Saturday marks another step in Thomas’ evolution: his first road start.
“Last time I was down there [a 16-3 win in 2009] it was a frenzy,” Hokies coach Frank Beamer said, “and I don’t think it will be any less this time.”
The road is where teams and quarterbacks make their marks. Unruly crowds complicate play-calling and rattle nerves. Opposing coaches attempt to confuse.
“The rule of thumb is, you defend the veteran and blitz the young guy,” ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said.
And Thomas is young, a redshirt sophomore who’s thrown 45 passes at Tech. So expect myriad looks from the Pirates’ 3-4 defense.
ECU, which lost its opener to No. 12 South Carolina, is a credible opponent, but not as daunting as some of Thomas’ predecessors faced in their first road starts.
Here’s a look back:
* Michael Vick’s road debut was abbreviated and astonishingly effective. In an early-October game at No. 24 Virginia, the redshirt freshman sprained an ankle during the second quarter and spent the remainder of the night on the bench. But before exiting, Vick completed 7-of-9 passes for 222 yards, including a 60-yarder to Andre Davis for his first career touchdown throw. Vick also rushed for 40 yards. Backup Dave Meyer replaced him as the Hokies cruised, 31-7.
* Texas A&M was ranked 19th and had won 29 consecutive non-conference home games when Virginia Tech arrived in September 2002 with a new quarterback in Bryan Randall. The Hokies’ defense stole headlines in the 13-3 victory, but Randall never blinked in an atmosphere that ranks among college football’s most hostile. He completed 10-of-11 passes for 119 yards and became the first quarterback to guide Tech to wins over ranked opponents in three straight weeks – the Hokies had opened with home conquests of LSU and Marshall.
* With brother Michael watching from the sideline, Marcus Vick made his first start in the 2005 opener at North Carolina State. He had some skittish moments, and the Wolfpack led for much of the evening. But Vick’s 24-yard scramble – he juked linebacker Stephen Tulloch with a Michael-like move – led to the tying field goal in the third quarter. Early in the fourth, his 19-yard touchdown pass to David Clowney produced the decisive score in a 20-16 victory. Vick finished 10-of-21 for 108 yards and rushed 13 times for 31 yards.
* The following year, Sean Glennon’s road debut came at North Carolina. Thanks to Branden Ore’s 111 yards and three touchdowns and a defense that forced five turnovers, including a Brenden Hill pick-six, Glennon endured minimal pressure in a 35-10 rout. He completed 10-of-17 passes for 66 yards, the longest a 22-yard screen to Ore.
* The Hokies gained a meager 219 yards and misfired on 11-of-14 third downs in true freshman Tyrod Taylor’s first road start, in 2007 at 22nd-ranked Clemson. Trouble? Almost. Eddie Royal’s 82-yard punt return and Macho Harris’ 100-yard kickoff return produced touchdowns in a 41-23 win. Taylor completed 7-of-14 passes for 68 yards, 21 on a touchdown throw to Justin Harper, and ran for 118 yards, 52 on an electric scramble in the fourth quarter that doused Clemson’s hopes.
How will Thomas fare Saturday at ECU? The bar is set mighty high.