Up three points and tasked with stymieing a UVa offense that had run roughshod over them for the better part of the last 30 minutes, the Hokies defense needed a big play. After what appeared to be another easy first down, Bryce Perkins and the Hoos looked poised to reverse nearly a decade-and-a-half of futility on their rival's home turf. I turned to my father with a concerned look on my face and opined, "Tech needs to force a turnover here or it's over." Insightful, right? You probably said or thought the same thing. Mike Burnop sure did, seconds before the fateful snap to follow.
What happened moments later will live forever in Commonwealth Cup history. Perkins took the snap, stared down a ferocious Tech blitz, pulled the ball from tailback Jordan Ellis' hands and put it on the turf a split second before being pummeled by Rayshard Ashby.
Emmanuel Belmar — who played the game on one leg and was caught hobbling between plays multiple times by the television cameras — had the presence of mind to jump on the football and hold on tighter than a pickle jar. "It's fitting that Belmar recovered it," noted Justin Fuente. "He has been beat up and he shows up to practice every day. He got carted off once. He's about playing on one leg out there, but he is tough and what this team is about. For him to recover it, I think that is pretty poetic."
I've watched the replay God-knows-how-many-times and still struggle to visually follow the football from Perkins' hands to the ground. It was an incredible play by all involved, including those to have the wherewithal to spot the errant ball and chase after it. When asked about that fateful play, Ricky Walker remarked:
"I remember in the huddle thinking that we were up by three and that I didn't want to go to another overtime, so I was thinking about how we could win. I said 'A turnover wins the game, so let's go out and do it.' Next thing you know, coach called a blitz and I was going to execute, but I looked back and the ball was on the ground. I saw maroon jerseys hop on it, and they [the people in the crowd] just went wild. Everybody started running on the field, and it was my best feeling yet as a Hokie."
Regardless of whether Perkins handed the ball off or kept it himself, the play seemed destined for a big loss. On the surface, the fumble appeared to be a product of Ellis' shoulder knocking the ball free from Perkins as he executed the play fake. But I'll be damned if it wasn't a product of the Tech defenders bearing down on him from the strong side. In the epic staring contest that is college football overtime, the Hoos blinked first.
While the ending was euphoric, the first 60 minutes were far from it. Initially, the 100th meeting between these two teams was more an exercise in futility. Head-scratching decisions and ulcer-inducing mistakes characterized both teams' starts as drive after drive stalled. Midway through the second quarter, true-freshman Tre Turner broke the game open with a pair of highlight reel plays.
Despite his slight build, Turner continued to showcase his strong ball skills, fending off a Wahoo defender to make a one-handed catch on a Ryan Willis fade to put the Hokies up 7-0. On the ensuing drive, "Big Play Tre" exploded through the UVa punt protection to essentially snatch the ball off of punter Lester Coleman's foot before Jovonn Quillen fell on the football in the endzone to extend the lead to 14.
Suddenly, the Hokies had all of the momentum in front of a raucous home crowd. After Willis avoided a disaster of his own making in the waning minutes of the first half, Tech headed into the locker room up two scores. But as anyone who had subjected themselves to Hokies football in 2018 knew, Tech's witching hour was on the horizon.
The second half was a familiar script for Virginia Tech. A previously adept Hokies defense once again looked incapable of making a stop, allowing a suddenly clinical UVa offense to score touchdown after touchdown. The Hoos began the second half with touchdown drives of 75, 75, 75 and 85 yards to move ahead of the Hokies 28-24 with 6:51 to play.
It was absolutely painful to watch. Nothing ever felt certain, especially when you consider how this season has gone. But Tech looked poised to transcend their recent second half woes in a resurgent performance against their archrival. To see them falter once again was agonizing. For it to happen against the Hoos with two streaks on the line was devastating.
The defensive execution was again horrendous, with missed tackles abound. Perkins looked unstoppable on the ground and through the air, ultimately accounting for 3 touchdowns and 371 of Virginia's 423 total yards. And even on an afternoon where the Hokies offense was able to put points on the board in the second half, Tech's defense was so atrocious that it cast a pall over Lane Stadium.
Bud Foster, who once again called plays from the booth, touched on a few of the Hokies' defensive struggles after the win.
"The disappointing thing is that we gave up a big play on a five-yard out. We missed two tackles on that play that turned into a 75-yard touchdown run. Those are plays that we have to eliminate and those are plays that haven't gone against us over the years. The last touchdown that they got we brought the pressure and you just have to go make the tackle. Our coverage in the back end of the second half was awful. We have to be better than that and more consistent than that. We talked about as a defense going into this game that we have to execute every play."
Down 4 with just under 7 minutes to play, Willis and the Virginia Tech offense looked to reverse the momentum after 14 unanswered points by the Cavaliers. Desperately in need of a spark, Willis struggled to get the ball to his receivers as the UVa defense disrupted play-after-play. When defender Charles Snowden picked off Willis deep in Tech territory, the Commonwealth Cup appeared destined for Charlottesville.
With all of the momentum behind them, the UVa offense took the field looking to put the Hokies away. That's when things got weird.
Astonishingly, the Wahoo offense let their foot off the gas. Conservative playcalling allowed the Tech defense to bottle up the Cavaliers' rushing attack and force a field goal. Trailing by 7 with 2:41 left in regulation, the beleaguered Hokies offense trotted back onto the field as Tech fans filed out of the stadium. On third-and-10 from the Virginia Tech 25-yard line, Willis rolled left and threw a jump ball to a streaking Dalton Keene who outmuscled his defender to come away with the football. Suddenly, there was hope.
While it pales in comparison to the drama surrounding Danny Coale's sideline catch-and-run to the Nebraska goal line in 2009, it was a comparable game-changing play at a critical moment from deep in Tech territory. The moment felt similarly dire, desperately in need of a spark (despite what Fuente said after the game).
"We were not in desperation mode on Keene's catch but it was getting there quickly. Ryan just bought some time, I don't know what he saw. I just know he threw the ball up there and Dalton making that catch is indicative of the type of person Dalton is. I don't think there is anyone who was surprised that he came down with it."
Two plays later, Steven Peoples exploded through the line towards paydirt. With a full head of steam, Peoples was stripped of the ball inside the 5, pushing it forwards and into the UVa end zone. Hezekiah Grimsley, who was actively pursuing the play downfield, pounced on the football to put Tech within an extra point of tying the game.
After choosing to take their chances in overtime, the Hokies converted their first offensive possession into a Brian Johnson field goal — an action that had hardly been routine, of late. That's when the college football script writers had one final plot twist, in the form of Perkins' game-ending fumble.
During a season in which everything had seemingly gone wrong for the Hokies, they finally caught a few breaks. To chalk their win up to chance does them a disservice. As cliché as it sounds, despite the defense's characteristically poor second half performance, they never quit. They kept attacking until the game was over, most especially Belmar. While his teammates streaked toward the south endzone in pursuit of a jubilant Khalil Ladler, Belmar was fighting a UVa offensive lineman to ensure the Commonwealth Cup was filled with Rails and not Zima on Friday night.
The Hokies' win makes it 15 straight against the Wahoos. Justin Fuente was quoted on the television broadcast as saying, "If they're gonna get us, it better be this year." Though UVa returns Perkins next season, they will be forced to replace most of their key contributors, including Ellis, Olamide Zaccheaus, Juan Thornhill, Tim Harris and Evan Butts. Considering the widespread injuries and high percentage of young players Tech was forced to battle with this season, the Commonwealth Cup looks poised to stay in Blacksburg for the foreseeable future. But if we learned anything from Friday's Virginia Tech victory, it's that anything can happen in these matchups.
Now the Hokies are tasked with pivoting to a talented Marshall squad with the bowl streak once again on the line. "Playoff Football", as Fuente has termed it, will again be the theme when Tech takes the field on Saturday looking to salvage a season believed to be lost as recently as the fourth quarter on Friday.
When asked how victories like the one over Virginia can affect a team's confidence, Grimsley stated, "They show us that we can be that team — of course we didn't want to be the team that ended the streak [against UVA]. We knew what was at stake, but games like this make us realize that we can be bigger than what we have been in the past."
If there's one thing we've learned from this season, it's that things can snowball rather quickly. Plays that seem innocuous in the moment can, in hindsight, prove to be critical junctures in the game. As big plays become more common and repeatedly close games rapidly turn into blowouts, they wear on the psyche of all involved. Whether it be coaches, players or fans, once the proverbial ball begins rolling in a potentially negative direction, it can be impossible to ignore the voice in one's head groaning, "Oh, not again!"
The fact that the Hokies were able to claw back Friday night in spite of another letdown stretch is remarkable. Considering the stakes, it was even more impressive.
When asked to reflect on the Hokies' season thus far, Jovonn Quillen noted, "I'm not going to say that it has been disappointing. We have had a lot to learn, and we don't like using the word young, but we have had a lot to learn. Even though we were losing, we were still coming together as a team, and so in this game right here, we just had to put the cake together."
That cake — full of Hoo tears and sweet, sweet victory — tastes absolutely delicious.