Quarterback Tyrod Taylor made a habit of coming up with a few big plays just when Virginia Tech needed it this season.
He did it again in a most unexpected fashion Thursday night in Tech's 37-14 win against Tennessee in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Though his 63-yard pass to wide receiver Jarrett Boykin at the end of the first half didn't serve as the final margin in the game, it did provide the spark No. 12 Tech's offense needed. The victory gave Tech (10-3) bowl wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history, and snapped Tech's four-game losing streak against teams from the Southeastern Conference. Tech also reached 10 wins for the sixth consecutive season, a feat that has been currently equaled only by Texas.
"I think the fact that we finally won back-to-back bowl games is special," Tech coach Frank Beamer said.
"You guys can talk about all those other quarterbacks, but I like my Tyrod. He's a leader. He knows what he's doing. He has great instincts."
While Taylor got it done through the air, Tech running back Ryan Williams made the most of limited time on the field. Williams had 25 carries for 117 yards and two touchdowns before leaving the game late in the third quarter with a left ankle injury.
He finished the season with 1,655 rushing yards, surpassing Kevin Jones for Tech's single-season rushing record. In 2003, Jones had 1,647 yards.
After Tennessee (7-6) scored on a 2-yard play-action pass in the second quarter from quarterback Jonathan Crompton to wide receiver Denarius Moore to tie the game 14-14, Tech had nine seconds left and a timeout remaining when it opened its next possession at its own 33. Instead of taking a knee, Tech opted to take a shot downfield.
Taylor, a Hampton High graduate who completed 10 of 17 passes for 209 yards and an interception, spotted Boykin streaking to the end zone behind free safety Janzen Jackson. Taylor fired a deep ball that Boykin caught at Tennessee's 11 and got down to the 4.
Though the clock expired, and Tennessee's players and coaches headed to the locker room, the referees reviewed the play and ruled there were two seconds remaining when Boykin's knee hit the ground. Tech, which amassed 438 yards of offense including 229 yards rushing, called a timeout immediately after the review.
As a symphony of Volunteer-inspired boos rained down from the stands, Matt Waldron booted a 21-yard field goal as the clock hit zero again, giving Tech a 17-14 halftime lead.
"I knew there was some time left," Taylor said. "Actually, when I looked at the clock, I think it was at one. Even though we didn't call timeout, they still had to stop the clock to get the chains down there. It was surprising they weren't in 'prevent' defense. They were in their regular defense and Jarrett got open and beat the safety. I just tried to get him the ball so he could make the catch."
It was the latest dramatic pass for Taylor, whose most notable career hookups came Sept. 19 in Tech's 16-15 victory against Nebraska. In that game, he hit receiver Danny Coale with an 81-yard reception with just over a minute remaining. Taylor went on to find receiver Dyrell Roberts, a Smithfield High graduate, for an 11-yard touchdown pass with 21 seconds left for the game-winning touchdown.
Taylor's pass to Boykin, who had four catches for 120 yards, highlighted a first half that saw Tech jump out to a 14-0 lead. Williams scored both of Tech's first two touchdowns on runs of one yard and three yards, giving him an Atlantic Coast Conference single-season record 21 rushing touchdowns on the season.
Williams' 3-yard run that boosted Tech's advantage to 14-0 was set up by a 42-yard completion from Taylor to receiver Coale to get the Hokies' down to the Volunteers' 4. As cornerback Art Evans looked on, Coale hauled the high-arching pass in over his head as he slid to the turf.
Trailing 14-0, Tennessee crossed midfield for the first time in style in the second quarter when Crompton found Moore running behind strong safety Davon Morgan for a 40-yard gain to Tech's 41 with about 11 minutes left.
Running back Montario Hardesty finished the drive with a 4-yard touchdown run where he spun out of the grasp of defensive tackle Cordarrow Thompson in the backfield and scored with 6:43 remaining to cut Tech's lead to 14-7.
Tech's next drive was halted when Taylor underthrew Coale on third-and-19 from Tennessee's 40 and Jackson intercepted the pass, returning it 29 yards to Tech's 48. It was Taylor's second interception in the last six games.
"I thought (Taylor) played phenomenal today," Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin said. "I knew he was good, but I didn't realize he threw the ball that well."
Crompton went right back to work, completing a 47-yard screen pass to Hardesty. Crompton's touchdown pass to Moore with 18 seconds left in the half tied the game. Crompton finished the game 15 of 26 passing for 235 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
After gaining just 38 yards on 17 carries in the first half, Williams got in gear on the opening drive of the third quarter. He carried the ball seven times for 78 yards on the drive, including runs of 21 and 32 yards. Taylor capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown sneak with 8:42 left in the quarter, pushing Tech's lead to 24-14.
Williams' night came to an end on Tech's next possession. After a 1-yard run to Tech's 12 with three minutes left in the third quarter, he had to be helped off the field by two of Tech's trainers. They looked at Williams' left ankle, re-taped it and had Williams walk around on the sideline, but he didn't return to the game.
"It was just a regular ankle sprain," said Williams, who was chosen by the media as the game's offensive Most Valuable Player. "I was really about to come back out there, but just seeing how well Josh Oglesby and David (Wilson) ran the ball, there was really no need."
He was right. His services were no longer necessary. Oglesby had eight carries for 34 yards, and Wilson contributed seven carries for 33 yards and a touchdown.
Tennessee, which finished with just 240 yards, blew its easiest second-half opportunity at getting in the end zone. With 12:46 left in the game, and Tennessee facing second-and-10 from its own 41, Crompton saw Moore sprinting downfield with free safety Kam Chancellor in pursuit five yards behind. Moore dropped the ball deep in Tech territory, squandering what would've been a sure touchdown reception.
Coming in to the game, Tennessee had surrendered just 12 sacks all season. Tech got to Crompton six times, including two sacks by defensive end Nekos Brown. Hardesty entered with 1,306 yards rushing and was averaging 109 yards per game. He was held to 18 carries for 39 yards and a touchdown.
"It's really special to go out the way I did and from where I came from to where it ended," said senior linebacker Cody Grimm, who was selected the game's defensive MVP after having seven tackles, including a sack and three tackles for loss.
"You've got to give (defensive coordinator Bud) Foster a lot of credit. He's really good at what he does. He made some adjustments at halftime that really helped us out in the second half. He's been doing it all year, and we've been getting better all year. To go out like this means a lot to us."