The Virginia Tech Hokies lost a neck-and-neck contest to the Kentucky Wildcats in the Belk Bowl on Tuesday, ending with a final score of 37-30. Both teams battled hard, but crucial mistakes by Virginia Tech down the stretch sealed its fate.
Multiple altercations both physically and on social media created a tense atmosphere between the two teams in the days leading up to the matchup.
In what started out as a very chippy game, the Hokies had a rough first drive; Tech found no rhythm in the passing game with quarterback Hendon Hooker starting one for five passing. Fortunately for the Virginia Tech offense, three penalties were called on the Wildcat defense leading to a career long 54-yard field goal by kicker Brian Johnson to give the Hokies the lead 3-0.
It seemed Virginia Tech would force a three-and-out on Kentucky’s first drive, as the defense forced them into a 3rd and 18. Unfortunately for the Hokies, Armani Chatman was called for an abusive language penalty on the play. Following that, the Wildcats rolled with a 25-yard jet sweep by wide receiver Josh Ali, a fourth down conversion by running back Asim Rose, and a 25-yard touchdown run by quarterback Lynn Bowden Jr. Kentucky caught the defense off guard multiple times on the drive and it seemed as if the Wildcats had the perfect game plan.
The Hokies would answer back on the ensuing drive: a 38-yard run by running back Deshawn McClease would put Virginia Tech in the red zone. That set up an 18-yard touchdown pass by Hooker on third down where Damon Hazelton fell to the ground to make the catch.
The Wildcats’ offense would stall on the next drive and punt.
With the ball back in their hands, the Hokies marched down the field with Hooker getting back into rhythm. He checked the ball down to McClease for a 17-yard gain on 3rd and 7 and completed a nice throw in the end zone on 3rd and 6 for a Dalton Keene touchdown. Hooker completed all five of his passes on the drive and it looked as if the Hokies had the momentum up 17-7.
The game would slow down with both teams punting on their next drives.
Kentucky got the ball with four minutes left in the half looking to get back in the game. Rose put the Wildcats in Hokie territory with a 31-yard run. The drive would be capped off with a touchdown by running back Christopher Rodriguez on a fake jet sweep to Bowden Jr., bringing the score to 17-14 at halftime.
On the first drive of the third quarter, a 34-yard run by Rose set up a 40-yard field goal for Kentucky, tying the contest.
Virginia Tech would answer back with 43-yard touchdown run by McClease to put the Hokies back in front.
With both offenses rolling and the Wildcats looking to stay in the game, the Virginia Tech defense looked to have a stop on the next drive with Kentucky in a 3rd-and-8 situation. It would not be enough though, as the Hokies lined up in man coverage across the board and Bowden Jr. ran right down the field for a 61-yard touchdown.
Hooker drove Virginia Tech down the field on the next drive with a nice completion to tight end James Mitchell for 22 yards and a 4th-and-8 conversion to wide receiver Tayvion Robinson to set up a field goal chance and give the Hokies the lead.
A 3rd-and-5 conversion by Rose on the next drive would prove harmless as he would fumble two plays later setting up another Virginia Tech field goal.
On the Wildcats’ next drive, Bowden Jr. would throw a wild interception on 3rd and 6 to defensive back Brion Murray and Kentucky’s fate seemed sealed if the Hokies could score again.
They did not.
Virginia Tech’s next drive ended in a punt, giving the Wildcats’ the ball back with eight minutes left on the clock and two timeouts.
On a 4th and 7 on the next drive, Bowden Jr. would find Ali for a 9-yard completion to keep the drive alive. With 15 seconds left in the contest, Bowden Jr. would find Ali down the seam once again for a 13-yard touchdown and the lead.
The game would end with a failed hook-and-ladder attempt by the Hokies leading to a Kentucky touchdown for a final score of 37-30.
Neither team could stop the run and the team with the last long drive won in what was a battle in the trenches. McClease finished with 126 rushing yards and a touchdown for the Hokies. Bowden Jr. finished with 233 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns, one passing touchdown and the game’s MVP award.
In what was longtime defensive coordinator’s Bud Foster last game, he ended with a message of hope, comparing the defense to the 1998 unit that would find its way to the national championship appearance the next year.
“(Coach Fuente) has this program going in the right direction. I am excited about the leadership we got there. With him and our staff,” Foster said. “These guys have taken the steps we wanted them to. We lost several tight football games which makes a statement to which direction we are heading in.”