Under the lights of Bobby Dodd Stadium, Georgia Tech’s compelling run through the second half of the season continued with a most unconventional and thrilling victory.
Tech made use of a safety, a free kick returned for a touchdown, a strong second half from the defense after a miserable first two quarters, a touchdown drive abetted by another special-teams fumble recovery and four field goals from its walk-on freshman kicker – one with 1:04 left in regulation and the last in overtime – to claim a 30-27 overtime win over Virginia Saturday. It was a senior day for the annals.
“That just shows you that it takes all the pieces to the puzzle to win the game,” quarterback TaQuon Marshall said. “We needed a break. I mean, we needed it. And it came through. It’s super exciting; you can’t really explain.The energy in the locker room is crazy.”
After starting the season 1-3, the Jackets won their sixth game out of the past seven and clinched a winning season regardless of bowl result. In the final home game of the season, Tech (7-4, 5-3 ACC) was far from flawless but received game-changing plays from the offense, defense and special teams to beat the Cavaliers for the fifth consecutive time at Grant Field.
“I don’t think we particularly played well, but we found a way to gut it out in the end and get the win,” coach Paul Johnson said.
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It was undoubtedly a satisfying win for the Jackets, who lost in the final minutes to Virginia (7-4, 4-3) last fall in Charlottesville, Va., part of a season in which they repeatedly lost games in which one more play could have made the difference between victory and defeat, and then had losses to South Florida and Pittsburgh early on this season that likewise could have been wins.
“We didn’t listen to what people were saying on the outside; everybody left us for dead, really,” linebacker Jalen Johnson said. “We just came together as a team. We knew what we were capable of. It’s just an awesome feeling now that we’ve battled back and we know that we stuck together the whole time.”
Freshman kicker Wesley Wells, who was coach Paul Johnson’s third option as his placekicker this season, provided the winning points with a 40-yard field goal in the opening possession of overtime. The kick actually banked in off the right upright, with Wells providing body English to guide it through.
“I tried to make it the same as every other kick, but sometimes, the nerves do get to you a little bit,” Wells said. “It just hit off my foot a little weird. I looked up, it was a little to the right. It was a roller coaster of emotions. I saw it hit the post and went in. That was a great feeling.”
The kick stood up when Tech stopped the Cavaliers on their first three snaps and then kicker Brian Delaney’s try to extend overtime from 35 yards missed wide left.
Wells is now 8-for-8 on field goals this season and 35-for-35 on extra points. He had helped Tech get to overtime with a career-long 48-yard make with 1:04 left in regulation, which gave the Jackets a 27-24 lead. The drive was fueled by a diving, fingertip catch by Brad Stewart, a 37-yard reception off a stop-and-go route on a third-and-6 from the Tech 29-yard line.
“He sold out for it, put his body on the line, just laid out,” Marshall said. “Beautiful catch. He got us down there on a big third down. It was a play we definitely needed, so kudos to him, because he definitely bailed us out.”
It was Tech’s only completion of the game.
“I was just running my tail off and TaQuon put it up for me,” Stewart said. “I’ve had so many balls in my career where I’ve been missing it by fingertips, and that’s the one that I actually caught. It was big-time. I was just happy for it.”
Virginia answered Wells’ field goal with a 32-yard field goal by Delaney with one second left in the fourth quarter to send the game to overtime.
Likely few if any other wins in Tech’s 126 seasons of play were reached in the manner of Saturday’s victory. The Jackets scored one touchdown on offense. The rest of the points were provided by a safety, a touchdown scored on the return of the free kick after that safety, two successful point-after conversion and Wells’ four field goals.
Tech’s defense stood tall after halftime. The Cavaliers scored touchdowns on three of their first first four possessions. On two of them, they didn’t even get to third down once. After halftime, Virginia scored six points in four possessions, five counting the overtime series.
“I think it was just trying to make those open-field tackles, making sure that (you were) just doing your job,” safety Malik Rivera said. “I think that was the main thing. Not going away from that, not trying to do too much, not trying to make the big play when it’s just not your responsibility. Just do your job. I think that was the biggest thing that was stressed to us (at halftime).”
The game featured perhaps the most unusual sequence of the season in the first quarter. After punter Pressley Harvin pinned Virginia at the 1-yard line, linebacker Brant Mitchell chased down UVA quarterback Bryce Perkins in the end zone for a safety, Tech’s first since the 2015 Tulane game. The score cut Virginia’s lead to 7-5.
On the ensuing free kick, Juanyeh Thomas fielded Lester Coleman’s punt at the Tech 23-yard line, then rocketed through Virginia’s cover team for a 77-yard touchdown return to give the Jackets the lead at 11-7. Johnson then sent the offense onto the field for a two-point conversion try, which was successful when Marshall ran it in for a 13-7 advantage.
“It’s been a long time since you could say that we won a game here on special teams,” Johnson said. “And (Saturday), special teams had a big part in it.”
Tech’s only offensive touchdown of the game was scored under similarly unusual circumstances.
Down 21-16 and having trouble moving the ball in the second half, the Jackets got a big break with a little more than five minutes left in the third quarter. Tech punted away from its 22-yard line after a three-and-out, but Harvin’s kick deflected off Virginia’s Darrius Bratton, a fumble that was recovered by Tech’s Victor Alexander at the Virginia 41.
Tech also recovered fumbled punts in wins over Virginia Tech and Miami.
With new life, the Jackets plugged their way into the end zone, an 11-play, 41-yard touchdown drive in which the Jackets ran on all 11 plays and the longest gain was six yards. B-back Jerry Howard’s three-yard run on an option pitch followed by a two-point conversion score from A-back Clinton Lynch lifted the Jackets into a 24-21 lead with 12:30 to play in the fourth quarter.
“It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime type games,” defensive end Anree Saint-Amour said. “It was great. The senior class that we have now, we’re really, really close. We’re really tightknit and just coming out and getting that win means the world to me.”
Tech will play its final regular-season game Saturday against No. 5 Georgia in Athens. The Jackets will be going for a third consecutive win at Sanford Stadium, which has only happened once in the rivalry (four consecutive wins 1950-52-54-56).
“We’re going to celebrate this one this weekend,” Marshall said. “Come Monday, this game’s going to be gone and we’re going to be focused on UGA and that’s going to be the only thing that’s going to matter.”