There was no need for consolation Saturday afternoon, though, with the Hokies holding on for a 23-22 win against Liberty at Williams Stadium to snap a vexing and maddening seven-game losing streak over the past two months.
When he walked into the media room to talk to reporters, Pry said what was on every Hokies fan’s mind: “Finally! Right!?”
Yes, finally, Virginia Tech’s longest losing skid in 71 years is over. Sixth-year running back Jalen Holston had a career day with 99 rushing yards and three touchdowns, the defense brought pressure to thwart Liberty’s final three drives and Pry showed that he’s got some head coaching wits about him with the way the Hokies (3-8) managed the endgame.
“Other than the last game, for about three straight weeks, we had a lead and we somehow blew it,” said defensive end TyJuan Garbutt, who forced a game-clinching fumble late. “It felt good to finally finish a game.”
Takeaways from the Hokies’ long-awaited win:
Holston to the rescue
As Holston made the long walk back to the locker room after last week’s 24-7 loss at Duke, he found Pry and offered words of encouragement: “Coach, I’ve got your back.”
“And I said, ‘I’ve got yours,’” Pry said.
Sure enough, both were men of their word, with Holston getting the biggest workload of his career (26 carries for 99 yards) and doing the heavy lifting with three touchdowns, including the go-ahead score with 7:46 left to play.
“Those guys have to go out there and earn it to get the ball handed to them,” Pry said. “And he did that. He’s tough and he helped set the tone for who we needed to be offensively today.”
The sixth-year senior hadn’t gotten much work this year, only twice getting more than seven carries in a game and his best output being 66 yards against Wofford. He’d never had more than 281 yards in any of his first five seasons at Tech and came into Saturday with 222 this year.
But he showed up big-time early and often Saturday, scoring two first-half touchdowns on tough runs near the goal line of 2 and 5 yards as the Hokies went into halftime tied at 17.
With Tech trailing 22-17 in the fourth (on a drive kept alive by a heads-up fumble recovery near the sideline by receiver Tucker Holloway on a ball Keshawn King lost), Holston got the ball eight times for 41 yards on the go-ahead push, powering into the end zone on a 1-yard run to give the Hokies a 23-22 lead.
Holston showed some smarts late, too. After Tech got the ball back on a fumble at the Liberty 14 with 2:49 to play, the Hokies went into their “surrender situation.” The Flames (8-3) were trying to let Holston score when he got the ball, hoping to get it back down eight with a chance to tie.
Instead, Holston got seven yards and went down on the first play. Then he picked up the first down on a 5-yard gain and went down at the 2, allowing the Hokies to kneel out the clock.
In sacrificing himself to go down, Holston ended up one yard shy of his first career 100-yard game. He also missed out on joining Lee Suggs, Kevin Jones, Ryan Williams and Trey Edmunds as the only Hokies since 1987 to score at least four rushing touchdowns in a game.
“That was smart football right there, and they operated it very well,” Pry said.
“I feel it’s most important to get the team win, man,” Holston said. “Just getting in that locker room and seeing those guys celebrate, I care about that more than 100 yards.”
The Flames turned the ball over on their final three drives, twice on fumbles and once on downs. The first, early in the fourth quarter, came after cornerback Mansoor Delane stripped quarterback Kaidon Salter on a scramble, with linebacker Keli Lawson jumping on the loose ball at the Hokies’ 36.
“Right before the whole drive, when we all huddled up as a defense, coach (Chris) Marve was, ‘Get the ball out. Get the ball out,’” Lawson said. That was a big emphasis. As soon as I saw it hit the ground, I just knew somebody had to get it and had to be wearing an orange jersey.”
Liberty’s next drive again got into Tech territory, this time with the Flames trailing by one. On a fourth-and-12 at the 40, the Hokies brought the house, with Garbutt getting credit for the pressure that forced Salter into an incompletion.
After Virginia Tech punted the ball back to Liberty at its 22 with 3:19 to play, the Hokies again got in the backfield. Norell Pollard got a sack on first down, Tech’s fourth of the day. Garbutt followed it up with No. 5 on the next play, knocking the ball loose from quarterback Johnathan Bennett. Hokies defensive end Jaylen Griffin jumped on it to secure the win.
“I told guys, especially all the younger guys, to kind of lean on me, especially when it goes two-minute,” said Garbutt, who had six tackles, three TFLs, two sacks, a quarterback hurry and the forced fumble. “I just knew I got the opportunity to go do it. I knew I had a chance to impact the game.”
Tech’s five sacks matched the season high it set in its last win against an FBS team — Boston College in Week 2.
“It’s a great irony, right? We haven’t been good enough there and then we close the game with great pressure,” Pry said. “Coach (J.C.) Price has done a good job working in some subpackages, getting some other guys out there — some fresh legs and some different guys in different packages to rush the quarterback. There’s been a lot of snaps in the last two weeks where we had four ends on the field. We’re just trying to get our best people out there.”
Pry switched things up from an operational standpoint, finally turning over defensive play-calling to Marve, his hand-picked 33-year-old defensive coordinator who had not yet done it in his young career.
The result was one of the Hokies’ best defensive games of the year. Tech held Liberty to 13 offensive points, 332 yards and 5.3 yards per play. The Flames came into the game averaging 30.3 points and 415.9 yards per game and 5.85 yards per play.
“We just decided early in the week. I really didn’t give him a choice,” Pry said. “He prepares every week to call it. With the way the season’s gone and where we were, it was the right thing to do. He did a great job today. Obviously the whole staff chimes in and we’re all on the headset together, but he led the charge and called a heck of a football game. Very proud of Chris.”
Pry, who made his name as a defensive play caller at Penn State prior to getting the Hokies’ head coaching job, wanted to call plays this first season to get the defense up to speed before turning those duties over to Marve after the year was over.
He accelerated that timetable, however, with the Hokies’ record — and nothing-to-lose situation — factoring into the decision. Pry thinks it allowed him to focus on more big-picture thinking Saturday.
“It was important for me, not just for Chris to have the opportunity to call it, to gain that experience, but also for me to evaluate a lot of things — and to be the head coach only,” Pry said. “And for me to improve on that role.
“I’d be the first to say, I don’t think I was a great defensive coordinator and I don’t know that I was a great head coach either. And so this was an opportunity to kind of get where this thing’s headed, let’s kind of put fast forward on it and see what we look like and how we do and if there’s things to work out, we work them out.”
Special teams giveth and taketh
The Hokies had a mixed bag on special teams once again, with a nifty fake field goal early that helped give them an early lead and a bust on a kickoff that gave some of it back later.
Tech faced a fourth-and-6 from the Liberty 25-yard line to start the second quarter, with the game tied at 7. Freshman kicker John Love lined up for a 42-yard field goal, but after the snap, holder Peter Moore got up and started running off the right side. When a Liberty defender approached, he pitched it out wide on an option to a sprinting Love, who cut back past another defender and darted 11 yards for a first down.
“Since camp, we’ve had that thing,” Pry said. “It was a safe call today and it was the right time. The guys executed it well. John showed some good speed there and protected the ball. Great job by coach (Stu) Holt and the special teams staff continuing to work it, and making sure I’m confident in it to call it.”
Gotta ‘Love’ it 😉
Moore averaged 43.9 yards on seven punts, with a long of 55. Love made his first career field goal, a 23-yarder. And Cole Beck got to show some of his speed on a pair of kick returns that got the ball to the Hokies’ 40 and 33.
The Hokies did have one bust, though, letting Liberty’s Shedro Louis break free up the middle for a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that cut the Hokies’ lead to 17-14 in the second quarter.
It was the first kick return for a touchdown Tech has allowed since Alabama’s Christion Jones took one back 94 yards for a score in the 2013 season opener in Atlanta. It’s just the seventh kick return for a touchdown allowed by the Hokies since 1987.
UVa on their minds
Despite a festive football atmosphere, the teams kept the University of Virginia close to their heart throughout, with a number of tributes to the Cavaliers after the shooting tragedy that killed three UVa football players earlier this week.
Liberty wore all-navy uniforms while Virginia Tech called an audible and wore all orange, combining to form the Cavaliers’ colors for the game. Liberty handed out stickers to fans coming in with UVa’s logo at the center and the Flames and Hokies logos underneath, with the words “United With the Hoos.”
— Liberty Football (@LibertyFootball) November 19, 2022
After a moment of silence for the victims, the teams took the field, with Tech wide receivers coach Fontel Mines — a receiver at UVa from 2003-06 — leading the Hokies onto the field while carrying a flag with UVa’s signature V-Sabre logo on it.
For our Brothers.
— Virginia Tech Football (@HokiesFB) November 19, 2022
“He’s a UVa guy, very true,” Pry said of Mines. “And very proud of his experience there and very thankful for it. It was easy to sit in the staff meeting and recognize that we needed to bridge that. And for Fontel to be able to carry their flag out, it just seemed like the absolute right thing to do for him, for UVa, for our brothers down the road. There’s a lot of guys, there’s a lot of connections between our two programs, a lot of relationships. And that’s probably the strongest one.”
Once the game began, Liberty’s band played a rendition of “The Good Old Song,” UVa’s de facto school song, after its first touchdown.
No decision has been made yet about the status of next Saturday’s game between the Hokies and Cavaliers in Lane Stadium, creating an odd situation for Tech and its seniors, who could have just played their final game.
“That uncertainty, it really gets to you,” Holston said. “But just the circumstances at play, with UVa losing a couple of their players, we’re praying for those guys. We know it’s bigger than football.
“So it’s kind of sad for me knowing this might be my last game, but just praying for those guys, it just means more, you feel me? If that’s it, I’m happy with it.”
(Top photo: Lee Luther Jr. / USA Today)
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