More like throw it back.
Full of steam and vigor to end its three-game losing streak to Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech flopped Thursday night, absorbing a 17-10 defeat Thursday night at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Before a nationally-televised audience and in front of a white-out crowd eager to see the Yellow Jackets claim early control of the ACC Coastal Division and banish their maroon-tinged demons, Tech was done in by its own lackluster play, a fistful of unforced penalties and a familiar villain – Hokies quarterback Logan Thomas.
“For whatever reason, it seems like we self-destruct (against Virginia Tech),” said coach Paul Johnson, who fell to 1-5 against the Hokies, all of the losses by 11 points or fewer.
Wearing throwback uniforms and playing before 37 former All-Americas on hand to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of Grant Field, Georgia Tech did little to merit victory. Unlike the previous three losses to the Hokies, when the Jackets were done in by bad breaks and a handful of busted plays, Georgia Tech squarely brought this result upon themselves with an unthinkable six false start penalties, three turnovers and an inability to come through with game-changing plays.
“I know I came off the field, I was just, like, shaking my head in disbelief,” B-back David Sims said. “Anytime our defense can hold people to 17 points, we should be able to win.”
The Jackets, who successfully navigated the first two games of their four-game run against ACC Coastal Division opponents, drop to 3-1 overall and 2-1 in the ACC. Virginia Tech is 4-1 and 1-0.
So much seemed to be lined up for the Jackets Thursday night. The Hokies were presumably worn out from a triple-overtime game last Saturday against Marshall and playing on short rest. The Georgia Tech offense had shown the sort of diversity in the run and pass in the first three games to be able to counter the punishing Hokies defense. The Jackets defense had improved and was playing a Hokies offense that had done nothing special in its first four games. A crowd of 50,213 roared its support of the Jackets.
It didn’t take long, though, to realize that Georgia Tech was in for the same sort of struggle that has come to typify this series. Further, it was quickly evident that something was amiss in the way the Tech offense was playing.
“They played better than we did,” Johnson said. “Probably coached better than we did. I’ve never seen so many mistakes.”
Quarterback Vad Lee fumbled on the opening drive when Hokies cornerback Kyle Fuller blitzed and stripped him on a play that Johnson said the Jackets had practiced “about eight million times.” Two plays later, the Hokies were in the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
On the next series, the Jackets began to move the ball, but backed themselves up with consecutive false-start penalties, forcing themselves into a 2nd-and-14 situation that resulted in an interception, Lee’s second turnover in as many possessions.
“For the most part, we were killing ourselves with the penalties,” Lee said.
Tech ended the game with six false-start penalties and nine penalties total. Johnson said Tech was changing the snap count to combat Hokies players who were timing the snap. When executed properly, it forced Virginia Tech to either jump offsides or reveal their intentions on the play. But it also ended up messing up the Jackets’ own timing. Shaquille Mason, the Jackets’ top lineman who was named the ACC offensive lineman of the week the past two weeks, had three false starts.
“It was a comedy of errors,” Johnson said.
Perhaps more troubling for Tech, the offense ran 42 times for 129 yards, a 3.1 yards-per-carry average. Hokies defenders repeatedly crashed through the line of scrimmage to disrupt plays before they could develop.
“We’re not very good with the option,” Johnson said. “We’re terrible, in fact. And it showed.”
Johnson didn’t put the entire blame for the option failures on Lee, but vowed changes if things don’t improve.
“I’m confident that we’re going to get better at it,” he said. “We’re either going to get better at it or we’ll have other people playing.”
Meanwhile, Thomas was scorching hot – he completed his first nine passes and ran for another 36 yards in the first half, when the Hokies built up a 14-0 lead. It was a considerable turn from his performance in his team’s first four games, when he completed just 48.5 percent of his passes – the second lowest completion rate for any qualifying quarterback in a BCS conference.
Thomas recaptured the form that enabled him to lead the Hokies to wins in 2011 and 2012, throwing precise passes downfield and gaining yardage on the ground.
“He’s a great player,” outside linebacker Brandon Watts said. “He was on tonight.”
Down 14-0 early in the second quarter, Georgia Tech rallied to within 14-10 in the third quarter as the Jackets defense began to create more pressure on Thomas and Thomas himself cooled off. As was the case two years ago, when Thomas willed the Hokies to victory with 279 yards of total offense, the Hokies put the win away by outplaying the Jackets in the fourth quarter.
The Hokies defense, ranked No. 5 in the country in total defense, allowed only two first downs in three Georgia Tech possessions in the fourth quarter.
“If we have offensive struggles, I put it on me,” Lee said. “I’ve got to command the huddle better and maybe those offsides penalties won’t happen.”
The deciding sequence played itself out over the course of the second half. After Georgia Tech had driven 82 yards for a touchdown that cut the lead to 14-10, the Jackets defense forced a fourth consecutive stop to give the ball back to the offense on the Georgia Tech 11-yard line. Georgia Tech meekly went 3-and-out, its drive stunted by Mason’s third false start.
Virginia Tech drove for a field goal on the next possession to push its lead back to a touchdown. The Jackets failed to convert a first down on the next possession, as well, failing when they went for it on 4th-and-2 from their own 33-yard line and Sims had no space trying to run to the right side.
The Hokies gave Georgia Tech a lifeline when kicker Cody Journell pulled his field-goal try from 25 yards, but the Jackets were again unable to capitalize, going three-and-out and giving the ball to the Hokies with 4:56 remaining.
“That was probably not the smartest decision in hindsight,” Johnson said of going for it on fourth down. “It was pretty dumb in hindsight, but we got out of that unscathed because the guy missed the field goal.”
Their last gasp arrived in the final three minutes, when the Georgia Tech defense forced its sixth punt of the game out of 10 possessions, not counting the series that ended both halves.
Starting at their own 5-yard line with 3:17 to play, the Yellow Jackets reached their own 45, but saw their hopes flicker out with pass protection lapses and Kendall Fuller’s interception of a 4th-and-13 pass by Lee.
It is, needless to say, a humbling setback for the Jackets, whose ambitions of winning the Coastal Division took a major hit under the lights of Bobby Dodd. Now down a tiebreaker to the Hokies by virtue of Thursday’s loss, the Jackets will go next week to Miami Gardens, Fla., for their fourth consecutive Coastal Division matchup against No. 15 Miami. The Hurricanes have beaten the Jackets four years in a row, including last year’s devastating 42-36 overtime decision.
Barring the unlikely standings gymnastics of last year, Tech will likely need to beat Miami in order to keep any ACC title hopes alive.
Georgia Tech can take out of the game another solid defensive effort, at least after Thomas led the 91-yard touchdown drive midway through the first half that put the Hokies ahead 14-0.
Linebackers Paul Davis, Jabari Hunt-Days and Watts were among Tech’s biggest playmakers. The defensive line put better pressure on Thomas in the second half. Virginia Tech gained just 55 yards rushing and 276 yards total.
“It’s frustrating, but it’s just one game in a big season,” defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu said. “We can’t let it bring us down. We have a lot of things in front of us we can accomplish. That includes an ACC championship.”