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January 9, 2009

Hokie's 2008 Season Happy Ending

By: Jimmy Robertson

Darren Evans was named the Orange Bowl MVP after rushing for 153 yards and a touchdown in the Hokies’ 20-7 win over Cincinnati.

It was the celebration you would have expected. As the final seconds ticked off the digital scoreboard at Dolphin Stadium, some players tore into boxes filled with hats and t-shirts proclaiming them Orange Bowl champions.

Others laughed and danced. Some hurled oranges up into the crowd. A couple simply soaked it all in. And a few started the waning-moments-of-victory ritual of the pouring of Gatorade on the coaches’ heads, first with head coach Frank Beamer and then the rest.

For the players, it was a party. For the coaches, it was sheer relief. Those Gatorade showers – well, they cleansed away all thoughts of a recent string of poor bowl performances.

Tech manhandled Big East champion Cincinnati for the final 57 minutes en route to a workmanlike 20-7 mild upset of the favored Bearcats in the 75th Orange Bowl on an absolutely perfect New Year’s Day night in Miami. The victory – the Hokies’ fourth to conclude the season – snapped Tech’s two-game losing streak in bowls (they actually had lost four of five bowl games) and purged their home conference, the ACC, of its wretched eight-game Bowl Championship Series losing streak. It also enabled the Hokies to win 10 games for the fifth straight year, a claim of which only powerhouses Southern Cal and Texas can boast.

“I think this is the best football ‘team’ we’ve ever had,” said a soggy, exhausted and euphoric Beamer, who improved to 7-9 in bowl games. “We had some tough losses, but no one slipped up. We hung in there together. We always practiced hard. I can’t say enough about our players and our coaches.

“We have had some great, great seasons here at Virginia Tech. But I believe this is the best ‘team’ we’ve ever had.”

Beamer’s analysis of his team fit perfectly into an analysis of this Orange Bowl game.

Simply put, this was vintage Virginia Tech, a ‘Beamerball’ display at its near finest.

At first, the game took on the sordid look of bowl games past when Cincinnati smoothly marched 72 yards on the opening drive of the game. On third-and-9 from the Tech 15, Bearcat quarterback Tony Pike lofted a 15-yard touchdown strike over the head of Tech’s Kam Chancellor to Mardy Gilyard, who deftly got a foot inbounds, and Cincinnati took a 7-0 lead two minutes into the game.

“I didn’t think they would run all over us,” Chancellor said. “Our heads went down for a second, but we lifted them up and said, ‘This is the first two minutes of the game. We’ve got four quarters.’ I think we all stepped up to the challenge and stepped up to Tony Pike’s challenge. We did what we needed to do.”

That meant getting back to Beamerball. The Hokies methodically chewed up 258 yards worth of Dolphin Stadium sod and hogged the ball for a Beamer-record 39 minutes, 39 seconds. They finished with 398 total yards – just six feet from their season high of 400 (Maryland). Tech got a couple of field goals from Dustin Keys, whose lone slip-up was a missed 26-yard chip shot. Defensively, Tech held the Bearcats to 50 yards under their rushing average and picked off Pike four times, none bigger than Orion Martin’s snare with 12:55 remaining in the game.

Martin, a senior and former walk-on who embodies the Tech program more than any player, stepped in front of Cincinnati running back John Goebel and made a diving interception at the Cincinnati 10. It turned out to be the play of the game.
And maybe of the past year.

“That play for me,” Martin said of his interception. “is like an exclamation point for the season.”

Darren Evans handled things from there. Tech’s sledgehammer of a tailback carried three straight times, the final one coming when he bulled in behind guard Jaymes Brooks – making his first career start – and then made two Bearcat defenders look as if they were trying to tackle the fog lazily coming in off the Atlantic. His 6-yard scamper to payday gave the Hokies a 20-7 lead with 11:29 left.

Evans left Cincinnati defenders foggy, garnishing the game’s MVP honors after rushing for 153 yards on 28 carries. The redshirt freshman from Indianapolis, Ind., became the first player to rush for more than 100 yards against Cincinnati’s defense this season.

“It [the MVP] means a lot to me, with this being my freshman year,” Evans said. “I’ve got to give a lot of props to the offensive line. They made a lot of holes out there for me, and really, it was just out there for me to take. Coach [Beamer] put the ball in my hands a lot and I appreciate that.”

Orion Martin celebrated after making a diving, fourth-quarter interception that set up Darren Evans’ touchdown run to seal the Hokies’ Orange Bowl win over Cincinnati.

This game – and this season – pretty much ended the only way it could, with the Hokies’ defense salting it away. On Cincinnati’s next possession, the Bearcats drove to the Tech 1. But on fourth down, Tech linebacker Barquell Rivers – another redshirt freshman making his first career start – stoned Pike at the goal line on a quarterback keeper. The Bearcats’ final possession ended with Tech’s Cody Grimm, one of the unsung stars of this team, intercepting Pike for the fourth and final time.

Tech lined up in the victory formation to run out the clock – and a season filled with youth, injuries, controversies and tough losses ended on a much sweeter note than last year’s when the Hokies’ yellow brick road to a great season was blocked by Kansas.

“It says a whole lot about the character of our team,” Tech cornerback Macho Harris said. “The younger guys, I tell you, I can’t be more impressed with those guys. When they stepped in, since Day 1, they knew what the expectations were. And they met the expectations and passed them by three. So a lot of credit and respect for them boys.”

The future looks blinding bright for 2009, with 18 starters from the bowl game set to return. But as Beamer cautioned, “There are no guarantees in this business.”

For the time being, he’d rather recline and immerse himself with the feeling of a sticky Gatorade shower.

There’s not a better feeling in the world.

Orange Bowl notebook
  • Evans finished with 1,265 yards rushing on the season, which is a Tech freshman record and the third-highest total in school history. He scored his 11th touchdown of the season, another Tech freshman record. His 28 carries set a new Tech bowl record and his 153 yards tied the school bowl record (Kevin Jones vs. Cal).
  • Tech picked off four passes in a game for the second time this season. The four interceptions are a new Tech bowl record. In addition to Martin and Grimm, Chancellor and Stephan Virgil intercepted passes in the game.
  • Keys broke the school’s single-season mark for field goals with his 43- and 35-yarders, snapping the previous mark of 22 field goals held by Chris Kinzer and Shayne Graham.
  • The senior class finished with a four-year record of 42-12, tying the school record for wins over a four-year span. Last year’s class went 42-11 over the course of four years.