But Florida State is the most gifted and complete squad Tech will face this season, and a valiant-though-flawed effort Thursday night at raucous Lane Stadium was not good enough.
“It’s just crushing,” linebacker Jack Tyler said after a last-minute, 28-22 defeat.
Indeed, considering the opponent, Thursday was the Hokies’ finest performance of 2012. And given their struggles this season, it was, in many quarters, Las Vegas included, quite surprising.
A two-touchdown underdog to the nation’s eighth-ranked team, the Hokies scored more points and gained more yards (385) against the Seminoles than any team except Clemson.
Moreover, Tech limited Florida State to a season-low 311 yards, a crazy minus-15 rushing, and sacked EJ Manuel five times.
Xerox this effort and no way the Hokies are 4-6, 2-4 in the ACC and forced to win their two remaining regular-season games – at Boston College and home against Virginia -- to qualify for a 20th consecutive bowl.
“There’s no quit in these guys,” coach Frank Beamer said. “As many hard things to take as we’ve had, they’ve hung in there and they’ve battled.”
Never like Thursday. Play like this all season and the Hokies are 8-2, the other loss at Clemson.
Led by linebackers Jack Tyler and Alonzo Tweedy, Tech’s defense was relentless, pressuring Manuel from all angles and challenging his receivers to beat single coverage. Quarterback Logan Thomas connected with Corey Fuller and Marcus Davis on deep routes against the nation’s fourth-ranked pass defense.
Oh, there were mistakes: three turnovers, some dropped passes, a missed field goal, defensive breakdowns and a Vinston Painter holding penalty that nullified a Thomas touchdown run and forced Tech to settle for a field goal. But some missteps were inevitable against a team as deep and fast and skilled as the Seminoles (9-1, 6-1 ACC).
“They played a heck of a ballgame,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said.
The Hokies appeared doomed when the Seminoles converted a Davis fumble into a 48-yard touchdown drive midway through the third quarter. Tech trailed 20-10.
But the Hokies countered – immediately and forcefully.
They drove 80 yards for a touchdown, Thomas scoring from 5 yards out on a read option. They forced a bizarre safety when Tyler tackled tailback Devonta Freeman in the end zone, and the rattled Freeman was flagged for an illegal forward pass.
And finally, Tech drove to the go-ahead field goal, Cody Journell hitting from 21 yards with 2:19 remaining. Hokies 22, Seminoles 20.
This is where the seeds were planted.
Tech faced a third-and-3 from FSU’s 6. Convert the first down, and the Hokies could have milked more clock and/or forced the Seminoles to spend their timeouts.
Instead, Thomas managed only 2 yards on a read option that he said was a missed block away from working perfectly.
Displaying championship poise on the road, Florida State needed only 1:33 to score the winning touchdown. Manuel’s 39-yard scoring pass to Rashad Greene came on a pick play and caught Tech in a blitz.
Among the defenders futilely chasing Greene was true freshman Desmond Frye, playing only because Michael Cole was at a local hospital after a scary neck injury – he had full motion and was later discharged.
The Hokies had 40 seconds left, and Thomas gave fans hope with a 35-yard pass to Demitri Knowles that carried to FSU’s 40. But on the next snap, Thomas threw behind Fuller and was intercepted for the second time by Tyler Hunter.
“That’s a terrible way to lose, putting together pretty much a great game and then at the end having it taken away from you,” defensive end James Gayle.
“We lived all night bringing some pressure,” Beamer said. “They’re one of those teams, I think you have to get pressure on the quarterback, and we did a good job most of the night doing that. Then they made a couple plays against it at the end.”
It was the second time this season the defense failed to hold a final-minute lead. Munchie Legaux drove Cincinnati 85 yards to the winning touchdown, also on a 39-yard pass, with 13 seconds remaining.
“Those are situations where we need to make a play,” Tyler said. “That’s what’s deflating about it. That’s what we want to do, is be in that situation, and we still didn’t get it done.”
The question now becomes whether Tech can summon similar fury against Boston College and Virginia to salvage a bowl. Following Thursday's defeat, it wll not be easy.
"I called on our kids to battle again," Beamer said.
“We still have two wins to get to become bowl-eligible,” cornerback Antone Exum said, “and we’ll get ‘em.”
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