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Nov. 25, 2012

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BLACKSBURG — As they trudged through the tunnel that leads to the visitors’ locker room at Lane Stadium, Paul Freedman put an arm around Colter Phillips’ shoulder Saturday afternoon. Phillips then did the same to his fellow tight end and close friend.

Freedman and Phillips are among the University of Virginia seniors who knew coming into the regular-season finale that their college football careers would end Saturday, win or lose. But that didn’t ease the pain of their fourth straight loss — and the program’s ninth in a row — to Virginia Tech.

For the first time since 2008, the battle for the Commonwealth Cup was still a contest in the fourth quarter. With 3:30 left, in fact, the teams were tied 14-14, and Virginia had the ball. But then junior quarterback Michael Rocco threw an interception that Tech cornerback Antone Exum returned to the UVa 24-yard line, and the home fans in the crowd of 65,632 erupted.

With 3:21 to play, the Cavaliers had two timeouts left, and so they also had an opportunity to get the ball back. But in a decision that baffled many observers and prompted widespread criticism of head coach Mike London’s clock management, UVa chose not to use either of them until Tech, facing fourth-and-9 from the 12, called a timeout with four seconds left.

The Hokies then sent junior Cody Journell out to attempt a 29-yard field goal. London finally used his timeouts — one after the other — hoping to unnerve Journell, who had missed from 42 yards with 3:43 left. The Wahoos prayed for another miss, or a block, or a botched snap. But on this bitterly cold, blustery day, Journell capitalized on his second chance, and his field goal as time expired lifted Tech to a 17-14 victory.

For the second time in their three seasons under London, the `Hoos closed with an overall record of 4-8. Virginia won eight games and advanced to the Chick-fil-A Bowl in 2011. That team ended the regular season with a 38-0 loss to Virginia Tech at Scott Stadium. The 94th football game between these schools was much more competitive, but that was small consolation Saturday for the Cavaliers, who finished 2-6 in ACC play.

“A loss is a loss in my book,” Rocco said, “and it’s never a good feeling losing to Tech.”

The victory made the Hokies (6-6, 4-4 ACC) bowl-eligible for the 20th consecutive season and extended their dominance in a series they now lead 52-37-5. London still saw cause for optimism. The Cavaliers figure to return at least seven starters on each side of the ball.

“I know that the streak is what it is, and people will continue to keep talking about it, but that gap has been narrowed in recruiting,” London said. [The Hokies have] won on the field, but the gap is closing, and I talked to our players about that.

“Again, my hat goes off to [the Hokies], because they won the game, and all we can do now is go back now and prepare to get ready for winter workouts and spring practice and then get ready to go again.”

When Virginia, leading 14-7, lined up to attempt a 38-yard field goal with about eight minutes left in the third quarter, Tech’s winning streak in the series appeared to be in jeopardy. But instead of letting Drew Jarrett kick, the Cavaliers tried a fake.

“We had the look we wanted [from Tech’s defense],” said Anthony Poindexter, UVa’s special-teams coordinator.

Holder Jacob Hodges took the snap and ran for 6 yards. He needed 8 for a first down.

“Thank goodness we got them stopped and kept it to a seven-point game,” Tech coach Frank Beamer said.

The Hokies took over at their 15 and, led by junior quarterback Logan Thomas, drove 85 yards for the touchdown that made it 14-14 with 1:25 left in the third quarter.

The 6-6, 260-pound Thomas continued to punish the `Hoos with his bruising runs, but on fourth-and-2, they stopped him after a 1-yard gain with 8:35 left. Again, though, UVa’s offense sputtered, and Alec Vozenilek came out for his ninth and, as it turned out, final punt.

Against a swarming Tech defense, UVa turned the ball over twice. Virginia finished with 30 yards rushing, 187 yards passing and seven first downs — all season lows. The Cavaliers’ longest runs went for 9 yards. Their longest pass went for 42 yards and made it 7-7 late in the first half.

On the play, Tim Smith caught a short pass from Rocco on third-and-2. The junior wideout broke safety Detrick Bonner’s tackle attempt near the Tech sideline and then sprinted untouched to the end zone, thanks in part to sophomore wideout Darius Jennings’ block inside the 10.

Not since 2010, when tailback Keith Payne caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from reserve quarterback Ross Metheny late in the fourth quarter, had the Cavaliers scored on the Hokies.

Not since 2009 had UVa led Tech, but early in the third quarter Saturday defensive end Eli Harold, a true freshman, broke through the line and wrapped his arms around the legs of Thomas, who was looking to pass. Junior end Jake Snyder then slammed into Thomas, causing a fumble that junior tackle Brent Urban scooped up and returned 16 yards for Virginia’s first defensive touchdown of the season.

The lead lasted for more than nine minutes. Then Thomas took over. He finished the game with unimpressive passing stats — 18 of 38 attempts, for 129 yards — and was sacked three times. But on an afternoon when the Hokies ran a staggering 95 plays, Thomas carried 29 times for 89 yards and a touchdown.

“He put his team on his back and carried them,” UVa defensive coordinator Jim Reid said.

As in each of their previous three games, two of which they won, the Cavaliers used two quarterbacks Saturday. Rocco started, but sophomore Phillip Sims took over on UVa’s third series. Sims was the first quarterback to take a snap in the second half, but he injured his throwing hand on a pass attempt early in the third quarter, and Rocco went the rest of the way.

He faced relentless pressure from the Hokies, who sacked Rocco twice in the second half.

“They were stopping us in the run and causing long third downs,” Rocco said. “They were just kind of pinning their ears back and coming after the quarterback. It made it difficult, but nothing that we couldn’t handle. We just didn’t execute as well as we could have today.”

On the game’s decisive play, Rocco’s target on an out pattern near the Hokies’ sideline was Smith. The ball never made it to Smith, who pleaded in vain for a penalty on Exum.

“You can’t get every call,” Smith said. “But there’s no doubt in my mind that was a holding call. I’ve been playing football for a long time. But you just gotta roll with the punches. It didn’t get called, and it was an interception.”

Rocco took the blame for the pick, his 10th of the season.

“I didn’t throw it out far enough,” Rocco said. “I kind of saw him get him held a little bit out of his break, and I kind of slid a little bit in the pocket and tried to make a throw. I was just a little off-balance and didn’t put it out there far enough.”

London was asked several times after the game about his decision not to use his timeouts to try to get the ball back. He explained that he was hoping his defense could force a fumble or cause a Journell miss.

Neither happened, of course, and so Virginia’s seniors depart without having beaten Virginia Tech. That group includes Freedman, Phillips, tailback Perry Jones, offensive tackle Oday Aboushi, defensive tackle Will Hill, defensive ends Bill Schautz and Ausar Walcott and linebackers Steve Greer and LaRoy Reynolds.

“It’s definitely something I wanted to do and didn’t get done,” said Greer, who had a career-best 19 tackles Saturday. “But the way the guys played and never gave up and took it to the wire like that, I’m really proud of them.”

With 15 tackles, Reynolds also established his career high Saturday. “We tried our best, and we left in all out there on the field,” he said.

Of his college career, Reynolds said, “I look at it as a blessing, and I just value the game. I really do. I just appreciate the opportunity to play for the University and be able to play with the guys on the team. It’s been tremendous. I wouldn’t change it for the world. They’ve done a lot for me. The program’s done a lot for my life, and I just thank all the fans, I thank everyone that supported us.”

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