Georgia Tech took the field at Scott Stadium on Saturday without several key players to play a Virginia team closing in on the ACC Coastal championship.
On a chilly November afternoon, the Yellow Jackets gave a commendable account of themselves, particularly when compared with lopsided defeats earlier in the season. But behind the playmaking of quarterback Bryce Perkins and a strong defensive effort in the second half, Virginia again served Tech defeat on its home field, this time by a 33-28 score.
Speaking with perhaps more raw emotion than he has displayed publicly at any point in his young tenure, Tech coach Geoff Collins called it a “painful” defeat.
“All week, we talked about finding a way to make one more play that we need to make because we’re so close, and I hate that we couldn’t make it, and I hate that I couldn’t coach one extra play to give them the success on the result that they fought for,” Collins said. “It hurts.”
The thrashings that defined the early portion of Collins’ first season have, at the least, yielded to competitive losses. After beating Miami on the road Oct. 19, Tech has had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead in the second half of losses to Pitt a week ago and Virginia on Saturday.
Following the game, Collins pointed to a single play that weighed heavily on him in determining the game’s outcome, a squib kick late in the first half that the Cavaliers returned for 40 yards that led to a go-ahead touchdown. Collins said he thought the team “relaxed” (actually, he said the “entire organization” relaxed) on the play.
For all but one of Tech’s losses this season, defeat could not be reduced to a single play or sometimes even a single quarter.
“Learning experience,” Collins said. “You’re building a culture. You cannot relax at any point in the game, especially against a team that’s as explosive as they are, having the returners that they have and then have a quarterback like they do.”
In defeat, Tech (2-7, 1-5 ACC) ensured that Collins’ first season will be classified as a losing season and further that the Jackets will finish under .500 in league play for only the second time in 24 years. Virginia (7-3, 5-2) remained in control of the Coastal as the division closes in on crowning seven different champions in as many seasons. The Cavaliers have won 12 of the teams’ past 14 meetings in Charlottesville.
Tech played without three significant contributors to the defense – defensive end Antwan Owens, defensive tackle Chris Martin and safety Kaleb Oliver. (Collins said after the game that Owens is out for the season after suffering a leg injury late in last Saturday’s loss to Pittsburgh.) Between the three, they have combined for 18 starts this season. Such was Tech’s shortage of available players that, of the 72 players that made the trip, 14 of them were walk-ons.
Among the defenders that Collins called upon Saturday were seven redshirt freshmen, at least one walk-on and four freshmen, one of whom (defensive end Sylvain Yondjouen) made his first career start. Two more were playing the second games of their careers (defensive tackle Mike Lockhart and defensive back Wesley Walker).
For Tech, evidence of progress and improvement continued to make themselves clear. Principally, quarterback James Graham pulled a 180 on his dismal showing from a week ago in Tech’s 20-10 loss to Pitt. A week after an ineffective first half led to his removal in his fourth career start, Graham read the Virginia defense and was patient and accurate, finishing 15-for-22 for 229 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. His yardage total was a career high, and his completion rate was (68 percent) was a decided improvement upon his season rate of 43 percent.
“I’m just trying to get better every day, and it showed (Saturday),” said Graham, who made himself do 10 pushups for every mistake he made in practice this week.
He led the Jackets to touchdowns on the first two drives of the game, the first time that Tech had reached the end zone on successive possessions this season. The first was finished with a 59-yard touchdown pass to freshman slot receiver Ahmarean Brown, his fifth touchdown catch of the season.
Tech could not sustain its first-half productivity against the nation’s No. 17 defense, when it scored 21 points and gained 263 yards, but the Jackets nevertheless gained more yards (372) than all but one Virginia opponent and scored as many or more points than all but two.
“O-line just blocked their butt off,” Graham said.
Tech took leads of 7-0, 14-7 and 21-17, but the Cavaliers’ last-minute drive at the end of the first half (abetted by the squib-kick return) lifted them to a 24-21 halftime that they did not relinquish.
Perkins lived up to Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker’s billing as “one of the best players in our conference, period” by rushing for 106 yards and a touchdown and completing 24 of 35 passes for 258 yards and a touchdown.
“I think we definitely got back there (in the backfield) a lot, we got around him, we just didn’t get him down enough,” linebacker David Curry said. “He’s a good football player, very slippery, and he’s been doing this every game the whole season.”
Virginia finished off the Jackets with successive second-half drives for a field goal and touchdown to lead 33-21 with 10:57 left in the fourth quarter. Graham led a 75-yard touchdown drive – finished with an 8-yard touchdown run by running back Jordan Mason, who gained a hard-earned 94 yards – to cut the lead to 33-28. Taking the ensuing kickoff, Virginia ran out the final 5:30.
“We’re really, really, really close and that doesn’t end up on the record book, but I know what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, and they’re doing it the right way,” Collins said. “And now we’ve just to make sure we finish and finish strong in games and the last three regular-season games of the season.”
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