A gamble backfired, and Georgia Tech looked as though it might face the consequences. After a fourth-and-1 at their own 29-yard line fell short, the Yellow Jackets were in danger of falling behind 17-7 in the third quarter on a day when the offense was out of sorts.
However, the Tech defense met the challenge, preventing Virginia from gaining a first down and then receiving a stroke of fortune when Cavaliers kicker Sam Hayward missed left from 42 yards. Three plays later, A-back Clinton Lynch was in the end zone celebrating a 54-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Justin Thomas for a 14-10 lead. The Jackets never trailed again, on their way to their 31-17 win over the Cavaliers on Saturday.
“That was definitely a huge play,” safety Corey Griffin said of Lynch’s touchdown, his sixth of the season that has covered 45 yards or more. “I don’t know how Clint gets that wide open every time, but it’s definitely a momentum swinger, a game changer.”
According to ESPN’s calculations, Virginia’s probability of winning fell from 56.7 percent after the fourth-down stop to 25.5 percent when Lynch crossed the goal line, a dramatic shift in a matter of seven plays.
After a quarterback sneak by Matthew Jordan was denied when three Tech players missed blocks, the Cavaliers were so exuberant that they were assessed a warning for sideline interference. However, an incomplete pass and 5-yard run set up third-and-5 from the Tech 24. On third down, running back Taquan Mizzell slipped making a cut — the sort of freak play that dooms teams to 2-9 records — and likely cost the Cavaliers a first down. On fourth down, Hayward was errant, dropping Virginia to 4-for-9 on field goals this season.
Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall recognized the import of the moment, saying that Tech showed “a sense of desperation” by going for it so deep in its end.
“To have the ball on the 29 and not have points, certainly (was a missed opportunity), he said. “To win close games against good teams, those things have to happen.”
Lynch started the ensuing drive with a 22-yard catch, which alone was a boost to an offense that to that point was averaging 3.3 yards per play outside of B-back Marcus Marshall’s 67-yard touchdown run. Two plays later, on a second-and-11 from the Tech 46-yard line, Lynch lined up in the slot and gave safety Kelvin Rainey a fake to the outside before slanting deep to the post.
Off a play-action fake, Thomas enjoyed seven-man protection and threw on target to Lynch. With no deep help to cover for Rainey, Lynch was all alone and scored easily.
“It definitely lifted our spirit,” A-back Qua Searcy said of the defensive stop and missed field-goal attempt. “It got the monkey off our backs. It’s always terrible not getting a fourth down, and some people may get down on themselves, but our defense held their own, got off the field and gave us another chance.”