Virginia Tech gets 10th win with improbable comeback, beating Arkansas 35-24 in Belk Bowl

Norm Wood
Contact Reporternwood@dailypress.com
After disastrous first half, #Hokies bounce back in second half with 28 points off four Arkansas turnovers

Just when it looked like Virginia Tech's dream of reaching 10 wins for the first time since 2011 would have to wait, the Hokies came alive Thursday night against Arkansas in the Belk Bowl.

A 24-point halftime deficit? Nothing 35 unanswered Tech points couldn't fix.

Tech bounced back for a 35-24 victory, completing its largest comeback since at least the start of the 1987 season. The win sealed Tech's first three-bowl winning streak in the program's history.

Before the bowl, Tech's biggest comeback since '87 came in 2012, when the Hokies scored 41 unanswered points against Duke to overcome a 20-point deficit and win 41-20. Tech (10-4) doesn't keep records prior to the '87 season, which was the start of former coach Frank Beamer's tenure.

"It's a fantastic honor, I guess," Tech coach Justin Fuente said regarding the comeback. "I would prefer not to do it that way.

"It is a nice accomplishment for (the senior class). ... My message to the seniors on the way out, I usually after every game tell our guys, 'Don't do anything to take away from this great team victory.' (On Thursday night), I told the seniors, 'Do whatever you want.' "

Arkansas (7-6) scored 10 points off two Tech turnovers in the first half, but the Hokies redeemed themselves in the second half with 28 points off four turnovers by the Razorbacks.

Tech outgained Arkansas 402-314 in offensive yardage. Arkansas gained just 56 yards in the second half. Razorbacks quarterback Austin Allen was sacked six times, all coming in the second half.

Tech quarterback Jerod Evans completed 21 of 33 passes for 243 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He ran 22 times for 87 yards, giving him a team-high 846 rushing yards for the season and passing Bob Schweickert (839 in 1963) for the school's single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback.

Evans, a junior who enrolled in January at Tech after playing two seasons at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas, was asked after the game by the Daily Press if he'd given thought to turning pro. His response was non-committal.

"I'm worried about this win right now," said Evans, who would have until Jan. 16 to declare for the NFL draft. "We'll worry about (the decision to turn pro or not) later."

Wide receiver Cam Phillips, who had six catches for 115 yards for Tech, was named the game's Most Valuable Player.

Tech's only points that didn't come off a turnover gave the Hokies the lead for good in the fourth quarter. With Tech trailing 24-21, running back Travon McMillian capped a 10-play, 76-yard drive on a 6-yard touchdown run with 12:03 left.

Tech converted two third downs on the decisive drive. Immediately prior to McMillian's touchdown run, he bulldozed for a 21-yard run to set up the score.

Strong safety Terrell Edmunds put Tech in position for its final score when he intercepted Allen and returned it 9 yards to Arkansas' 12-yard line. Edmunds fumbled, but the ball was recovered at the Razorbacks' 8 by linebacker Anthony Shegog.

Evans extended Tech's lead to 35-24 with 6:41 when he scored two plays later on a 1-yard touchdown run. Arkansas didn't cross its own 46 on its next possession, and Tech burned out the clock after a Razorbacks punt.

After its horrific first half, Tech started to build momentum on Arkansas' opening possession in the third quarter. Shegog hit receiver Drew Morgan and forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive tackle Woody Baron at Arkansas' 30.

"It seems like at the end of the first half, we played kind of upset, mad," Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. "I told our kids, 'We did the best job we could to spot Arkansas in all phases 24 points.' That's not a slap against them. They're an outstanding football team.

"I kind of got a gear for what they were doing down-and-distance-wise. I took a couple chances on some pressures. They couldn't run the football, which was one of my big concerns going in. ... We just kind of said, 'Screw it. Let's get after their tail,' and that's what we did."

Evans, who completed his first 10 passes of the second half, went to work after Baron's fumble recovery.

After completing back-to-back passes of 13 yards each to receiver Isaiah Ford, Evans scored on a 4-yard touchdown with 13:27 left in the third quarter, trimming Arkansas' lead to 24-7.

"Everything was not going our way (in the first half)," said Tech defensive end Ken Ekanem, who had one of the Hokies' sacks. "It was that type of game. It was that type of half. We were just angry going into halftime, and we just let it out on them."

Arkansas appeared ready to rebuild its 24-point lead on its next drive after Morgan caught a pass on the first play from Allen and went 74 yards to Tech's 1, but Morgan fumbled the ball out of the back of the end zone.

The fumble could have resulted in a touchback and possession given to Tech, but Arkansas was saved by a personal foul on cornerback Adonis Alexander, who was called for hands to the face.

Arkansas' possession still ended with a punt after just three plays. Tech capitalized later in the quarter on another big play by Shegog.

With 6:28 left in the quarter, Shegog picked off Allen at the Arkansas 44. Evans helped Tech keep its next possession alive on third-and-10 from the Razorbacks' 44 by completing a 33-yard pass to Phillips.

Two plays later, Evans found Sam Rogers, who made a shoe-top catch for a 3-yard touchdown with 4:18 left in the quarter, cutting Arkansas' lead to 24-14.

It went from bad to worse for Arkansas on the next play.

Allen's pass on first down went through tight end Austin Cantrell's hands and was intercepted by linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who returned it 9 yards to Arkansas' 5. Evans immediately spotted tight end Chris Cunningham for a 5-yard touchdown pass with four minutes left in the third quarter, reducing Arkansas' edge to 24-21.

"I was, in general, getting more comfortable every time we scored quickly," Evans said. "They were very slow-paced, run-the-ball type of offense. I felt, just me in general, the faster we scored, the more pressure was on them, because (of) the way they play offense."

Tech's defense didn't let up when Arkansas got the ball back, surrendering just 10 yards to the Razorbacks before forcing another punt.

Arkansas held a 258-160 yardage advantage at halftime. Though Arkansas came into the game surrendering a Football Bowl Subdivision-worst 6.16 yards per carry, Tech had just 66 yards on 18 carries in the opening half.

"You can't think like that," Rogers said regarding whether the team thought at halftime that its chances of getting a 10th win were slipping away. "If you do, it's kind of like giving in to the mentality that it's going to happen. I can't speak for everyone, but when those thoughts do creep in, you just cut them off right there and think, 'No. We're going to go win the game.' "

Evans, who fumbled away the first play from scrimmage, leading to a 38-yard Arkansas field goal, completed 9 of 17 passes for 114 yards and an interception in the first half. Allen was much more successful throwing the ball in the opening half.

Allen completed 13 of 16 passes for 215 yards in the half, including a touchdown pass of 28 yards to tight end Cheyenne O'Grady on a drive after Evans' interception, and a 12-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Keon Hatcher with 10:05 left in the second quarter to put the Razorbacks up 24-0.

"There were some guys talking (at halftime)," Fuente said. "It's not like we called everybody up and addressed everybody. A lot of our guys talked within their groups and to everybody. ... I didn't say anything revolutionary, I don't think, but I do believe our guys were upset with how they played. I don't want to take anything away from how Arkansas played. They played really well. The only way to do anything about it is to go out there and take one step at a time, and (Tech) did that."

Wood can be reached by phone at 757-247-4642.

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