Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word -
As the game waned in the midst of a nice autumn afternoon, there was a temptation for Georgia Tech fans to think (or dread), “Here we go again.”
And then the Yellow Jackets stood up and stood firm.
Last Saturday was weird at Bobby Dodd Stadium, where the Jackets (5-4, 4-3 ACC) outplayed the No. 17 Hokies (7-3, 3-3) from start to near finish, yet trailed after a dreadful pick-six by the visitors put Virginia Tech up 22-21 with 7:27 left.
Who knew there would be so much more stress to come?
Probably everybody who’s been paying attention this season.
The Hokies chewed the next 5:18 off the clock, twice converting fourth downs to stay alive.
Not so predictably, Ajani Kerr had something to say about Virginia Tech’s fourth and final fourth-down try of the game, sneaking a hand in to break up a potential touchdown pass to Virginia Tech’s all-time leading receiver, Cam Phillips, with 1:03 to go in a great game.
Who saw that coming?
Actually, Kerr and his teammates sort of expected Hokies quarterback Josh Jackson to throw the ball over the middle on fourth-and-1 from the Georgia Tech 32-yard-line. He’d thrown incomplete on third-and-1 and, after a Virginia Tech timeout, Jackson threw again.
“Next man up, everybody’s been getting reps . . . be ready when your time comes,” said Kerr, a redshirt freshman cornerback who filled in for injured starter Step Durham. “It was fourth and short and it was their No. 1 guy. I got signals and everybody’s out there talking. We always put an emphasis on communication.”
There were a couple times when Georgia Tech fans were probably muttering to themselves.
Leading 21-9 in the third quarter, the Jackets looked to be driving for a possible clinching touchdown but in reaching the Hokies’ 10-yard-line, center Kenny Cooper was called for an illegal block, and the Jackets wound up missing a field goal.
Linebacker Brant Mitchell’s second-down sack soon left Virginia Tech with a third-and-14 from the Hokies’ 22 yard line, and the Jackets looked to be in good shape.
The Jackets had seen that before, as a similar ricochet play at Miami – albeit on a fourth down – was critical in helping the Hurricanes sneak out a one-point win.
“I was thinking we were cursed when they got that deep ball,” said Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson. “I thought it was going to be a pick and we were going to get the ball at the 40. And then, low and behold, off two of our guys, they caught it again.”
The Hokies’ good fortune turned into a touchdown eight plays later when freshman running back Jalen Holston of Stockbridge scored on an 8-yard run to draw Virginia Tech within 21-16 on the final play of the third quarter.
Virginia Tech took the lead at 22-21 when cornerback Greg Stroman returned an interception 24 yards with 7:27 left in the game, and while the Jackets stopped the Hokies’ two-point try, there was cause to fret.
It wasn’t good for pacemakers when Nathan Cottrell fumbled the ensuing kickoff and at least two Hokies appeared to have an inside track on the ball.
Somehow, in a pile of padded humanity, Georgia Tech ferreted the ball away, and it was possible to wonder if the fickle fates of football were on the Jackets’ side for a change.
Georgia Tech’s defense had played well, allowing 226 total yards on 10 drives while surrendering two touchdowns (one after a Virginia kickoff return to the Jackets’ 29 yard line) and a field goal through three-and-a-half quarters.
They also stopped the Hokies on fourth-and-2 from the Georgia Tech 8 in the second quarter.
Tackle Brentavious Glanton sliced through the rabble to help drop backup quarterback A.J. Bush for a 3-yard loss on a curious play call.
Surely, there would be a reward for the defense on this day.
Not long after the Jackets’ spectacular recovery on the bobbled kickoff, Jeune and Marshall did their parts in connecting on an 80-yard pass-and-catch play for a touchdown. Just two plays after the Chinese fire drill kickoff, the Jackets led 28-22.
The defense settled in one last time.
The Jackets held on three third downs on Virginia Tech’s final possession, part of a day where the Hokies converted just 4-of-15, but the visitors made good on fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-8 after the first two.
The third time was a charm – for Georgia Tech.
Phillips has caught a Virginia Tech-record 225 passes, including at least one in a school-record 37 games. The 6-foot, 202-pound senior, whom Johnson and Georgia Tech players described before the game as “an NFL guy,” caught two passes against the Jackets.
He entered the game averaging 88.1 receiving yards per game but against Georgia Tech only managed receptions of seven yards and one.
The Jackets were not surprised to see the Hokies put the ball in the air on fourth-and-1 from the Georgia Tech 32.
Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente said, “We had the best matchup that we could possibly get. We had press coverage with our best guys.”
The matchup was Phillips on Kerr, a scarcely tested redshirt freshman.
“I wasn’t [surprised],” said senior safety Corey Griffin. “I mean, if they were going to win the game, they better go for it all . . . Ajani, he’s an excellent player when he’s focused and ready to play. Step went down and it was next man up. I take my hat off to him. Cam Phillips is their leading receiver and their go-to guy.”
Mitchell, who led the Jackets with nine tackles, a sack and a pass breakup in his first full game back in the lineup after being slowed by a lower body injury, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Pretty much along the same lines,” he said in echoing Griffin’s lack of surprise. “They made a great call. We just made a great play. It’s been a re-occurring thing that we can’t close a game and that’s something that we wanted to prove wrong . . . we showed today that we can seal a win.”
After Georgia Tech limited Virginia Tech to a season-low 258 total yards and a 2.9-yard average per rush, there was joy aplenty.
“I was proud of our guys. I think they showed a lot of grit and determination,” Johnson said. “We got up and then when we threw the pick-six and got down, it would’ve been easy to hang our head. And we hit a play to get the lead back and [were] able to hold on this time.”