By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At sunset Saturday, a blue-and-orange throng blanketed much of the Scott Stadium field, as UVa football players and coaches celebrated with students and fans after a victory that second-year coach Mike London believes could be a “signature moment” in his rebuilding project.
“This is one of those wins against a good team with a lot of accomplishments that you can try to turn the corner on, about how you think about yourself, how people view your program,” London said after Virginia’s 24-21 victory over previously undefeated Georgia Tech.
“There’s a long season yet to play, but it’s a great start to the second half of the season.”
No. 12 Georgia Tech (3-1 ACC, 6-1 overall) is the highest-ranked opponent the Cavaliers have beaten since Oct. 15, 2005, when they upset No. 4 Florida State at Scott Stadium.
On a day when its defense played heroically throughout, UVa (1-1, 4-2) did not score in the second half. But the Cavaliers’ offense sealed the victory by punishing the Yellow Jackets’ defense — a unit that former Virginia head coach Al Groh oversees — on a drive that ate up the final 5 minutes and 58 seconds of this Coastal Division game.
That capped a superb day for UVa’s offensive line: tackles Oday Aboushi and Morgan Moses, guards Austin Pasztor and Luke Bowanko and center Anthony Mihota.
“We know our part in this team,” Aboushi said. “When the time comes up for us to step up, we’ve got to perform.”
Junior tailback Perry Jones, who finished with a career-high 149 yards rushing, carried four times for 31 yards on the game-ending drive. Jones also turned a swing pass from Michael Rocco on third-and-6 — the sophomore quarterback’s only completion of the second half — into an 18-yard gain to the Jackets’ 33.
The Cavaliers’ No. 2 tailback, redshirt freshman Kevin Parks, carried six times for 32 yards on the final drive, running behind a line that imposed its will on the Jackets. Parks’ 7-yard gain, on third-and-2 from the 25, ended any chance Tech had of getting the ball back.
“We knew that we could dominate them up front,” Rocco said. “We’d proved that all game.”
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said: “You’d always like to be able to run the ball at the end of the football game, because that usually means you have the lead. And I think coming out of the game, it gives you the sense that physically you were able to do what you had to do.
“I feel really good for the offensive line, for the backs, for everyone, the tight ends and even the receivers, because on the formations we were in, they all had to block, and the receivers I thought did a great job too in that drive. It makes you feel like you were able to control the game rather than just standing on the sideline hanging on.”
The drive started on the Wahoos’ 23-yard line. It ended inside the Jackets’ 10. With Tech out of timeouts, Rocco took one final snap, touched his knee to the ground and then flipped the ball to an official. Moments later, fans stormed the field to celebrate the biggest victory of London’s short tenure as UVa coach.
“It was awesome,” senior defensive tackle Matt Conrath said of the postgame scene. “This is going to be a memory I’ll hold on to for a long time.”
A year ago in Atlanta, Georgia Tech piled up 536 yards in a 33-21 win over UVa, and its triple-option offense had been even more productive through six games this season. Coach Paul Johnson’s Jackets came in ranked fourth nationally in rushing offense (360.5 yards per game), fourth in total offense (533.5 yards) and sixth in scoring offense (46.5 points).
Against defensive coordinator Jim Reid’s charges Saturday, in front of a Homecomings crowd of 47,692, the Jackets managed only 296 yards. Tech had the ball for 17 of the first 24 minutes of the second half but came away with only seven points.
“It was the exact same game plan as last year,” Reid said. “Exact same. We had guys that took it very, very seriously, did what they were supposed to do. Everybody played assignment football, and I tell you what, we made some plays that [Tech] had blocked very well that we shouldn’t have made. That’s because the guys understood the offense and they understood the game plan.”
That the Cavaliers, who were idle last weekend, had extra time to prepare for the Jackets’ offense “helped tremendously,” said senior cornerback Chase Minnifield, who had an interception and made five tackles Saturday.
“I don’t know that we get this outcome without the bye week, because this is such an assignment-based offense, so you really gotta be on on cue and on point,” Minnifield said. “We practiced hard, and you can tell by the results that we were ready for this game.”
Middle linebacker Steve Greer said UVa defenders “spent a lot of time watching film from last year’s game and [studying] what we didn’t do. And a lot of it was not executing. They played well, but a lot of it was us not executing. So we knew if we came in and executed we could take that away.”
Greer, a junior, led UVa with 10 tackles, and Conrath added nine stops. The 6-7 Conrath also blocked a field goal late in the first quarter. Virginia picked off two passes by Jackets quarterback Tevin Washington — true freshman cornerback Demetrious Nicholson had the other pick — and recorded five tackles for loss.
“This is what we’ve been striving for since [training] camp, and it showed today,” senior safety Rodney McLeod said of the defensive effort. “It’s been showing the past couple weeks, but it really showed today against a great offense.”
On a spectacular fall afternoon, Virginia won the pregame coin toss, and London elected to have his team receive the ball first.
“It definitely paid off,” Jones said. “We went down on the first drive and scored. I think it helped us to increase our energy.”
On the game’s opening series, Rocco completed 4 of 5 passes, including an 8-yard completion to sophomore wide receiver Tim Smith that gave UVa a first down at the Georgia Tech 15. The running backs did the rest. Jones ran for 9 yards, and then Parks rumbled 6 yards for his seventh rushing touchdown of the season.
The Jackets failed to pick up a first down on their first series, and the ‘Hoos needed only two plays to push their lead to 14-0. On the first, Jones ran for 8 yards. Then Rocco passed to Smith, who was running a streak pattern along the left sideline, for a 37-yard touchdown.
Virginia appeared headed for more points on its third possession, but the drive stalled at the Jackets’ 15, and then senior Robert Randolph missed a 32-yard field-goal attempt that appeared to be partially blocked.
An 80-yard touchdown drive by the Jackets followed, and then Rocco threw an interception that cornerback Rod Sweeting returned 32 yards for another score. Suddently it was 14-14, and Georgia Tech appeared poised to seize control. But the ‘Hoos, with true freshman David Watford at quarterback, responded with a 72-yard drive that ended with tailback Clifton Richardson’s 22-yard TD run.
Richardson, a true freshman, rushed five times for 32 yards and carried defenders for extra yardage on several runs Saturday. Parks ran for 86 yards, and Jones topped the 100-yard mark for the second straight game. The trio helped Virginia total a season-high 272 yards on the ground.
“Those guys are hungry, and that’s the way we have to play,” London said. “We have to play hungry. We have to play like we’ve got a lot to prove, and we do. We haven’t done anything yet, but hopefully we’re moving it in the right direction.”
The victory over Georgia Tech “could be a signature moment,” London said, but only if his team continues to prepare as it did for this game.
“There’s no doubt,” sophomore defensive end Jake Snyder said. “This isn’t the end of our season by any means. It’s another huge win. It’s a step in the direction that we want to go.”
UP NEXT: In the final game of its four-game homestand, Virginia hosts NC State (0-2, 3-3) at 3:30 p.m. next Saturday. ESPNU will televise the game. The Wolfpack, whose coach is former UVa assistant Tom O’Brien, was off this weekend.
“We’ll celebrate tonight,” Conrath said Saturday. “Tomorrow we get back to work. We got practice, we’ll watch the film and see where we made mistakes, then move on to NC State and forget about it.”
Rocco said: “It’s going to be a big one for us to make sure we don’t lull coming back next week. We’ll be prepared. We’re going to prepare this next week like we’ve never prepared before, just to keep this thing rolling.”