Logan Thomas’ record-setting career at Virginia Tech career ended before halftime of the Sun Bowl, and a close game took a harsh turn in the final quarter when UCLA’s 28 points made it a 42-12 blowout.
In a season when the Hokies made some strides in reclaiming their place among the top teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the finish was a bitter pill that highlighted that they still have a way to go.
And they will do it without Thomas, who has started the Hokies’ last 40 games and will leave Blacksburg as the owner of nearly every significant career passing record in school history. Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler got to see backup Mark Leal against the Bruins, and there’s work to do.
Leal, a third-year backup with limited experience, did some things to be excited about after replacing Thomas in the second quarter, but also threw two fourth-quarter interceptions as the Bruins dominated.
Coach Frank Beamer said Leal will head into spring practice at the top of the depth chart, but he also expressed disappointment that when the Hokies had to turn to him, Leal seemed less-than prepared.
“I’m disappointed that Mark didn’t play better,” Beamer, who finished his 27th season, said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in him. I think it’s a lesson that you need to be ready to play each and every week.”
Before losing Thomas, the Hokies were already without cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum, two of their best defensive players, and leading rusher Trey Edmunds. All were sidelined by injury.
Of those, only Edmunds will be back, and the Hokies also will lose linebackers Jack Tyler, their leading tackler, and Tariq Edwards, defensive linemen James Gayle, Derrick Hopkins and J.R. Collins and several other seniors off their two-deep depth chart, creating a new challenge for the upcoming season.
The Hokies’ defense under coordinator Bud Foster gave up a season-high 197 yards rushing, most of it to Bruins’ quarterback Brett Hundley, which highlighted one of their weaknesses this year, but defense has rarely been an issue and Foster has rarely remained stumped for long. Loeffler, while he seemed focused on helping Thomas be the best he can be this year, has almost everyone else back to work with on offense.
The only other seniors on the offensive side were right guard Andrew Miller and receiver D.J. Coles, who took on a touchdown maker role this season, was largely watched from the sidelines as receivers Demetri Knowles, Willie Byrn and Josh Staford emerged as reliable pass-catching options. So did tight end Kalvin Cline, who will team with Ryan Malleck to give the Hokies two dynamic pass-catching tight ends.
Beamer, whose team has gone to a bowl game 21 years in a row and had won 10 games or more eight years in a row before finishing 7-6 last season, repeatedly has said he was proud of this team’s resiliency. The Hokies lost to Alabama, Duke, Boston College and Maryland this season, the latter three all games they have routinely been expected to win in the past. The bowl loss also was their third in four years.
“I’m disappointed we didn’t function better as an organization,” he said. “Give UCLA credit. They made more plays by far than we did. When we got down, we turned the ball over and things got out of hand.
“It’s just disappointing to end the year like this,” he continued after falling to 9-12 in his bowl career. “… We’re going look at the video and learn from this. This isn’t one of those where we’re going to say, ‘Hey, we’re not going to look at it.’ I’m going to look at it and talk about communication on defense and execution on offense and what needs to happen to play better in a big ball game.”
The Hokies hope to have more of those to test where they are a season from now.