In three of the Jackets’ four losses this season, the defense took the field in the final minutes of the game with the opportunity to get a stop and secure a victory. Instead, Tennessee, Miami and Virginia all drove down the field for either game-tying or game-winning scoring drives — helping lead to Tech’s disappointing 4-4 record headed into a tough matchup with ranked Virginia Tech on Saturday.
After the Jackets scored a go-ahead touchdown to make it 28-22 with 6:21 remaining in the game, the possibility of another heartbreaking loss loomed over the defense. The Hokies converted on two fourth downs, including a long fourth-and-eight pass that put them in Tech territory.
Facing a third fourth down on the drive — this one needing just one yard — Virginia Tech quarterback Josh Jackson looked deep for star receiver Cam Phillips, who was working against redshirt freshman cornerback Ajani Kerr. Kerr made the pass breakup to give the Jackets a win.
Stewart’s first career touchdown at Tech
Stewart has been starting for Tech at wide receiver since he was a freshman, but surprisingly, he had never gotten in the end zone before Saturday.
With the Jackets looking at a third-and-18 on their opening possession of the second half, it appeared Virginia Tech would get a chance to get the ball back down just a score. Instead, Stewart ran free through the Hokies’ secondary and pulled in a 60-yard touchdown pass … the longest of the season to that point for the Jackets.
“I don’t know if you could tell by the expression of my face, but there’s not words for it,” Stewart said. “I forgot how to celebrate to be honest. It felt great just being in that moment.”
The importance was clear as Marshall joyously sprinted down the sideline to meet his receiver.
“We talked about it all offseason, like, ‘hey, I’m going to make sure I get you one this year,’” Marshall said. “That was one of his goals. It’s really exciting as you could see, everyone was super excited for him.”
Special-teams struggle again
It’s been a constant issue for Tech all season, and Saturday was no different as a few mistakes on special teams nearly cost it the game. Those miscues included a muffed snap on a punt, a long kickoff return from Virginia Tech that set up a score before the half, a fumble on a punt return, a fumble on a kick return and a missed field goal.
“It’s the same way again, it was awful,” coach Paul Johnson said. “The kick coverage was better except for one. The one team that was better was the punt return team. Kick return was abysmal again. It’s a progress in work, we’re not doing a very good job of coaching them.”
Another tipped catch nearly haunts the Jackets
A play involving the same Tech defensive backs created an eerily similar moment to the disastrous ending to the Miami game for the Jackets. With Virginia Tech facing a third-and-14, Jackson threw an errant pass to the right sideline. A.J. Gray and Lamont Simmons, the same two involved in the Miami tipped catch on fourth down, both went up for an easy interception, but the ball deflected up and into Eric Kumah’s hands for a 26-yard gain and first down.
The Hokies went on to score a touchdown on the drive and later took the lead after a pick-six thrown by Marshall.
“I was thinking we were cursed when they got that deep ball,” Johnson said. “I thought it was going to be a pick and we were going to get the ball at the 40. And then, low and behold, off two of our guys, they caught it again.”
Jeune’s long touchdown one-ups Stewart’s
Trailing for the first time in the game midway into the fourth quarter, Tech didn’t waste any time getting back on top. On the second play of the drive, Marshall found Jeune on a deep, skinny post down the middle of the field and perfectly delivered it — redeeming the overthrow to Jeune that missed a touchdown on the first play of the game. Jeune hauled it in and went 80 yards for the score, quickly taking the longest catch of the season away from Stewart. It would prove to be the game-winning touchdown.
“On the first (pass), I kind of slowed down a little bit,” Jeune said. “On the fourth-quarter play, I made sure to do the opposite … all-out sprinting. I almost fell actually. I caught my balance, so that was good.”