There for the taking

Oct. 25, 2008

By Jack Wilkinson

It was there, theirs for the taking. Not that anything was going to be decided Saturday. Not this early in the season — the calendar still says October –, and certainly not in the demolition derby that is the ACC Coastal Division. But on a picturesque Homecoming Day on the Flats, Georgia Tech missed a chance to gain what every receiver seeks in a passing situation: A little separation.

Instead, the Jackets have a rare form of separation anxiety. A lack of separation.

“I’m really disappointed. We made enough mistakes in about every area to lose the game twice over,” Tech coach Paul Johnson said after a 24-17 loss to Virginia at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Yet it wasn’t just the wasted 14-3 first-quarter lead. Or Josh Nesbitt’s two exasperating fumbles. Or the quarterback’s last-drive, last-gasp interception. Or even Tech’s inability to stop Virginia tailback Cedric Peerman in what Johnson termed “the worst game we’ve had from a tackling standpoint.”

What bothered the boss the most was the bottom line. “We could’ve really put ourselves in a good position,” Johnson said.

With a win, No. 21 Tech would’ve been 7-1, riding the crest of a five-game winning streak. With a win, the Jackets would’ve been sitting alone atop the Coastal at 4-1. With a win, and despite their loss at Virginia Tech, the Jackets would’ve held at least a game-and-a-half lead on the Hokies and everyone else in the division. With a win, Tech would’ve had a little breathing room and some margin for error.

Instead? “It looks like now Virginia’s in the driver’s seat,” Johnson said. “They’ve got one loss. Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and North Carolina have two.”

As so does Miami. Even Duke has but two conference losses. Let’s do the math:

Tech is 3-2 in the ACC, 6-2 overall. Virginia Tech, Carolina and Miami are all 2-2, the Dookies 1-2. And Virginia? The guys who lost their opener 52-7 to Southern Cal and struggled to beat Richmond? The Cavs who were routed on the road at UConn (45-10) and Duke (31-3)? They’re now 5-3 overall after a fourth straight win, 3-1 in the ACC after their first road victory of this unpredictable ACC season.

“Well, that was another we, us and our win,” Virginia coach Al Groh said. “Everybody on the team stepped up strong…It was about as challenging as it can get after we found ourselves behind so quickly.”

After Virginia kicked a field goal on the game’s opening drive (the only first-quarter points Tech’s allowed all year besides a Boston College field goal), the Jackets went 73 yards in 11 plays – all on the ground. The 73rd yard came on Nesbitt’s 1-yard keeper for a touchdown.

Tech opened the drive with a speed toss to the right to Roddy Jones, the A-back in motion bursting for 13 yards. Johnson, as he’s wont to do, called the same play — a staple of Tech’s option offense — for 12 yards…and then again a third time for 7 more. After Jonathan Dwyer’s 4-yard plunge, yet another speed toss to Jones yielded 10 more. The logic was simple: If at first you do succeed, try, try it again. Until they stop it.

After Morgan Burnett’s interception on UVa’s next possession (the sophomore rover’s sixth pick of the season), Nesbitt found Demaryius Thomas on a 42-yard go pattern to the Virginia 3. When Dwyer scored on the next play, Tech led 14-3 and a homecoming crowd of 47,416 rejoiced.

But Virginia made some effective defensive adjustments and Tech made some offensive blunders — and began missing tackles at an alarming rate. Marc Verica’s 14-yard fade to Kevin Ogletree cut it to 14-10. That concluded a drive on which UVa converted three third-down situations for first downs.

“I don’t know what the third-down conversion rate for them was,” said Johnson. It was 11-for-18, the most Tech’s allowed since Wake Forest converted 11 of 21 in October, 2002. “We couldn’t get them off the field in the first half,” Johnson said. “They ran 45 plays and we had four possessions.”

The Cavaliers ran 75 total plays to Tech’s 56. Twenty-five of those plays were bull rushes by Peerman, who gained 118 yards and scored the winning touchdown. That 3-yarder came with 4:00 to play.

By then, Nesbitt had lost two crucial fumbles. The first, on a simple center-quarterback exchange, came at the UVa 47 and led to Verica’s 34-yard post-pattern touchdown to Maurice Covington for a 17-14 lead.

On that play, “Michael Johnson got wrapped around the neck and thrown down,” Johnson said. No penalty was called.

“They protected pretty good,” Johnson said of Virginia’s mammoth offensive line. “It looked like some people (Tech pass rushers) were in headlocks half the time. (But) you have to give them credit, they protected pretty good.”

In the second half, Verica completed 10 of 11 passes for 108 yards and a touchdown. Although his fourth-quarter fumble — caused by Michael Johnson’s sack and recovered by Derrick Morgan — led to Scott Blair’s game-tying field goal, Nesbitt’s second fumble was far more costly.

It came at the Virginia 5. While attempting to hand off to Dwyer, Nesbitt missed the connection and UVa recovered. “I tried to give it and it just popped out,” Nesbitt said.

“He didn’t get off and he fumbled,” Johnson said. “He just didn’t get off the B-back in time.”

The fumbles were particularly frustrating to the coach.

“Guys, what do you want me to tell you?” Johnson asked reporters afterward. “I don’t know (why). If I knew, we wouldn’t fumble. They fumbled the center-quarterback exchange. I mean, we take hundreds of those every day…Both times in the second half, we started to get something going, we string together a couple of first downs and we do that.”

And later, this: Nesbitt’s last pass was intercepted at the UVa 43 with 1:18 to play. It was over. And now Tech finds itself back in the mix, on a day the Jackets could’ve opened up some room atop the Coastal Division.

“That’s one,” Johnson said, “that we let get away.”

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