Until a blown assignment nullified a sterling defensive effort and allowed No. 8 Florida State to rally for a 28-22 victory that put the Hokies' bowl chances into full backs-to-the-wall status.
The killer play?
A short slant that Rashad Greene took 39 yards for the winning touchdown with 40 seconds to play.
"We need to make sure we're in the right coverage and play the right defense," linebacker Jack Tyler said, adding that defensive coordinator Bud Foster "spends hours and hours trying to get our game plan right. For 59 minutes, we did it. I'm sure he's crushed. We're all crushed. The game plan was awesome."
And until the late drive, so was the Hokies' execution.
""I think we got a little mixed up," cornerback Antone Exum said. "They picked a guy off and had a guy running free."
The Seminoles (9-1, 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) won their fourth straight and moved within a victory against Maryland on Nov. 17 of securing a spot in the ACC championship game Dec. 1. And they did it in dramatic fashion.
Limited to minus-15 rushing yards for the game, the Seminoles got 7 from James Wilder Jr. on a fourth-and-1 play from their 41 on the final drive, and Manuel, a Virginia Beach native, hit Greg Dent for 13 yards two plays later. After Manuel threw a pass away under pressure, he hit Greene on a short slant against a zone defense and Greene took it all the way.
"It was basic, simple," Manuel said. "Get him the ball, and Rashad did the rest."
Manuel was sacked five times, but finished 25 for 42 for 326 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. Greene caught six passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns.
The duo also teamed up late in the first half, after the Hokies had held them to no yards for the first 12 minutes of the second quarter. Manuel led a precise five-play, 71-yard drive to his 25-yard connection with Greene with 48 seconds left.
The Hokies (4-6, 2-4) lost for the fifth time in six games despite holding Florida State to 311 yards, more than 200 below its average, and will have to beat Boston College and Virginia to qualify for a bowl game for the 20th straight year.
"We've experienced some things this year that guys haven't experienced around here in a long time," coach Frank Beamer said.
The Hokies entered the season with a nation's-best eight-year streak of winning 10 games.
Virginia Tech went ahead 22-20 on Cody Journell's 21-yard field goal with 2:19 remaining. The kick capped a 52-yard drive that stalled when Logan Thomas ran for 2 yards on third-and-3 from the 6.
"We actually had the perfect play drawn up, but we missed a block," Thomas said. "I probably would have scored."
The Hokies' go-ahead drive came after a stellar defensive series that ended in a safety.
After the Seminoles took over at their 20, Manuel threw incomplete on first down and James Gayle sacked him for a 10-yard loss on second down. A delay of game penalty moved the ball back to the 5 and, when the Seminoles tried running Devonta Freeman to the left, Jack Tyler caught him from behind in the end zone. Freeman tried to throw it, an illegal forward pass, and the safety pulled the Hokies to 20-19.
It also gave them the ball, but when they only managed a field goal, the Seminoles made them pay.
"Thursday night? Virginia Tech? This is what I watched every year and now I've experienced it, and it's crazy," Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner said.
The Seminoles opened a 20-10 lead with a 49-yard touchdown drive after recovering a fumble by Hokies wide receiver Marcus Davis. Manuel completed three passes on the six-play drive, including a 10-yard bullet to Greg Dent in the back of the end zone with 6:53 left in the third quarter.
Virginia Tech replied quickly, driving 80 yards in eight plays. Thomas hit Corey Fuller for 44 and 14 yards on the drive, and ran it in himself from the 5, bulling over several defenders.
The game was delayed for about 10 minutes in the third quarter when Virginia Tech safety Michael Cole was hurt and lay face-down and motionless on the field. As the crowd stood in silence, Cole was taken away by ambulance. The school said he had a neck sprain, but had feeling and movement in his extremities.
The Seminoles arrived with the nation's No. 3 scoring offense, averaging nearly 45 points, but the Hokies neutralized it for the first 27 minutes, allowing just a pair of field goals by Dustin Hopkins. The placekicker finished the night with nine points, leaving his two shy of breaking the NCAA record for points by a kicker. Boise State's Kyle Brotzman had 439.
The Seminoles twice started drives near midfield early, and got nothing out of them. The first ended with Donovan Riley's interception of Manuel's pass at the 1, and the second with a three-and-out punt.
But after Thomas drove Virginia Tech 68 yards for the game's first touchdown, giving the Hokies a 10-6 lead, Manuel and the Seminoles—held to zero yards at that point in the second quarter—clicked.
Manuel hit Kevin Benjamin for 12 and 17 yards, and then Greene beat Kyle Fuller twice—for 22 and 25 yards—to finish a five-play, 71-yard drive in 1:58 to give Florida State a 13-10 lead.
On the Hokies' drive, Thomas connected with Fuller's older brother, Corey, on three third-down plays. The first went for 33 yards on third-and-9, the second for 15 yards on third-and-4 and the last for 4 yards and the touchdown on a perfectly thrown third-and-2 fade to the right corner of the end zone.
Florida State took a 6-3 lead after Tyler Hunter intercepted Thomas' pass at the Hokies 34. Virginia Tech had a chance to tie when it recovered a punt that was fumbled by Hunter at the Seminoles 30 on the next possession, but three plays netted only 4 yards and Journell's 43-yard field goal was wide left.
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