SHREVEPORT, La. — Just 2 1/2 weeks before kickoff in Saturday's Independence Bowl, Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer mentioned how he was pleased to have coached a program that was strong enough on defense to avoid being involved in shootouts.
After that statement, he should've seen this coming. His final game was bananas, and nearly heartbreaking.
Tech finished Beamer's 29-season coaching career in Blacksburg with a 55-52 victory against Tulsa in a wild game that featured offensive records galore — and forgettable defensive performances. Tech nearly let a 24-point lead slip away, but managed to keep Tulsa off the scoreboard in the closing moments.
Tech (7-6) sacked quarterback Dane Evans twice on Tulsa's final drive, which never got beyond the Golden Hurricane's 46-yard line. Tulsa turned the ball over on downs with 1:17 left after defensive end Dadi Nicolas sacked Evans, and Tech ran the clock out to preserve the win.
"We haven’t been in many games like this," Beamer said. "Usually when we score as many points as we did tonight, it’s usually a done deal. I give them credit. We needed a big play. If we give him time to throw and those receivers, there’s going to be a lot of completions, which they had. The best way to combat that is to get him sacked - get people around him or get him sacked. That’s what we did at the end of the football game. That thing was going back and forth. I haven’t coached many games like that."
The teams combined for an Independence Bowl-record 107 points. Tech's 55 points were the most it has scored in a bowl, surpassing its 52-49 loss in the 2003 Insight Bowl against Aaron Rodgers-led California.
In a game full of eye-popping performances, Tech wide receiver Isaiah Ford had the biggest performance on his way to winning the game's Most Outstanding Player award on offense. His 12 catches for 227 yards and a touchdown gave him 1,164 receiving yards for the season, making him the first pass-catcher in Tech history with more than 1,000 yards in a season.
Running back Travon McMillian got his own 1,000-yard season, running 16 times for 82 yards. He finished his redshirt freshman season with 1,043 yards, becoming the first Tech running back to eclipse 1,000 yards since 2011, when David Wilson had a school single-season record 1,709 yards.
Tech outgained Tulsa 598-563 in yardage, sending offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler out with the best production of his three-season tenure at Tech.
Tech quarterback Michael Brewer capped his career by completing 23-of-37 passes for 344 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He became just the second quarterback in school history to lead Tech to wins in bowls in back-to-back seasons.
"It took me back to my Big 12 days a bit," said Brewer, who transferred in May 2014 to Virginia Tech from Texas Tech. "It was quite a shootout. We didn’t really expect it to turn into a shootout like that. There have been games during the year and last year, and all throughout Virginia Tech where the defense has had to step up and win football games. Every now and then, the offense has to score 55 points and get the win.”
At Virginia Tech's bowl media day Dec. 11, Beamer talked about his ideal teams, which were built on the foundations of defense and special teams.
"If you can play defense you're going to have a chance to win it in the fourth quarter," Beamer said. "That's the way I've always felt, and then be good enough on offense to be efficient when you get in a position to score. Get your points on the board. To me, that's the way to go about it. Never particularly wanted shootouts where it's 50-48, because whoever had the ball last — that wasn't my type of team."
He had no choice in the matter Saturday.
Tech came out of the first half Saturday with a 45-31 lead against Tulsa (6-7) in the Independence Bowl, representing the most combined first-half points in a bowl in college football history. The last time Tech scored more points in a half in any game was Oct. 16, 2010, when it had 49 points in the first half of a 52-21 win at Wake Forest.
By the end of the first quarter, Tech already had a 24-21 lead, which was the most combined points by teams in a quarter in Beamer's tenure. The first-quarter total also tied the record for most points scored — in the first half of the Independence Bowl.
Both teams were void of defense throughout much of the game, but especially in the early going. In the first three minutes, 18 seconds, the teams combined for 288 yards on just 13 plays, resulting in a 14-all tie.
Tulsa running back D'Angelo Brewer scored on a 48-yard run up the middle of the field on the opening drive. Tech answered with a 51-yard touchdown run by McMillian to make the score 7-7 with 12:53 left in the opening quarter.
Running back Zack Langer put Tulsa back up 14-7 on its next possession with 11:54 remaining in the quarter via a 2-yard touchdown run, but Tech responded on the very next play from scrimmage with a 75-yard touchdown pass from Brewer to Ford with 11:42 left.
Tech started to build a cushion in the second quarter. With the score 24-21, tight end Bucky Hodges capped a 10-play, 75-yard drive with a 16-yard touchdown run with 13:09 left to put Tech up 31-21.
After stopping Tulsa on its next possession, Tech set up a 1-yard touchdown run by McMillian that extended Tech's lead to 38-21 with 9:09 left in the quarter when Brewer found Ford on a 46-yard completion. Ford was also interfered with on the play, but the penalty was declined.
Tulsa went three-and-out on its next drive, giving Tech's Greg Stroman a chance to grab some of the spotlight. He took advantage with a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown with 7:11 remaining in the second quarter to push Tech's lead to 45-21.
“It felt great," said Stroman, who also had a 44-yard punt return in the first quarter that he nearly turned into a longer return the sideline. "Coach Beamer was talking all bowl prep about how we need to get one, how we’re going to get one, and we did.”
Though Tulsa climbed to within 45-31 by the half, Tech expanded its lead to 52-31 with 7:38 left on a 1-yard touchdown run by Trey Edmunds, but the Golden Hurricane wasn't done.
Tech saw four of its next five drives end with no points, including a drive that concluded with a Brewer interception and another possession that came to an end when running back J.C. Coleman fumbled through the back of the end zone.
Tulsa capitalized on Brewer's interception when Evans scored on a 9-yard keeper with 4:11 remaining in the third quarter to cut Tech's lead to 52-37. Tulsa botched the snap on the extra point.
Leading 55-37 midway through the fourth quarter, Tech let Tulsa climb to within 55-45 when Evans connected with receiver Josh Atkinson for a 21-yard touchdown pass with 7:35 left. Tulsa capped the possession with a two-point conversion.
Tech was forced to punt after three plays on its next drive, and Tulsa went right back to work. Evans finished off a seven-play, 76-yard drive when he hit receiver Keyarris Garrett on a spectacular 36-yard touchdown catch with 3:47 left, trimming Tech's lead to 55-52.
Tech picked up a first down on the ensuing possession, but couldn't get beyond its own 43 before having to punt the ball away to Tulsa with two minutes left. After struggling all game, Tech's defense finally rose up when it had to on Tulsa's final drive, with Nicolas finishing with a sack-and-a-half to end the Golden Hurricane's threat.
"After I got the sack (on Tulsa's last play), it was just a great feeling," said Nicolas, who finished his senior season with just 2 1/2 sacks after having nine last season. "I haven't had that feeling - a clean sack like that - in a while. It was a great feeling. I looked up, and all I saw was my teammates running to me on the field. That was just a great experience. That was the perfect play just to remember my whole college career."
Wood can be reached by phone at 757-247-4642.