It’s not difficult to remember the biggest Georgia Tech win over Virginia Tech, and not just because there haven’t been that many.
It came in 2009. Paul Johnson was in only his second season on The Flats, and fans were basking in the afterglow of that first-year, assault-on-the-hedges and win at Georgia. The Yellow Jackets stunned the No. 4-ranked Hokies 28-23 that following season, a victory of such profound impact on the season and seemingly in the big picture for a win-starved program that delirious fans tore down one of the goal posts and carried the contorted hunk of metal to the home of Tech president G.P. “Bud” Peterson (who actually was hoping for a carrot cake).
The Jackets won 11 games that season, the ACC championship and their first bid to a BCS bowl.
What happened Thursday night at Bobby Dodd Stadium was something significantly less impressive. What happened actually was a face plant.
With a chance to validate a 3-0 start over soft competition and gain a measure of respect, the Jackets instead left the field leaving behind more questions than answers. They turned the ball over three times. They committed six false-start penalties, including five in the first half (was the snap count given in Latin in the huddle?). They fell behind 14-0 early and never quite caught up, losing 17-10 to Virginia Tech before a deflated crowd.
Nobody tore down the goal posts this time, and there certainly wasn’t any foreshadowing for such a celebration. Had the Jackets won, next week’s game at Miami might have greater significance in the bowl picture. But Tech looked like a second-tier bowl team Thursday.
Afterward, Johnson admitted the obvious: His usually productive option offense is struggling. One touchdown in 11 possessions for Johnson is like a felony. The coach was so desperate to get something going that he went for it on fourth-and-2 from Tech’s 33 with over eight minutes left in a one-score game. Result: David Sims was stopped short of a first down.
The Hokies later missed a chip shot field goal attempt, keeping the score at 17-10, but Johnson called his decision “pretty dumb.”
Also this: “They played better than we did. They probably coached better than we did.”
There is no explaining six false start penalties. Quarterback Vad Lee tried to take the hit for the team, saying, “I have to put it on me. If I can command the huddle better maybe that doesn’t happen.”
But wide receiver DeAndre Smeller summed the evening up nicely: “That’s just our fault. That’s just not being ready mentally. Those are plays that we could have had big plays on.
“It’s always disappointing when you lose, but the manner that we did this makes it even more disappointing.”
The 2009 win over Virginia Tech has been the extreme high point of Johnson’s five-year-plus tenure. There was a belief around the program this season that things were on the rise again. A young team seemingly had grown up. Vad Lee, the quarterback, was as talented a player as Johnson had ever had to work with at that position. The defense seemingly had finally, mercifully, stabilized under new coordinator, Ted Roof, who returned to his alma mater from Penn State.
The Jackets won their first three games of the season, but the fact that they came over Elon, Duke and North Carolina didn’t stir the masses much. Virginia Tech didn’t enter Thursday’s game as anything special, but the Hokies had brand appeal, and a win over them would gain Tech a measure of respect. As Johnson said earlier in the week: “Bottom line, clearly in my mind, they’ve been the team to beat in the Coastal Division since I’ve been here, and until somebody beats them, that’s the way I’ll look at it. We’ve had some games in the past three or four years that have been really close, and we’ve got to find a way to get over the top of them.”
So what happened?
Tech players almost seemed overwhelmed by the moment. They turned the ball over on their first two possessions. They couldn’t remember the snap count. The Georgia Tech marching band did a “Tribute to Math” at halftime, and it would have been appropriate to spell out “5” because that’s how many false starts the Jackets had in the first half. There also was a delay-of-game penalty.
One can only imagine the words rolling around in Johnson’s head. His teams have been known for highly productive offenses and highly slapstick defenses. There seemed to be a personality reversal early in this one. The defense actually was playing well. The Hokies’ first touchdown was a relative gimme following an interception at the Jackets’ 21. Virginia Tech managed one good drive among its first six (that being really good, actually: a 10-play, 91-yard touchdown drive).
But there was a turn after halftime. The Jackets drove 82 yards to a touchdown on its first possession of the second half to close the deficit to 14-10. It wasn’t perfect. Lee fumbled — his second of the game, the team’s third, though only one was lost — but he managed to recover at the Virginia Tech 6. Two plays later, the Jackets benefited from a pass-interference call in the end zone, setting up David Sims’ 2-yard scoring plunge.
The Hokies expanded the lead to 17-10 with a field goal, but blew a chance to put Tech away later when one of Johnson’s wild-hair decisions to go for it on fourth down backfired. With over eight minutes remaining in a one-score game, the coach decided to go for it on fourth down from the Jackets’ 33. Result: Sims gained 1 yard. He needed 2. But a few minutes later, Virginia Tech kicker Cody Journell missed a 25-yard field goal.
Oddly, faced with a similar situation on the Jackets’ next possession — fourth-and-4 from the 16 with five minutes left — Johnson sent in the punter. Go figure. Tech got the ball back one more time, but the series ended with a Lee interception.
The fizz went out of the night.