By Mike Cranston
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) It took just five days for Virginia Tech to go from national title contender to head-scratching also-ran.
Then the Hokies began to turn their season around. They’ve been getting better ever since.
Slowly and quietly, they have climbed back with 11 straight victories, culminating in Tyrod Taylor’s four-touchdown performance Saturday night as No. 12 Virginia Tech beat No. 20 Florida State 44-33 for its third Atlantic Coast Conference title in four years.
Nearly forgotten after falling to Boise State and FCS school James Madison, Virginia Tech is headed to the Orange Bowl on Jan. 3, while Florida State will have to settle for the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Dec. 31.
Taylor threw for 263 yards and three touchdowns and his dizzying 5-yard scramble for a TD early in the fourth quarter put it away for the Hokies in front of thousands of their orange, poncho-clad fans on a dreary and chilly night.
Selected the game’s MVP, Taylor’s top target was Danny Coale, who caught six passes for a career-best 143 yards and a score while exposing Florida State’s shaky secondary.
Ty Jones rushed for three touchdowns for Florida State (9-4), while EJ Manuel threw two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, filling in for injured starter Christian Ponder.
Up 21-17 at halftime, Virginia Tech took control with touchdown drives on its first two series of the second half as it converted 13 of its first 15 third downs.
Taylor was quick to spot Coale when Florida State lost him in coverage at the start of the third quarter. With nobody within 15 yards of him, Coale hauled in a 45-yard touchdown pass.
Taylor started the second drive with his one of his signature scrambles to avoid a sack for 12 yards. The drive ended when he alertly picked up a blitz and lofted a pass to an uncovered David Wilson for a 21-yard catch-and-run TD.
It was Taylor’s 23rd TD pass of the season, one better than Maurice DeShazo’s old school record.
Taylor’s scramble for a score with 11:29 left made it 41-24. Florida State returned the botched point-after for 2 points but it didn’t matter as Beamer won his 240th game.
It was a sour night for Florida State, which had visions of returning to the top of the league.
The Seminoles won or shared the conference crown nine straight years after joining the league in 1992. But its last ACC title was in 2005, when it upset Virginia Tech in the first championship game.
The recent woes helped lead to Bobby Bowden’s departure and Jimbo Fisher’s promotion before this season.
After an early blowout loss to Oklahoma and heartbreaking defeats to North Carolina and North Carolina State, the Seminoles backed into the title game when the Wolfpack lost to Maryland last weekend.
But FSU wasn’t at full strength.
Fisher decided to rest Ponder, who had fluid drained from his troublesome right elbow last week following the Seminoles regular-season finale against Florida.
Ponder, who has thrown for 2,038 yards and 20 touchdowns, dressed and warmed up, but watched Manuel find Taiwan Easterling for 29 yards on his first pass of the game to lead to a field goal.
But on Florida State’s second series, Bruce Taylor made a diving tip of Manuel’s short pass and the ball landed in the hands of teammate Jeron Gouveia-Winslow. He waltzed 24 yards for his first career touchdown and a 7-3 Virginia Tech lead.
The pick immediately shifted the momentum, and after a quick three-and-out by Florida State, Darren Evans rumbled 51 yards and 9 yards on consecutive plays, bouncing off linebacker Mister Alexander on the second run for a touchdown and a 14-3 lead.
Jones had TD runs of 2 and 6 yards as Florida State got within 21-17 at halftime before Florida State faded, much to the delight of the partisan crowd.
After a five-year stay in Florida that produced mostly disappointing crowds in Jacksonville and Tampa, the ACC moved the game to a more central location and Charlotte organizers sold about 29,000 tickets before the matchup was determined. Trouble is, this city can be cold this time of year.
Not only was it 36 degrees at kickoff, there was occasional drizzle. Still, 72,379 tickets were sold and the turnstile count was more than 60,000 despite the weather. And with the stadium recently re-sodded, several players slipped early.
Manuel completed 23 of 31 passes for 288 yards, including a 20-yard TD pass to Chris Thompson with 7 seconds left.
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