Jameel Sewell and the Cavalier offense produced just 198 total yards.
With Georgia Tech taking possession and leading by a touchdown to start the second half, Virginia needed a stop. Instead, the Yellow Jackets slowly and methodically drove right down the Cavaliers’ throats.
The 18-play, 82-yard touchdown drive eating up the first 10:47 of the third quarter wasn’t quite the last straw for the Hoos on Saturday, but it was a demoralizing drive from which they never recovered. Virginia simply could not contain the Georgia Tech spread-option attack defensively and sputtered in the red zone offensively, as a 34-9 GT victory spelled the end of the Cavs’ three-game winning streak this season and an eight-game home winning streak against the Yellow Jackets dating back to 1990.
Coach Paul Johnson’s ground game rolled for 362 yards, better than GT’s average of 286.1 yards coming into Saturday’s contest – B-Back Jonathan Dwyer picked up 125 yards, A-back Anthony Allen picked up 103 yards and two touchdowns, and quarterback Jonathan Nesbitt ran for 82 yards and two scores. The Virginia offense, meanwhile, picked up just 198 total yards, converted just 2 of 11 third downs, and failed to score a touchdown despite three trips to the red zone.
Perhaps the best indication of the difference between the teams, though, was time of possession. Georgia Tech had the ball for 42:43 of game time compared to Virginia’s 17:17, and ran 35 more plays.
“We knew that we had to enhance our performance last week – we were playing the best team we had played,” Groh said. “We had to play the best that we had played, and unfortunately we didn’t do that.”
Georgia Tech’s first drive of the second half from the 18-yard line wasn’t flashy – just typical Yellow Jacket option football – and the Cavaliers couldn’t do quite enough to stop it. Georgia Tech faced five third downs on the drive, and one fourth down – whether it was 3rd-and-Goal at the one or 3rd-and-long, though, the Jackets converted like clockwork.
“I thought we had a lot of well-played plays in that series,” Groh said, “but we didn’t have enough third-down stops.”
“Once we got off the drive, and I looked at the clock, and it said three or four minutes,” Burrell said, “I said, ‘Wow, that drive was that long?'”
Still, Virginia was down, but not yet out. Quarterback Jameel Sewell marched the Hoos right back down the field with one keeper and eight consecutive completions, including a 17-yard pass that sailed just over the outstretched hands of a GT safety and into the outstretched arms of Vic Hall, who tip-toed out of bounds at the Georgia Tech 11 yard-line.
Virginia made three trips to the red zone, but came away with zero touchdowns.
As was a theme of the day for Virginia, however, the offense became incompetent in the red zone. After a defensive pass interference brought the Cavs to the 6-yard line, Sewell’s low pass on first down ended up in the arms of Kris Burd , but the ball was ruled to have hit the ground in the end zone; a review upheld the call. After Sewell was sacked on second down, he found Burd open again in the end zone from the 13-yard line, but Burd was hit as the ball arrived and it again fell incomplete. Kicker Robert Randolph knocked in his third field goal of the day to shrink the margin to 20-9, but the Virginia offense came away frustrated.
Virginia appeared to have a three-and-out on the next drive, but a personal foul away from the play extended a GT touchdown drive that sealed the Hoos’ fate. On 3rd-and-7 at the Jacket 36-yard line, Dwyer was taken down at the line of scrimmage by Nate Collins . Corner Ras-I Dowling, however, was flagged for a dead-ball personal foul on the sideline, giving Georgia Tech a first down in Cavalier territory. From there, GT’s ground-eating offense did the rest, as Allen took a pitch untouched to the end zone for a 20-yard score that gave the Jackets a 27-9 advantage.
“I’m looking forward to reviewing that [penalty],” Groh said. “You’ve got to have a real conscience to make that call.”
“I didn’t really see what happened, and I didn’t get to see the replay,” linebacker Denzel Burrell said, “But from the looks of everybody on our sideline, the call kind of was 50-50, up in the air.”
Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense thrived against Virginia, picking up 447 total yards, including 362 on the ground.
Rain and wind came and went throughout the contest, which Virginia and its fans had not experienced in recent memory – other than a light sprinkle in a night game in 2006, the last downpour with Virginia playing in Scott Stadium occurred against N.C. State on Nov. 16, 2002. The weather affected Virginia initially – GT opened with a field goal after Chase Minnifield muffed a punt deep in Cavalier territory. Minnifield’s muff was counterbalanced in the second quarter, though, as Nesbitt simply dropped the ball on a QB keeper on the sideline, and Aaron Clark recovered.
Virginia drove to the 2-yard line, but so began the theme of a failure to punch the ball into the end zone. Tailbacks Mikell Simpson and Rashawn Jackson were each stuffed at the line of scrimmage, and Sewell’s third down pass intended for Burd in the end zone was batted down by safety Dominique Reese. However, thanks to a career-long field goal of 49 yards for Virginia kicker Robert Randolph – which clanged off the bar behind the uprights in pouring rain – Virginia still carried a 6-3 lead.
“We get down there a lot, and we just stall out and we have to kick the field goal,” Sewell said. “We need points. If we’re going to go in the future and win, we have to score touchdowns.”
The altered starting defensive line of Nate Collins at nose guard, John-Kevin Dolce at right DE and Zane Parr at left DE seemed to be effective against Georgia Tech early; the Jackets picked up just two first downs on their first three drives.
“Nate Collins looked like he made about 100 tackles today,” Groh said – Collins led all players with 16 tackles while playing nose guard for the first time since last season. “He was the ACC Player of the Week last year [against Georgia Tech], so it just made sense to put him right back where he was last year, and clearly he confirmed that with his performance.”
The Yellow Jackets, though, got their offense going in the second quarter, responding with a 60-yard touchdown drive with all 10 plays coming on the ground. Virginia countered by entering the red zone for a second time, but a poorly executed snap resulted in a 35-yard Randolph field goal falling well short. The Jackets then were again efficient offensively, capping an eight-play, 74-yard drive with a 23-yard field goal to end the half leading 13-6.
As the lead expanded into the fourth quarter, the already sparse crowd of 43,616 – a season-low and the worst attendance since 40,100 fans showed up in a 1999 game against Buffalo – began to file out. An announcement in the fourth quarter with UVa trailing 27-9 said that fans may leave due to sever weather in the area and use their ticket for re-entry, but few fans likely took advantage. Rather than watch Virginia unravel at game’s end, the few students that remained on the grassy hill behind the UVa end zone instead slid down a man-made mudslide, to the biggest Virginia cheers of the fourth quarter.
Though the crowd was distracted during much of GT’s second-half surge, it became anxious when linebacker Aaron Clark went down midway through the fourth quarter. In the midst of the Jackets’ second touchdown drive of the second half, defensive end Zane Parr collided with Clark’s left knee, and Clark immediately went to the ground in obvious pain. The senior captain redshirted last year after he tore the ACL in his right knee in the first game of 2008, and also blew out his left knee in high school.
“He was crouched over holding that knee,” Burrell said. “The initial thought with me was, ‘Oh gosh, not again.’ But he told me that it wasn’t the same leg [as last season], and he was walking around the locker room gingerly, so hopefully it’s not as bad. It doesn’t look as bad.”
Whether it was the dreary weather or Clark’s injury or Virginia’s second loss in 14 October games, a miserable atmosphere surrounded the Cavaliers as they returned to the locker room at game’s end. Though this game marked their first loss in ACC play, the Hoos have their work cut out if they wish to remain in contention for the Coastal Division, never mind bowl eligible.
“That’s what you play football for – things aren’t going to go your way all the time,” Collins said. “We just have to grind.”