Just minutes after No. 17 Virginia Tech looked poised Saturday to steal a victory at Georgia Tech, all of the hiccups and mental foibles of the afternoon finally caught up to the Hokies in one final defensive lapse and two questionable play calls.
Wide receiver Ricky Jeune’s 80-yard touchdown catch with 6:30 left, and Virginia Tech’s incompletions on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 from Georgia Tech’s 32-yard line with just over a minute remaining propelled the Yellow Jackets to a 28-22 win. The loss gave coach Justin Fuente his first two-game skid in his two seasons in Blacksburg, and brought unprecedented criticism on his and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen’s play-calling .
“That’s a tough locker room in there right now. …that’s a quiet locker room,” Fuente said minutes after the game. “Our guys played hard. We did not play well enough to win the football game. I think there’s plenty of reasons for that that go all the way around, and ultimately, we came up a little bit short. We had our chances. The way we played both gave us chances to win the game, and also caused us to be in the situation we were in.”
Though Virginia Tech (7-3, 3-3 ACC) was left in shock over what had just taken place, Georgia Tech nearly got to play that role. Georgia Tech outgained Virginia Tech 401-258, including 261-105 on the ground.
Before Georgia Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall delivered the game-winning touchdown pass to Jeune, who sprinted past the coverage of outside linebacker Mook Reynolds to get wide open, Marshall threw an inexplicable interception on second-and-10 from Georgia Tech’s 14 directly into the arms of cornerback Greg Stroman. He returned it 24 yards for a touchdown with 7:27 left to put the Hokies up 22-21 — their first lead since 3-0.
A decision earlier in the game by Fuente affected how he approached the conversion attempt after Stroman’s touchdown return.
After a 14-yard touchdown on a jet sweep by receiver Sean Savoy with 3:43 left in the second quarter that cut Georgia Tech’s lead to 14-9, Fuente elected to try to get within a field goal of the Yellow Jackets by going for a 2-point conversion, which failed.
Stroman’s touchdown helped Virginia Tech claw back into the lead, but at that stage, the Hokies needed a 2-point conversion instead of an extra-point attempt to make it a field goal margin. Quarterback Josh Jackson’s pass fell incomplete on the 2-point conversion attempt, leaving Virginia Tech with a shaky 1-point edge.
Georgia Tech (5-4, 4-3) answered two plays later with Jeune’s big catch. It was one of two completions on eight pass attempts by Marshall, who also completed a 60-yard touchdown pass on third-and-18 to receiver Brad Stewart with 12:10 left in the third quarter to extend the Yellow Jackets’ lead to 21-9.
With all three timeouts left and 6:30 remaining in the game, Virginia Tech didn’t have to rush once it got the ball back after Juene’s touchdown catch.
Starting at the Hokies’ 26, Jackson opened the drive by completing five consecutive passes for 31 yards, converting a fourth-and-1 from Virginia Tech’s 35 via a 3-yard run and connecting with receiver Eric Kumah from the Hokies’ 40 for a 19-yard pass play to come through on fourth-and-8.
Virginia Tech advanced to Georgia Tech’s 32, where the Hokies faced a third-and-1 with 1:22 left. Jackson dropped back and looked for Kumah on a fade route, but the pass fell incomplete.
Before its fourth-and-1 play with 1:09 remaining, Virginia Tech used one of its timeouts. Instead of trying to run for the first down, Virginia Tech attempted another pass, but Jackson’s throw to receiver Cam Phillips in the end zone was batted away by cornerback Ajani Kerr in man coverage with 1:03 left.
“The fade to Kumah probably could have been called pass interference,” said Jackson, who was 14-of-26 passing for 153 yards. “The guy was holding Kumah’s left arm. The second one, I threw it to Cam, if I had thrown it a yard deeper it would have been a touchdown, but that happens.”
Georgia Tech took over, picked up a first down running and drained the clock.
Though Georgia Tech wasn’t as potent as usual running the ball (entered the game third in the nation with an average of 331.9 yards per game), it did get one huge play on the ground in the first quarter.
With Virginia Tech up 3-0 after a 41-yard field goal by Joey Slye, who Fuente said after the game was dealing with a hamstring injury, Georgia Tech running back Nathan Cottrell caught the Hokies’ defense by surprise when he took a reverse and ran 69 yards to the Hokies’ 14. Marshall finished the drive with a 3-yard touchdown run with 5:25 left in the first quarter to put the Yellow Jackets up 7-3.
“There were about three plays that got 200 yards, and that’s half their offense was three plays,” Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “I thought our guys played extremely hard and fought hard and played hard. So, that’s disappointing, to play the way we played and to have a couple plays.”
Late in the first quarter, after Hampton High alum Deon Newsome tackled punter Pressley Harvin at Georgia Tech’s 45 on the heels of a bad punt snap, Virginia Tech had a big opportunity, but the Hokies’ ensuing drive came to an end on a fourth-and-2 play from the Yellow Jackets’ 8.
Backup quarterback AJ Bush, who entered the game in place of Jackson on several occasions to run in a wildcat role, was stopped for a loss of three yards on the fourth-down play with 13:20 remaining in the second quarter. Bush wasn’t helped by a slightly slow snap from center Eric Gallo.
Georgia Tech started to assert its ground game early in the second quarter when it took over at its own 21 after a 51-yard punt by Virginia Tech’s Oscar Bradburn.
The Yellow Jackets ran it 11 consecutive times, highlighted by a 3-yard run on a fake punt by KeShun Freeman on a fourth-and-1 from Georgia Tech’s 46. Marshall capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run to put the Yellow Jackets ahead 14-3 with 4:12 left in the second quarter.
Travon McMillian helped put Virginia Tech in business right away on the kickoff after Marshall’s touchdown run, returning it 70 yards to Georgia Tech’s 29. Two plays later, Savoy scored, which was followed by the unsuccessful 2-point conversion.
Virginia Tech’s longest scoring drive came in the third quarter after Stewart’s touchdown catch in which he beat free safety Terrell Edmunds.
Trailing 21-9, Virginia Tech went on a 12-play, 74-yard drive that included a 26-yard completion from Jackson to Kumah on third-and-14, where Kumah ended up on the lucky end of a pass that bounced between two Georgia Tech defenders before landing in Kumah’s arms at the Hokies’ 48. Running back Jalen Holston finished the possession on the last play of the third quarter with an 8-yard touchdown run to slice the Yellow Jackets’ lead to 21-16.
“I’m not concerned at all (after the loss),” said Kumah, who had a career-high six catches for 82 yards. “I don’t think many of us are concerned. I think we just need to work harder in practice this week and not let Georgia Tech and Miami losses affect us for Pitt and U.Va.”
Wood can be reached by phone at 757-247-4642 or Twitter at @normwood