Georgia Tech’s history of defeat at Virginia is confounding

Pittsburgh defensive back Erick Hallett
II (31) attempts to stop Georgia Tech wide receiver Malik Rutherford (26) on a run play in the second half of play during a NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021 at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. (Daniel Varnado/For the AJC)
Pittsburgh defensive back Erick Hallett II (31) attempts to stop Georgia Tech wide receiver Malik Rutherford (26) on a run play in the second half of play during a NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021 at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. (Daniel Varnado/For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

On Thursday morning, former Georgia Tech coach George O’Leary fired off a text message to his former graduate assistant and assistant coach regarding his coming trip to Charlottesville, Va.

The sum of O’Leary’s communication to Tech coach Geoff Collins: “Good luck up in Virginia. Always had a tough time up there.”

The two-time ACC coach of the year won 52.6% of his road games in his seven-year tenure coaching the Yellow Jackets (20-18), but he was 0-4 at Virginia’s Scott Stadium. His stewardship of the Jackets centered an eight-game run of futility in Charlottesville, an inexplicable pattern of defeat that was briefly interrupted during the administration of Paul Johnson but has continued at least through 2019. On Saturday night, Collins and his team will attempt to halt the orange-and-blue reign (at least in Charlottesville) that continues to mystify Tech partisans.

“I don’t know what it is,” O’Leary told the AJC.

Since its unforgettable 41-38 win over the Cavaliers in 1990 in Charlottesville, a game that sped Tech on its path to the national championship, the Jackets are 2-12 at Scott Stadium, including losses in their past three trips.

Given the reality of home-field advantage, it’s hardly a surprise that Virginia would have a winning record over Tech at Scott Stadium. The Jackets are 11-4 over the same duration in games at Bobby Dodd Stadium, including five wins in a row.

“We’ve had our ups and downs there, and they’ve had their ups and downs (in Atlanta),” O’Leary said.

But the Cavaliers’ dominance at home does seem a little extreme, however. Over that stretch, from 1991 forward, the Jackets have fared far better at Georgia (5-9), Clemson (4-13) and Virginia Tech (4-4) – the three most menacing road environments that Tech visits biennially – than they have at Scott Stadium.

“I never got it and still to this day I wish I could tell you more about what it is about that place,” Tech legend Joe Hamilton said. “Because if you asked me about Clemson and (Georgia) and some of these other places, I could tell you exactly what it’s about. But I cannot put my finger on Charlottesville. I cannot.”

The mounted Cavalier mascot who leads Virginia onto the field before every home game has not been a herald for juggernauts. Of the 12 teams who’ve sent the Jackets back to Atlanta with a loss since 1992, three won nine games, the same number of teams that finished the season with losing records. Further, there were five games when the Jackets were ranked in the Top 25 when the Cavaliers weren’t. Tech won only one, in 2009, when Johnson’s second team ended the eight-game losing streak in Charlottesville on its way to the ACC title.

Hence, Hamilton’s confusion. He remembered coaches warning him about the challenge of playing in Scott Stadium.

“But none of the things they were saying back then was tangible to what you would expect in Virginia,” he said. “They were just only saying, with no rhyme or reason, ‘It’s a tough place to play.’ That’s it.”

Bad breaks and inopportune mistakes have accompanied many of the losses. In 1997, Hamilton’s first start in Charlottesville, Tech was driving midway through the fourth quarter to add to a 31-28 lead when running back Phillip Rogers lost a fumble at the Virginia 25-yard line. On the Cavaliers’ ensuing drive, a questionable pass-interference penalty in the end zone on Jackets cornerback Kofi Smith in the final two minutes aided Virginia’s 35-31 comeback win.

In 1999, Tech was 6-1, ranked No. 7 in the country and chasing back-to-back ACC titles, while the Cavaliers were 4-4. The Jackets were in contention for a BCS bowl bid, and Hamilton was in the thick of the Heisman Trophy race. The Jackets took leads of 17-0 and 24-7.

“Then all of the sudden, they came back and then I was thinking to myself, Well, hey, maybe there is a mystique about playing in this place that we can’t win here,” Hamilton said.

Tech lost 45-38 in a game Hamilton said “derailed” the season. In 2001, the Jackets stumbled a fifth consecutive time at Scott Stadium, this time ranked 20th. George Godsey set school records that still stand with 39 completions (on 55 attempts) and 486 passing yards, but Virginia won 39-38 on a 37-yard hook-and-lateral touchdown pass with 22 seconds left.

“I remember that one,” O’Leary said.

It’s almost as though the bounces and breaks that enabled Tech’s upset over No. 1 Virginia in the 1990 game – such as a critical Virginia fumble when a falling offensive lineman accidentally kicked the ball out of quarterback Shawn Moore’s grasp – reversed in the Cavaliers’ direction for nearly two decades.

“I just think it was one of those places where it seemed like we never could get a break, whether it was a fumble or missed call or something of that nature,” said Jay Shoop, the longtime Tech trainer who was on hand for all but one of the post-’90 losses in Charlottesville until his retirement in 2018.

Johnson led Tech’s streak-breaking win in 2009, a 34-9 rout, by paying no mind to the Jackets’ record of failure in Charlottesville.

“My attitude was, it wasn’t me (that lost the previous games),” he said this week. “It’s the same when we played Georgia. They hadn’t won in awhile and everybody was talking about it, and I said that wasn’t me, either.”

Collins lost in his first game at Scott Stadium as head coach, a 33-28 defeat. A squib kick at the end of the first half that Virginia returned 40 yards to set up a go-ahead touchdown was the pivotal moment.

He is trying to keep that loss, and the others that preceded it, securely in the past.

“We’ve just got to bring our best game,” Collins said. “Every single game has a life of its own. So we can’t worry about historical data and those kind of things. We just have to find a way to get ready to play a high level.”

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