Jon Cooper | The Good Word
If the University of Virginia ever decides to tear down Scott Stadium, there'll likely be plenty of former Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets willing to stand in line to get a shot at swinging the wrecking ball.
TaQuon Marshall would probably be the latest to volunteer, on behalf of the entire 2017 team.
Marshall threw the first two interceptions of his career and the Yellow Jackets saw an early third-quarter 15-point lead, and a late three-point edge, evaporate in a 40-36 loss to Virginia. The loss dropped the Yellow Jackets to 4-11-1 all-time at Scott Field.
The defeat continued a tradition of hand-wringing games for the Jackets in the stadium.
"I'm disappointed," said head coach Paul Johnson, who actually had kind of been Kryptonite to Virginia, having won four of the last five against the Cavs, and even the Scott Field hex, as he was 2-2 prior to Saturday. "There's not a whole lot you can say about it. Give Virginia credit. They made plays when they had to make plays and we made way too many mistakes to win."
Mistakes included missed assignments, miscommunication on offense and defense, a missed opportunity on an attempted onside kick, a poorly covered kickoff return resulting in a touchdown, the aforementioned two interceptions, the latter of which came on an underthrown ball intended for wide open A-back Qua Searcy, and an end zone collision in the fourth quarter, resulting in a safety that turned a three-point game into a five-point game.
Throw in yet another game played on a wet field in inclement weather and the recipe for disaster was complete.
Yet the Jackets still nearly pulled the game out, when Marshall hooked up with Ricky Jeune for a 33-yard touchdown pass that capped a nine-play, 90-yard drive and gave the Yellow Jackets a 36-33 lead with 3:10 to go.
But it wasn't to be and the Jackets were left with another heartbreaking loss, their fourth of the season. Three of those have come by a total of six points and all three have seen the opponent's game-winning points scored in the waning moments of the game. Virginia's go-ahead touchdown came with 1:22 left on Saturday.
"It's very frustrating," said Marshall. "It sucks. You work hard for it. You practice hard during the week. You go out there and try to do your job then let the chips fall where they may but it sucks when the outcome isn't what you want it to be."
Marshall had a pretty good day, accounting for 322 yards (179 passing, 143 rushing) and three touchdowns (two rushing, one passing) -- including what the Gold and White faithful hoped was the go-ahead score on the 33-yard pass to Jeune late in the final period.
"I had a post route," said Jeune, who caught three passes, his seventh multi-catch game of the season and eighth in a row, for a season-high 96 yards and the score. "It broke late and TaQuon threw a great pass in the middle."
The defense even played well. They held the Cavs to 97 net yards rushing and 4-for-17 on third down, 1-for-5 in the fourth quarter. But they were left having to answer having no answer on the Cavs' final drive, which covered 64 yards in just five plays.
"Anytime you have good players out, you miss them. But that's part of football and it's no excuse," said Johnson. "We had our chances. Like we had our chance on offense to go down and score and we had our chance on defense to stop them. We didn't do it. We didn't get it done."
Senior corner Corey Griffin, who had four tackles and a pass breakup, agreed, pointing to a lack of communication on defense.
"It just comes down to talking and that was something we didn't do very well," he said. "Sometimes when we had checks across the board, they weren't getting to the d-linemen. So they were still running one call and the back guy was running another. It just comes down to talking."
The inability to perform on special teams also hurt. Most vexing for Johnson was a 92-yard kickoff return by UVA's Joe Reed with 2:17 remaining in the opening half. It cut the Jackets' advantage to 14-13 just moments after they opened up an eight-point advantage on a one-yard plunge by KirVonte Benson.
"That's a killer," said Johnson. "It has been. I'm at a loss. You can't work on it harder than we work on it."
One trend that did continue was Georgia Tech's characteristic second-half resilience. The Jackets, who came into the contest outscoring opponents 70-19 in the third quarter of games this season, needed two plays from scrimmage to extend that to 84-19.
On the Jackets' first play of the second half Marshall got around the corner and used outstanding blocks from Jahaziel Lee, Jeune and Searcy to run 79 yards, nearly untouched, and extend a 14-13 halftime lead to 21-13.
Then, on Virginia's first snap of the second half, freshman linebacker Bruce Jordan-Swilling stepped in front of a pass by UVA's Kurt Benkert and took it back 27 yards for a score. Thirty-five seconds into the third quarter, Georgia Tech's one-point halftime lead was stretched to 15.
"I think my coach put me in the right spots to make me feel comfortable on the field. So I'm feeling very comfortable," said Jordan-Swilling, who didn't dwell on his first career pick and score. "To be honest, I'm not really worrying about that because we lost."
Yet, typical of the history of the GT-UVA series at Scott Stadium, weirdness ensued. Nearly as quickly as the Yellow Jackets had put 14 points up on the board, the Cavs answered with 15 and the score was knotted at 28-28 less than five minutes into the second half.
That set up the wild end of the game, which saw the lead change hands twice -- and nearly three times -- in the final 3:10.
After UVA took a 40-36 lead on a 27-yard pass from Benkert to Andre Levrone with 1:22 left on the clock, the Yellow Jackets marched all the way to Virginia's 32 yard line with a chance to pull out a win for the ages. The final drive included an incredible 35-yard catch by Jeune on a make-or-break fourth-and-16 play but ended with Marshall's last pass floating out-of-bounds under heavy pressure.
"Especially late, they were bringing the corner from the boundary," said Marshall. "Sometimes I think I was just rushing a little bit."
The Jackets left Charlottesville on Saturday evening knowing they easily could be 7-1 overall and 5-1 in the conference play, in the driver's seat for the Coastal Division title and an ACC Championship Game berth.
"I think about that all the time. The outcomes that we've had," said Griffin. "It's not like teams are absolutely blowing us out. They're just making one more play than we are."
Instead, the Yellow Jackets are 4-4 (3-3 ACC) and likely needing two wins in their final three regular-season games to become bowl eligible for the 20th time in the last 21 seasons. But they're not head-hanging. They're determined to find a way to make that one more play.
They can point to last season to see such a turnaround is possible.
This time a year ago, Georgia Tech was 5-4 and was actually two games worse in the ACC (2-4), coming off a disastrous performance in a 48-20 defeat at North Carolina. They'd turn it around with a 30-20 win at No. 18 Virginia Tech, which sparked a four-game winning streak to close the season.
The Jackets will try and do it again beginning with this week's opponent at Bobby Dodd Stadium - nationally ranked Virginia Tech.
"When you lose close ones, it's definitely tough. But you have to get over it. Play the next play, move on to the next game. We've been able to do that very well,' said Griffin. "We can't put our heads down because we're sitting here 4-4. We have to move on. We have to get ready for Virginia Tech on Saturday. We know what we have. We know what we're capable of."