Georgia Tech and its fans converged upon Bobby Dodd Stadium with thoughts and plans of further legitimizing the gains made in their modest two-game win streak.
On a Thursday night before an ESPN audience, the Yellow Jackets (3-4, 2-2 ACC) left the stately edifice with something quite different. Against a Virginia team that was on a three-game losing streak and was a three-point underdog, Tech was the inferior outfit. While Tech’s defense held its own, the Jackets offense was powerless, and the result was a 16-9 loss to the Cavaliers (3-4, 1-3).
It was a deflating setback for the Jackets and their supporters after the team had appeared to be surging behind the leadership of interim coach Brent Key following the dismissal of Geoff Collins. Tech was seeking its first three-game win streak since 2018, its first winning record after the first week of the season since 2018 and continuing control of its path to the ACC Coastal championship. It was all washed away with an underwhelming offensive showing in front of a crowd of 29,362, Tech’s smallest home crowd since at least 1989.
In 15 possessions, the Jackets’ offense created three points and failed to pick up a first down in the second half until its seventh drive of the half. Tech had to play most of the game without starting quarterback Jeff Sims, who left the game in the second quarter with an apparent leg injury and was replaced by backup Zach Gibson.
Not having Sims at full strength and then not at all undoubtedly impacted the Jackets’ attack. After the overtime win over Duke, in which Sims had suffered a left-leg injury that made his availability for Thursday’s game uncertain, Key had praised Sims for the way he had put the team on his back with his fearless running. Against Virginia, offensive coordinator Chip Long called few if any keepers for Sims, and his absence surely altered the Cavaliers’ approach on defense. Key had no immediate update on Sims’ health or potential availability for the Jackets’ game Oct. 29 at Florida State, other than acknowledging a leg injury.
“I’ll say nothing different than what I told the team in the locker room,” Key said. “Regardless of who’s in the game at what position, it’s up to everyone else on that side of the ball or up to everyone on the team to be able to go out and raise their level play or be able to play at a consistent level that that (absence) doesn’t show up, and that person’s able to go out and execute the same as anyone else would. I don’t think we did that.”
The Jackets ran 32 plays in the second half, gaining 41 yards. Tech found life on a drive that started on its 7-yard line with 5:18 remaining, getting the gift of a personal-foul penalty on a fourth down when punter David Shanahan was attempting what would have been his 11th punt of the game. The Jackets gained their initial first down of the second half, then reached the Virginia 43-yard line with a promising third-and-2 coming. But Gibson was sacked and then, on fourth-and-11, Gibson’s pass across the middle to wide receiver Malachi Carter, which would have been good for a first down, was dropped.
Virginia took the ball with 1:46 to play and punted, leaving Tech with one final desperation possession starting at its 20-yard line with 36 seconds left and no timeouts left. On the final play of the game, Gibson scrambled away from pressure and ran out of bounds without attempting a pass.
Gibson said that he was aware of the time, but not seeing any open receivers downfield and not having the arm to throw it into the end zone as he ran to his left, accepted his fate and ran out of bounds.
He said that, after talking about the play with coaches, he recognized that he should have given the play a chance by throwing the ball downfield, as hopeless as it may have appeared.
“It’s not a good look,” Gibson said. “I know that.”
Virginia 16, Georgia Tech 9
Against a Virginia defense that had given up 198 rushing yards or more in three of its four games against power-conference competition this season, the Jackets – who themselves gashed Pitt and Duke for a combined 412 rushing yards in the past two games – mustered only 55 on the ground. The numbers included 50 lost yards on eight sacks. Key said that effective pass protection depends on solid play from the offensive line, the backs and tight ends and the quarterback to have awareness in the pocket.
“I thought all three phases of that were poor at different times,” Key said.
It was the first setback for Key, losing his first game in his first game with a full-time boss in place. New athletic director J Batt, hired Friday, was on hand for a game in which the Jackets could produce only 201 yards of offense against a Virginia defense that had surrendered an average of 375 in its first six games.
Lost in the defeat was an admirable performance by the Tech defense, which forced three turnovers and came up with stop after stop with the offense grinding its gears. Safety LaMiles Brooks returned a first-quarter interception 37 yards for Tech’s only touchdown of the game and was credited with nine tackles and two pass breakups, one on a fourth-down pass play in the fourth quarter.
Cornerback Zamari Walton ran down a Brennan Armstrong pass in the second quarter for his first interception of the season and also threw a key block on Brooks’ interception return.