Coming into Saturday, Virginia Tech cornerback Antone Exum had as much of a reputation for being a magnet for pass interference calls than he had for making big plays.
Even his teammates joked with him about his propensity for getting pass interference penalties called against him. After Tech's 17-14 win against Virginia, Exum made sure the focus would be on his coverage abilities.
By being responsible for the biggest takeway in Tech's season, and possibly the most important defensive play, Exum helped put Tech in position for the game-winning kick that extended both its winning streak against U.Va. to nine and its bowl-eligible streak to 20 seasons. Tech will likely await an invitation from a second-tier bowl in Orlando, El Paso or Nashville.
"We just didn't want to be that team not to make it to a bowl game, or (be the Tech team) to lose to U.Va.," Exum said.
"Coming into the game, we knew everything that was on the table. That's how we performed (Saturday."
Might Exum have gotten himself onto first team All-ACC ballots with his performance? That may depend on how much voters have been paying attention - both to the fact Exum has been flagged for seven pass interference penalties this season (some of which, frankly, were questionable calls), and to Saturday's matchup that understandably didn't create much buzz for observers outside the Commonwealth. There's a good chance he may get a first team spot on the ballot I'll submit this afternoon.
Not only did he finish the regular season with double the interceptions of any other player on Tech's roster (team-high four interceptions), he also led the entire conference in passes defended with 19. He's tied for second in the nation in passes defended.
In some ways, Exum's improvement as the season has progressed is a microcosm for how Tech's defense has been trending up as a whole. After giving up 217 yards to U.Va., including just 30 rushing, Tech (6-6 overall, 4-4 ACC) has surrendered 347 or fewer yards in each of its last six games.
Every other team in the conference except Florida State gave up more than 400 yards at least twice in its last six games. Even FSU's lowest total surrendered in its last six games was 385 yards in a 28-22 win at Tech.
Though Tech only had two sacks against U.Va. (a significant drop from the 4.4 sacks per game it averaged in its previous five games), there's no question Tech's defensive pressure throughout the game caused significant issues for quarterback Michael Rocco. On Exum's interception with 3:21 left in the game that set Tech's offense up at U.Va.'s 24-yard line, Rocco had to deliver the ball under duress.
"A little bit more, and I thought (Exum) was going to take it to the house," said Tech coach Frank Beamer regarding the interception. "He's athletic. He's been a really good performer for us."
Eight of U.Va.'s first 10 possessions failed to cross midfield. Six of those 10 possessions were of the three-and-out variety. U.Va. was just 3 of 14 on third down conversions for the game.
On Exum's interception, a replay showed he could've easily been flagged for holding wide receiver Tim Smith during the play. Unlike his fortunes for much of the season, Exum may have gotten away with one. Still, the play demonstrated how bold and confident Exum has gotten in man coverage.
Exum said he remembered a couple series before the play that resulted in the interception Smith, who griped after the game Exum should've been called for holding before the interception, had tried to run a corner route. Exum was convinced Smith was going to try to get physical with him, but Exum wasn't having it. He stuck with Smith and made an easy move to step in front of Rocco's pass.