Orange turns blue

Published 4:27 am Friday, January 2, 2009

When the coaches met near midfield for the traditional postgame handshake, Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer threw both arms around Cincinnati’s Brian Kelly.

Seemed fitting — since the Hokies pretty much wrapped up the Bearcats throughout the Orange Bowl.

Darren Evans rushed for 153 yards and a touchdown, Virginia Tech’s defense came up with four interceptions and the 21st-ranked Hokies beat the 12th-ranked Bearcats 20-7 on Thursday night to join Southern California and Texas as the only schools to win 10 games in each of the past five seasons.

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‘‘I think it’s the best football team, maybe, we’ve ever had,’’ Beamer said, emphasizing team.

The Bearcats probably wouldn’t argue.

Cincinnati (11-3) drove down the field with ease for a touchdown on the game’s opening drive, making Virginia Tech (10-4) look like it was in serious trouble.

But it was all Hokies from there, avenging a loss in last year’s Orange Bowl to Kansas.

Pike — who wasn’t even on Cincinnati’s depth chart at the start of the season before blossoming into an all-Big East quarterback — threw for 239 yards and a touchdown, but had his night marred mightily by the four picks and getting stopped on a fourth-and-goal in the fourth quarter.

‘‘Their secondary was the best I’ve ever played against, as long as I’ve been playing football,’’ Pike said.

Mardy Gilyard had 255 all-purpose yards and a touchdown catch for Cincinnati, which had its six-game winning streak snapped.

‘‘You work out in the summer and in preseason camp because you want to get to this point,’’ said Kelly, whose team was picked fifth in the Big East’s preseason poll but became one of the surprise teams of the year. ‘‘But you want to finish it off, so there’s a lot of disappointment.’’

Not for Virginia Tech, there wasn’t.

And not for the Atlantic Coast Conference, either.

The Hokies became the first ACC team to win a Bowl Championship Series game since Florida State — ironically, perhaps — beat Virginia Tech, then a Big East member, for the national championship to close the 1999 season.

The ACC was 0-for-8 in BCS play since.

And the oft-maligned league was just 5-12 over the past two seasons in all postseason games before the Hokies broke through.

‘‘We hung in there,’’ Beamer said.

Evans, the game’s MVP, got the clinching score early in the fourth, after Pike threw his third interception — albeit on a highlight-quality play by defensive end Orion Martin.

Deep in his own territory, Pike rolled right and threw back to the left, hoping the misdirection would pay off. Martin never bit, made a diving interception at the Cincinnati 10, and Evans rumbled in from 6 yards out for a 20-7 lead with 11:29 left.

Pike got the Bearcats to the Virginia Tech 1 on the next drive, tried to run in on fourth-and-goal, and was stuffed by Barquell Rivers with 7:25 left to end Cincinnati’s last realistic comeback chance. His fourth interception came 5 minutes later.

‘‘Does the foundation crack in our program? No,’’ Kelly said. ‘‘Do the expectations change? Absolutely not. … We’re on a journey. We’re not there yet. We showed that today.’’

Gilyard walked off the field with tears in his eyes.

‘‘I’m really hurt,’’ Gilyard said. ‘‘I really wanted this game for the seniors, the guys I came in with. I’m really, really hurt.’’

The Hokies’ best defense was their ball-control offense. Virginia Tech held the ball for nearly 40 minutes.

Virginia Tech entered the stadium to the familiar sounds of Metallica’s ‘‘Enter Sandman’’ — the song that usually blares when the Hokies enter Lane Stadium in Blacksburg.

Nonetheless, it was Cincinnati looking at home early in its BCS debut.

The Bearcats took the opening kickoff, sent their spread offense onto the field and made it look easy. Pike found Gilyard for a 38-yard pickup on the third play from scrimmage, and they hooked up for a spectacular 15-yard touchdown three plays later.

Facing a third-and-9 from the right hash, Pike waited … waited … waited … before lofting a fade to the far left of the end zone. Gilyard took off on a sprint, made a diving catch as he sailed out of bounds and managed to just barely drag his right toe on the turf painted in Virginia Tech’s colors.

Ah, but the nation’s seventh-ranked defense would eventually get its bearings.

‘‘We don’t always play well but we always play hard,’’ Beamer said. ‘‘That’s what we did tonight.’’

The Hokies held Cincinnati to 137 yards and rendered the Bearcats’ running game nonexistent (eight carries, 11 yards) over the remainder of the half, battling their way to a 10-7 lead by intermission.

Hokies quarterback Tyrod Taylor tied the game with a zig-zig-zag rushing effort from 17 yards early in the second quarter. Out of the shotgun on third-and-9, he started straight ahead, darted right, cut back left and then made a sharper move to run just past the pylon — his seventh rushing score of the season.

Cincinnati had a great chance to reclaim the lead later in the second, until Pike made the sort of error he avoided all season, throwing into what essentially was triple-coverage while trying to force the ball to Dominick Goodman in the back of the end zone.

The miscues just kept coming from there.

‘‘Got to be happy that we made it here,’’ Cincinnati running back John Goebel said, ‘‘but it was disappointing that we didn’t come out with the victory.’’

There were large patches of empty seats in Dolphin Stadium, which wasn’t altogether unexpected. Some tickets were available through online resale outlets in recent days — even Thursday morning — for $1. Plenty more were offered for well below face value, and the building looked a bit emptier after the Doobie Brothers finished their halftime set.

Event officials said 15,781 sold tickets were unused.

And by the end, it seemed as if only the heartiest Hokies fans remained to regale the back-to-back ACC champs one final time.

‘‘It doesn’t get any better than this. BCS, Orange Bowl champs,’’ cornerback Victor ’Macho’ Harris said. ‘‘Being mentioned with teams like Texas and USC, it says a lot about our players, says a lot about coach Beamer. BCS — finally, we got one!’’