The Cincinnati Bearcats outlasted Virginia Tech as late penalties and questionable coaching decisions cost the Hokies in the Military Bowl. The Hokies fell 35-31 to Cincinnati to finish the season with a losing record for the first time since 1992.
Virginia Tech started out strong, and they marched down the field for an opening touchdown on a 10 play, 63 yard drive to start the game. Eric Kumah punctuated the drive with a beautiful 21-yard catch on a fade route in the end zone.
However, the early 7-0 lead was short lived for the Hokies, and Cincinnati had no trouble moving the ball on their first drive. Michael Warren II quickly got the Bearcats into Hokies' territory with a 26 yard run on their fourth offensive play.
Three plays later, Desmond Ridder hit Charles Mclelland on a screen pass for what should have been a short gain. Instead, Dax Hollifield overpursued and completely gave up the inside, and Khlalil Ladler failed to help over the top. This allowed Mclelland to weave his way to a 38 yard touchdown to tie the game.
On the ensuing drive, the Hokies faced a problem that has become all too familiar throughout this season. After an encouraging opening drive, Virginia Tech could not move the ball at all. In fact, the Hokies went three and out on both of their next two drives.
Cincinnati gained a couple of first downs on their second drive, but then disaster struck. The Bearcats starting quarterback, Desmond Ridder, suffered a right leg injury and left the game. Backup QB Hayden Moore competed a 10 yard pass on second down but nothing more on that drive.
While Cincinnati could not take advantage the first time that they had the chance to take the lead, the second time proved to be the charm. After Ladler was again beat on a 32 yard pass, this time from Moore, the Bearcats had a first and goal at the one yard line.
The Hokies stopped Warren II on first and goal, then forced a fumble at the one on second goal, but Cincinnati recovered it in the end zone to take a 14-7 lead.
Still, Virginia Tech remained engaged. They went on an impressive 84 yard drive to tie the game. Steven Peoples capped it off with a one yard touchdown run. They proceeded to stop the Bearcats and get the ball back with about 2 minutes left and a chance to take the halftime lead.
The Hokies took only three plays to reach Cincinnati's 21-yard line, and they looked to be in good position to at least get a field goal. However, on third and thirteen, the Hokies made the first of a few conservative decisions in the game.
Rather than trying to pick up the first down, Willis threw a short 5 yard out route to set up the field goal. One Hokies false start and Cincinnati timeout later, Brian Johnson pushed the 41-yarder right, and the Hokies came away with nothing at the end of the half.
In the second half, the Hokies defense did a good job to force Cincinnati into a three and out on their first time out. Even with Ricky Walker on the sidelines, Virginia Tech looked to be locked in defensively. The Hokies got the ball, Deshawn McClease broke off a couple of runs, and the Hokies were in the red zone in no time.
On second down and five, McClease was caught in the backfield for a four yard loss. A screen pass on third and nine brought up a fourth and one at the Cincinnati ten. Again, Fuente went the conservative route despite the fact that the Hokies seemed to have some offensive momentum. Johnson kicked the field goal to make it 17-14.
A couple of plays later, Virginia Tech's defense collapsed again. Cincinnati's line easily opened up a huge hole up the middle, and Warren II walked untouched into the end zone from 40 yards out. Two empty possessions followed, one for the Hokies and one for the Bearcats.
The Hokies got the ball back with 6 minutes to go in the third quarter, and the offense finally woke up. After a big third down catch by Kumah and a pass interference call in the end zone, Willis connected with Chris Cunningham for the 2-yard go ahead score.
Once again, the Bearcats answered right back. A 10 play, seventy five drive gave them the lead back, 28-24. Then, Virginia Tech return man Terius Wheatly had a nice 50 yard kickoff return to set his team up inside Cincinnati territory.
Two plays later, Willis hit Tre Turner for a 40 yard gain, and the refs tacked on 15 more yards for targeting. On the fourth play of the drive, Willis kept it for a five yard TD run to make it 31-28 Hokies.
The Hokies really needed their defense to come up with a big stop, and that's exactly what they did. Dylan Rivers intercepted Moore on third and ten and returned it to the Bearcats 12 yard line. A touchdown would give Tech the first two possession lead of the game.
Jalen Holston gained two yards on first down, but Dalton Keane dropped a pass on second and eight. Willis went back to Keane on third down, and he came up one yard short of the first down at the 3 yard line.
Then came the most curious coaching decision of the game. The coaching staff did decide to man up and go for it, and they put Willis under center. Yet instead of the QB sneak, they tried a play action rollout, similar to the failed call against Notre Dame. They got almost the exact same outcome.
Bearcat players burst through the line, Willis tripped while trying to retreat, and the play never had a chance. For the second time in the game, the Hokies came up completely empty from the red zone.
Even with a three point lead, the writing was on the wall at that point. As anyone who watched this Hokies football team has probably seen, they have just been unable to deliver that knockout punch.
Indeed, Virginia Tech would soon regret letting Cincinnati stay within one possession. After a punt by Cincinnati, the Hokies had yet another chance to ice the game. On third and three from their own 21 yard line, they picked up a huge first down. However, it was called back on a questionable offensive pass interference call on Dalton Keane, and the Hokies were forced to punt.
Cincinnati got the ball with three and a half minutes remaining. They marched down the field with seemingly no problem, and they took a 35-31 lead with 1:29 to go. The Hokies had one last chance, but Ryan Willis badly overthrew Hazelton with less than a minute remaining. Cincinnati intercepted the pass and went into victory formation.
In the end, the Hokies fell 35-31 despite gaining 224 yards on the ground. Ryan Willis' 219 yards and 2 TDs, along with 102 rushing yards from McClease, were not enough to overcome the blunders by both the defense and the coaching staff.
Key Stat - Cincinnati Gains 7.1 Yards Per Rush
The Hokies knew coming into the game that Cincinnati's backfield would be difficult to contain. As I wrote in my key matchups story
, Virginia Tech really needed to limit the big plays on the ground. Unfortunately, they were unable to do so.
While the Hokies did a decent job of containing the running backs in the first half, the fell apart in the second. Cincinnati had touchdown runs of 40 and 19 yards in the second half, both of which were a direct product of missed assignments from the Hokies. They also gave up another 31 yard run to begin Cincinnati's game winning drive.
It's not as if the Bearcats were gaining seven yards every time they touched the ball. The Hokies held them to little or no gain plenty of times. However, the big plays pretty much wiped out the good work the Hokies defense had done, and that is reflected in the yards per carry average.
Virginia Tech the season finished with a record of 6-7, their first losing season since 1992. Justin Fuente and company will need to have a great offseason in order to hopefully put the Hokies back where they need to be in 2019.
Photo Credit: Harley Taylor