CHARLOTTE, NC. — Anyone watching the first half in Thursday night’s Belk Bowl would have questioned the fight and effort of Virginia Tech. Anyone watching the second half would’ve gotten their answer.
Virginia Tech rallied after a disastrous start to score 35 unanswered points in the second half in a spirited comeback to win 35-24 over Arkansas in the Belk Bowl.
“I’m awfully proud of our kids and the way we battled today,” said Head Coach Justin Fuente. “We did not play well in the first half and they did play well, but our kids didn’t panic. They had to take it one play at a time to start the second half. They came out and played very well in all three phases in the game.”
The Hokies rallied from a 24-point deficit at halftime, making it the largest comeback in school history. The comeback also gave Virginia Tech their 10th win of the season, the first time the Hokies have hit that mark since 2011.
“I think it speaks so much to our guys,” Fuente said. “The character, the toughness and how much it means to them to play for Virginia Tech. These kids love Virginia Tech, they love the school, they love each other. They weren’t going to give up, I’ll say that much.”
Virginia Tech’s Jerod Evans led the way for the Hokies, throwing for 243 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 87 yards and another two touchdowns. Cam Phillips was named the Most Valuable Player in the Belk Bowl, catching six passes for 115 yards.
Defensively, Anthony Shegog picked a great time for his best performance of the year. Shegog made six tackles, registered one sack, a forced fumble and an interception.
“He’s not one of those guys that gets a lot of headlines because of the job that he does is not glamourous, but he’s been very effective in his roles on special teams,” Fuente said. “He’s an intelligent football player and did make some plays for us. I’m certainly glad we had him.”
The win also sent the seniors out with a win and a memorable season. For a group that had experienced too many mediocre seasons for their liking, this group of seniors is the first class to win three straight bowl games.
“The character, just the resiliency on this team is incredible,” said Sam Rogers. “They’re so fun to play with because you’re never out of the game, no matter what the score is. It’s just been awesome to play with these guys. I’m so fortunate. I think I’m all cried-out at this point.”
The game began in an all too familiar fashion for the Hokies. A botched exchange between Evans and Rogers resulted in a recovered fumble for Arkansas, who capitalized with a field goal to take a 3-0 lead less than three minutes into the game.
“That was on me, that was definitely my fault,” Rogers said. “I’m glad we made up for it.”
That turnover flattened the mood on the Hokies bench. The offense stagnated, shooting themselves in the foot with sacks and negative plays. The slump lasted the entire half as Virginia Tech registered just 180 yards and zero points. The Hokies were 2-7 on third down and spoiled their only scoring opportunity with an interception.
“It felt like in the first half, offensively, we got a first down or two and then had a huge negative play to make it second and 16 or second and 17,” Fuente said. “Then we couldn’t overcome that second down.”
Meanwhile, Arkansas found little resistance from the Virginia Tech defense. Austin Allen carved up the Hokies with play action passes and extended the Razorbacks’ lead to 10-0 with a little over two minutes to play in the first quarter.
Following Evans’ interception, Arkansas padded their advantage as Allen found Cheyenne O’Grady over the middle for a 28-yard touchdown, giving the Razorbacks a 17-0 lead just after the first quarter. Arkansas would score again on their first drive in the second quarter and took what seemed to be an insurmountable 24-0 lead into halftime.
“I know for me, I was like, ‘Sheesh, it’s kind of tough,’ especially when we weren’t playing well in the first half and the turnovers,” Phillips said. “It was a little tough but thanks to the seniors, the leadership that we have on this team, we just try to stay confident and trust in each other and things turned around for us.”
There was no special speech or Hollywood moment in the Virginia Tech locker room, mostly because the Hokies had faced a situation like this before. The Hokies trailed Notre Dame 17-0 early in the second quarter on the road. They trailed Clemson in the ACC Championship by three touchdowns in the third quarter.
Instead of panicking, Virginia Tech relied on lessons they had learned throughout the season.
“I think you always revert back to past experiences to help you gain confidence,” Rogers said. “We saw how we responded against Notre Dame, we were able to come back and win the game. We knew we could do it again.”
“There were some guys talking,” Fuente said. “Sam (Rogers) talks, but it’s not like he gave… called everybody up and addressed them. He talked and a lot of our guys talked. We came in, we made adjustments and I came in, talked to them for a couple minutes. I didn’t say anything revolutionary I don’t think but I believe our guys were upset with how they had played.”
“Just going into halftime, we were pretty pissed off,” Ekanem said. “We came out and just took it out on them. We executed very well and caused a couple mistakes on their end.”
The angry Hokies stormed out of the gates in the second half. Shegog forced a fumble on Arkansas’ first possession, putting the Hokies in prime position at the Razorbacks’ 30-yard-line. Virginia Tech scored in three plays, cutting the lead to 24-7 with 13:27 left in the third.
Phillips said that Tech’s defense helped spark the Hokies’ comeback.
“Each time we’ve been down, they’ve made a play or made a big stop to get things started. I knew it would be a matter of time before they did,” Phillips said. “The first turnover we got put us in good field position and we punched it in there and started to play with more energy, which I think was the key tonight, really. We started to play with more energy and got it rolling for us.”
Tech cut into the lead again later in the third. Evans threw a 33-yard pass to Phillips and capped off the drive with a touchdown pass to Rogers, making it 24-14.
Arkansas wilted as the Hokies came alive. A screen pass from Allen was dropped and intercepted by Tremaine Edmunds, giving the Hokies the ball deep in Razorback territory. Evans threw his second touchdown pass of the day to Chris Cunningham, pulling the Hokies within three before the fourth quarter.
Virginia Tech completed the comeback in the final period with a 10-play, 76-yard drive that ended in a 6-yard run by Travon McMillian. The Hokies held a 28-24 lead with 12:03 left to play.
The Hokies’ defense continued to manhandle Arkansas’ offense. Virginia Tech stymied Arkansas on the ground and pressured Allen repeatedly, sacking him six times in the second half alone and forcing four second half turnovers. Allen threw another interception in the fourth quarter, setting up Tech with first and goal from the 8-yard-line.
“I kind of got a gear of what they were doing down and distance-wise,” Foster said. “I took some chances on some pressures. They couldn’t run the football, that was one of my big concerns coming in. I really felt like they were going to come in and try and maul us a bit and they didn’t do that.”
“All of the turnovers certainly helped,” Fuente said. “We played defense in the second half with an edge. That kind of lit the fire, getting a turnover and built us some momentum and let us start chipping away at it.”
Virginia Tech put the nail in the coffin in the fourth. Evans scored his fourth touchdown of the day, giving the Hokies a 35-24 lead they would never relinquish. All four of Evans’ touchdowns came in the second half.
“The thing that he does do is he keeps plugging away,” Fuente said. “I’m not surprised by that. We had some ups and downs in the last game we played against Clemson. He continued to plug away and find some ways to make some plays. He’s got some ‘stick-to-it-ness’. He continues to persevere.”
After the game, Evans couldn’t really express his pride for his teammates.
“You can’t put it into words, really,” Evans said. “You can’t.”
The win was more than Virginia Tech’s biggest comeback in school history. It was symbolic of the senior class and all of the struggles they endured.
“They should take pride in it, absolutely,” Fuente said. “I’m not saying we’ve arrived or we’re back or any of those things, but for this season, in that group, they worked towards getting Virginia Tech back some of the recognition and the way Virginia Tech was thought of. They earned some of that back.”
Hokies remember, honor Carpenter
Virginia Tech played on Wednesday after learning of the death of Keion Carpenter, a former defensive back for the Hokies. Carpenter played for Virginia Tech from 1995-1998 and was a key player for Tech on defense and on special teams.
After Tech’s win over Arkansas, Foster was noticeably emotional when talking about his former player.
“Keion was one of my favorite players,” Foster said. “He exemplified what the Lunch Pail was all about. Just his work ethic, his leadership, his character, he showed that on the field and he showed it off the field. What he’s done since he got out of the NFL speaks volume about the person he is. We lost a great Hokie today and I know the Carpenter family lost a son, a father and a special man. Our thoughts go out to them.”
Bucky Hodges gave a tribute to Carpenter, wearing an undershirt underneath his jersey honoring carpenter. Foster said after the game that the coaches made it a point on Tuesday night to let the players know who Carpenter was.
Respect to the young fella Bucky Hodges for showing the VT great Keion Carpenter some love. Once a Hokie always a Hokie. RIP big bro Luv You pic.twitter.com/HiPUGia5b6
— OG aka CAPTAIN 23 (@DeAngeloHall23) December 30, 2016
“Some of those guys don’t know Keion,” Foster said. “We made a point last night defensively to let them know who he was, what kind of player he was, what kind of teammate he was, what kind of person he was and he’s a brother. To me, he was like a son. It was a tough time. It kind of caught me off guard because we were going in with a big night for our seniors. It took me back. I thought it was important our kids know who he was and what he meant to our program. He was a big part of us taking that next step as a program. To lose such a fine young man at such a young age is like losing one of your kids. I couldn’t imagine that, I’ve not done that. It’s devastating.”