," Fuente said after the game. "They have done that."
The Hokies looked listless from their first snap on offense, and seemed on the verge of never recovering by allowing the Razorbacks to go up 24-0 before the half. But Fuente was plainly not deterred, spurring his team to a comeback that dwarfed his squad's previous bounceback from a 17-point deficit against Notre Dame.
"It's a fantastic honor," Fuente said. "I'd prefer not to do it that way."
The stats are a bit comical. At the half, Tech had 180 yards on offense to the Hogs' 258. The Hokie defense couldn't manage a single turnover, while the Razorbacks turned Tech over repeatedly.
Then came the deluge. The Hokies managed six sacks and three interceptions in the second half alone, in addition to 202 yards on offense.
"The second half has been our melting point," said Arkansas head man Bret Bielema.
QB Austin Allen started the game 13 of 16 for two scores — he would only complete five more passes in the rest of the game.
"They did a few things that got us out of some of our pressures, and we got back into them in the second half," Fuente said. "We kind of locked in and really pinned our ears back a little bit and tried to get them playing behind the chains and playing off their spot."
By contrast, Jerod Evans started 9 of 17 for 114 yards, and could net only 41 yards on the ground. He finished 21 of 33 for 243 yards, with 87 yards on the ground to key Tech's offense for long stretches of the contest.
"It was a little up and down, but thing he does do is he keeps plugging away," Fuente said. "I was not surprised by that. We had some ups and downs against Clemson, and he continued to plug away and make some plays. He's got some "stick-to-it-iveness." He continues to persevere."
The Hokies started on offense about as poorly as could be expected. Evans led things off with a quick fumble, giving the Razorbacks the ball on their own 26. Tech's defense failed to allow many yards, but Arkansas still came away with a 38-yard field goal.
The Hokies' offense seemed to get back in a rhythm on the next drive, with Evans managing a quick first down to Bucky Hodges and a 38-yard completion to Cam Phillips up the middle. But the offense sputtered, with a pair of sacks, and Tech ultimately turned the ball over on downs.
The offenses traded punts, and then Arkansas got hot. Allen kicked things off with a pass to Deon Stewart for 19 yards and a screen to Devwah Whaley for 26 yards. Keon Hatcher hauled in another 19-yard pass, then Drew Morgan grabbed a 20-yard pass to bring the Hogs to the goal line. Allen capped the drive off with a short touchdown, and the Razorbacks seized a 10-0 lead late in the first quarter.
Tech briefly seemed to find some rhythm on its next drive, but Evans just couldn't find his footing, missing a wide open man down the field and tossing the ball directly to Arkansas DB Ryan Pulley. He managed a 50-yard return, helped along by an unnecessary roughness penalty on Augie Conte, and Allen followed things up with a 28-yard TD pass to stake the Hogs to a 17-0 lead.
"I heard the guys say when it was 17, 'We've been here before' (against Notre Dame), but when it was 24, that was uncharted territory," Fuente said.
The second quarter wasn't much kinder to the Hokies. Tech went three and out once more, and Allen connected with Hatcher for a 29-yard strike to further put the pressure on Tech's defense. Allen then found Hatcher for a 12-yard pass near the goal line, and after a brief review, the Hokies were down 24-0 with 10 minutes still left before halftime.
Tech couldn't find the end zone before halftime, but at least held back the Hogs for a while, though Phillips did muff a punt to complete the Hokies' bingo card of ineptitude. Bret Bielema argued his case before the refs on that particular play for a good long while due to some strange penalty maneuvering, but the teams ultimately headed to halftime with the 24-0 score intact thanks to a missed 48-yard field goal from Joey Slye.
But the Hokies came out hot on defense to kick off the third quarter. Anthony Shegog managed to force a fumble from Morgan after a long pass completion, and DT Woody Baron recovered it to give the Hokies life.
"I knew the defense would make a play for us," WR Cam Phillips said. "Each time we've been down, they've made a play, made a stop to get things started. And the first turnover we got, we punched it in and started to play with more energy, which I think was the key tonight."
Indeed, two quick completions from Evans to WR Isaiah Ford moved Tech to the goal line and Evans plowed ahead for a 4-yard TD run to put the Hokies on the board and start the team's long road back to respectability at 24-7.
"They were a big, physical defensive front, and we felt like if we could sustain some drives and get the drive going, tempo might be an advantage for us eventually," Fuente said.
The Hokies managed a solid defensive stand to fire the stadium back up a bit, but could only pick up one first down on the next drive before punting. DB Terrell Edmunds nearly earned a targeting call on the next series, but a replay reversal kept the safety in the game, and Shegog followed up with his second forced turnover of the contest by picking off Allen on a long third down.
Phillips delivered for the Hokies once more out of a slot, using a 33-yard catch and run to bring Tech to the Arkansas 11. He ran for another five yards, and Evans capped things off with a 3-yard pass to Sam Rogers to get the Hokies within 10 at 24-14.
Allen's meltdown continued on the very next drive, as he tossed the ball directly to Tremaine Edmunds in the flat while deep in his own territory. Evans wasted no time capitalizing, finding Chris Cunningham in the endzone for an easy score, and electrifying the crowd. The 24-21 tally might've looked par for the course to someone checking the game's score on their phone, but the comeback seemed quite the feat indeed for a team once down by 24.
Arkansas couldn't hold the ball for long on their next possession, and a bad punt gave Tech the ball on their own 39-yard line. From there, Evans and RB Travon McMillian piloted the Hokies methodically down the field, and a 21-yard rush and 6-yard TD scamper from the running back gave Tech the long-elusive lead at 28-24.
The Hogs' big uglies had a rough series next, earning a pair of penalties as the hefty Tech contingent celebrated their team's sudden turnaround, and an athletic sack by Mook Reynolds helped force yet another Arkansas punt.
Tech couldn't score on its next possession, but Bud Foster's group picked up the slack. Allen got flagged for intentional grounding while flinging the ball away in the face of a charging Reynolds, and another OL penalty backed Arkansas up to its own 5. Allen promptly threw yet another back-breaking interception to the elder Edmunds, and after a quick fumble recovered by Shegog, the Hokies got the ball on the Hogs' 8.
Evans ran for a quick seven yards, then took the ball into the endzone for yet another touchdown. The Hokies, once left for dead, now owned a 35-24 lead and a 35-0 run in the second half.
All Arkansas could manage on its next drive was a flagrant unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Morgan that got him booted from the game, and the Hokies proceeded to grind out the clock with a series of Evans keepers.
Raucous cheers from Hokies fans soon rippled through the stadium, giving Evans a chance to kneel the ball and revel in the adoration of the shellshocked Tech faithful.
It may not have been the first half Fuente and Foster were looking for, but few halves of football could better represent the turnaround the pair engineered in Blacksburg in 2016.
"I'm awfully proud to coach this group of kids," Fuente said. "With the biggest comeback in Tech football history, it's fitting that these kids did it based on them and their work ethic."
But, as is his custom, Fuente isn't dancing in the end zone just yet. He admitted that he'll take a few days off once he returns from Charlotte, but he feels there's plenty more work left to do.
"Starting tomorrow, our team will be completely different," Fuente said. "I think those reference points are good, but each season's different. I think it helps with our culture, but we're going to have some huge holes to fill moving forward."