After Jerry Howard blocked a punt for the second time in three weeks to return the ball to Tech at the Pitt 12, poor protection on two pass plays cost the Jackets a chance at a third-quarter touchdown. They instead settled for a field goal to cut Pitt’s lead to 17-10 rather than 17-14. Most memorably, quarterback Lucas Johnson fumbled shy of the goal line on a draw play that would have tied the game at 17 and perhaps changed the course of the final 17 minutes.
Instead, the fumble was returned 79 yards and Pitt kicked a field goal for a 20-10 lead for the final score.
Virginia: This game, a 33-28 road loss to the eventual Coastal Division champions, might rankle Collins the most. Ahead 14-7 in the first quarter, Graham made an error in either execution or decision in throwing a deep ball to slot receiver Ahmarean Brown that was not only intercepted but returned to the Tech 28-yard line, setting up a game-tying touchdown.
Wide receiver Malachi Carter slipped on a third down on the next possession, resulting in an incompletion and punt. Kicker Wesley Wells missed a 30-yard field-goal attempt. Perhaps the most costly mistake was Tech’s coverage of a squibbed kickoff, after the Jackets had taken a 21-17 lead with 44 seconds remaining in the first half, that was returned to midfield. Collins said after the game that the team had relaxed after taking the lead.
On the next play, the Tech defensive line failed to keep the pocket secure and quarterback Bryce Perkins scrambled 43 yards. Three plays later, he was in the end zone and Virginia led 24-21, never to trail again.
In the second half, Graham missed makeable third-down throws on back-to-back possessions, the former leading to a UVA field-goal drive and the latter setting up a short field for the Cavaliers that led to a touchdown and a 33-21 lead with 10:57 to play in the game. Tech answered with a touchdown to cut the lead to 33-28, but Virginia ran out the final 5:30.
Neither the Pitt nor Virginia losses were as easily reversible as the one to The Citadel, but both could have been seized. Three more wins would have gotten Tech to 6-6 and, improbably, a bowl game. A bowl trip might have felt odd given that the Jackets were outscored 389-200 this season.
On the other hand, the “what if?” game goes both ways. Tech’s three wins could easily have been losses.
South Florida: Trailing 14-10, the Bulls had a third-and-goal from the Tech 1 with a little more than 10 minutes to play. Running back Jordan Cronkrite tried to extend the ball over the goal line but lost control of it and defensive tackle T.K. Chimedza grabbed it out of the air to end the threat.
In the replay, it appears Cronkrite may have crossed the goal line with the ball for what would have been a go-ahead touchdown. Or, had he not extended it, the Bulls would have had fourth-and-goal from the 1 and another shot at a touchdown. Given Tech’s offensive challenges that day – 257 yards of offense – it could well have stood up. Instead, the 14-10 score stood as the final for Collins’ first win.
Miami: Pretty simple. Tech won 28-21 in overtime, and Miami missed three field goals from inside 35 yards in regulation at Hard Rock Stadium. The Hurricanes were 6-for-7 on field goals in their final five games.
N.C. State: In Tech's 28-26 home win, any number of plays might have made the difference, but two stick out. In the second quarter, on a first-and-10 from the Tech 16, N.C. State running back Jordan Houston ran into the umpire on a carry, allowing safety Juanyeh Thomas to tackle him for a five-yard gain and prevent a likely first down or possible touchdown. Tech bowed up, and the Wolfpack settled for a field goal to make the score 14-3 in the Jackets' favor.
In the fourth quarter with about 11:15 to play and the Jackets ahead 28-20, Graham scrambled on third-and-9 and forced a pass to wide receiver Adonicas Sanders. Cornerback Malik Dunlap anticipated Graham’s intent and went to the ground for the interception but somehow failed to secure it, and it was ruled an incompletion.
An interception would have given the Wolfpack the ball at about the Tech 38 with a chance to tie the game. Tech punted and N.C. State scored a touchdown anyway, coming up short on the two-point try for the final 28-26 score.
But had the Wolfpack intercepted and gone on to score, they would have had more time to get the ball back and drive for a game-winning score (they had scored three touchdowns on a field goal on their final four drives). Instead, the Jackets were able to run out the final 5:17 for the win.
With a potential range of records from 6-6 to 0-12, perhaps 3-9 was about right.