They saved their best for last.
That's how the 2008 Virginia Tech Hokies, players and coaches, should be remembered.
With their program smarting from recent postseason setbacks and their conference sinking into national irrelevance, the Hokies defeated Big East champion Cincinnati 20-7 in the Orange Bowl.
This Tech did with balanced offense, stifling defense and immeasurable spirit.
This Tech did without three starters lost since the ACC championship victory over Boston College.
This Tech did in response to the most demanding bowl preparations Coach Frank Beamer has ever dictated.
Like the season itself, Thursday was rife with warts. But the Hokies overcame them to snap their four-game losing streak in major bowls and the ACC's eight-year skid in Bowl Championship Series competition.
In so doing, Tech (10-4) assured itself a spot in this season's final top 25 and perhaps a place in next preseason's top 10. The Hokies also joined Texas and Southern California as the only programs to win at least 10 games in each of the last five years.
Aside from national championships, the one thing separating Tech from those storied schools was offense. The Hokies in no way resembled those imposing attacks.
For one night at least, against a quality defense, Tech did.
All of us who criticized offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring during the regular season, often with good reason, owe him praise today.
Facing an opponent ranked 26th nationally in scoring defense and 13th in rushing defense, he called an imaginative, effective game that included reverses to Dyrell Roberts and Danny Coale, passes of all stripes and a direct snap to tight end Greg Boone.
Said diversity created running room for freshman tailback Darren Evans, who barreled his way to 153 yards, his fourth 100-yard performance, all since November.
Given their preparation, the Hokies' effort was not surprising. But with offensive lineman Nick Marshman (academics), linebacker Brett Warren (knee) and defensive end Jason Worilds (shoulder) lost in the last month, the issue was whether effort would be enough.
Jaymes Brooks, Barquell Rivers and Nekos Brown proved adequate replacements — Rivers stuffed quarterback Tony Pike on a fourth-and-goal from the 1 midway through the fourth quarter. And reliables such as Evans, cornerback Macho Harris, defensive end Orion Martin and quarterback Tyrod Taylor provided the rest.
Amazing what a bowl victory does, isn't it?
Tech entered last season's Orange Bowl third in the BCS standings, but after a 24-21 loss to Kansas, the mood was bleak. This season the Hokies arrived in South Florida 19th in the BCS, and after this victory, they and their fans will float home.
Road victories at North Carolina and Nebraska this season were notable. But neither approaches this.
When Cincinnati marched 72 yards in less than two minutes for an opening-drive touchdown, you had to wonder if something like this were possible. But Bud Foster's defense rarely ceases to amaze, and after Taylor drew the Hokies even with a sweet 17-yard scramble, the game was on.
Taylor's touchdown marked his third rushing score in his last two outings. The common denominator: All were on third down.
Give the kid this: He's clutch.
Yes, he missed a wide-open Roberts on a second-quarter post route and compounded the gaffe by throwing into double coverage and a pick by Brandon Underwood. But Tech's defense bailed him out as Stephan Virgil intercepted Tony Pike in the end zone to maintain a 7-all tie.
The 255 yards Tech gained in the first half were more than it managed in six complete games this season, including the ACC championship contest against Boston College and a Thursday night loss to Miami in this very stadium.
By game's end, the Hokies had 398 yards and a 19-minute time-of-possession advantage, Evans was cradling MVP hardware, and the program was adding this Orange Bowl to the December 1995 Sugar Bowl for its collection of major postseason victories.
Indeed, it's a remarkable conclusion to a journey that began with disappointment in Charlotte against East Carolina.
"I'm really proud of this football team," Beamer said. "It's just like all year. We kept battling."
Never like on Thursday night in Miami.
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime