By Jeff White (email@example.com)
ATLANTA – Inside Bobby Dodd Stadium, the tension grew throughout the fourth quarter and the overtime period, building until it was palpable Saturday evening.
Georgia Tech went up 27-24 on a 48-yard field goal by Wesley Wells with 64 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Virginia answered with a gritty drive and tied the game on sophomore Brian Delaney’s 32-yard field goal with one second to play.
Then came OT. On the first series, UVA’s defense stiffened, and the Yellow Jackets had to settle for a 40-yard field goal by Wells that made it 30-27.
On the road, against one of the ACC’s hottest teams, the Cavaliers could not have asked for much more.
“It’s exactly how you design it,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
“I just knew that we were going to score,” quarterback Bryce Perkins. “I had no doubt in my mind.”
Instead, with an opportunity to win at Georgia Tech for the first time since 2008, Virginia stumbled. Its offense failed to pick up a first down, forcing Delaney to try to extend this Coastal Division clash.
He was 2 for 2 on field goals to that point, but Delaney missed this one, a 35-yarder, wide left, setting off a frenzied celebration by the Jackets (7-4 overall, 5-3 ACC) and their fans. The Wahoos (7-4, 4-3) trudged off the field and into their locker room.
“It hurts, man, for real,” Perkins, a junior who had to leave the game for a series after suffering what initially appeared to a serious ankle injury late in the first quarter.
“Those are the games you look back and you think of little nitpick things that you could have done better that maybe could have given you an extra three points, an extra touchdown.”
Mendenhall said: “We didn’t kick the ball through the uprights at the end. That’s what everyone will see, but the team played really well. We just didn’t quite play clean enough to win.”
In the end, Mendenhall said, most damaging for UVA were the special-teams breakdowns that occurred well before Delaney’s miss in OT.
Moments after giving up a safety on the play on which Perkins was injured, UVA gave up a 77-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Georgia Tech added the 2-point conversion to go up 13-7 with 3:13 left in the first quarter.
Virginia battled back and regained the lead. Late in the third quarter, though, after forcing Georgia Tech into what looked to be a three-and-out, the Cavaliers saw the ball bounce off the leg of cornerback Darius Bratton after a short punt by Pressley Harvin III.
The Jackets recovered at the UVA 41, an enormous shift in momentum in a back-and-forth game. A TD drive followed, and another successful 2-point conversion put Georgia Tech up 24-21.
True freshman Tavares Kelly was back for Virginia on Harvin’s punt. In such situations, Mendenhall said, the “punt returner’s primary job is to alert every player that’s covering, or holding up a defensive player, that the kick is short. Then [those players’] job is to get away. And so the communication from the returner needed to be more animated and more distinct, so the player that was holding up a defender going down to cover could get out of the way quicker.”
Through it all, though, the Cavaliers refused to fold. The first-quarter sequence that encompassed the safety, Perkins’ injury, and Georgia Tech’s special-teams touchdown “would have broken the will of many teams, and it didn’t seem to faze our guys,” Mendenhall said.
While UVA’s medical staff attended to Perkins, true freshman Brennan Armstrong took over at quarterback and ran the offense with aplomb.
On third-and-9 from the UVA 26, Armstrong scrambled 11 yards for a first down. Three plays later, on third-and-3, he passed to junior wide receiver Joe Reed in the left flat. Reed broke a tackle and raced down the left sideline for a 56-yard TD that stunned the Jackets.
“It seems like each time he goes in there’s something electric that happens,” Mendenhall said of Armstrong, who’s played in three games this season. “He has a presence where he just kind of thinks he can move the ball against anyone, no matter the circumstance, and he’s probably right.”
Perkins returned on the Cavaliers’ next series, and his 9-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter sent them into halftime leading 21-16. For the game, Perkins rushed 16 times for 73 yards and one TD. He completed 21 of 26 passes for 217 yards and another score, a 13-yarder to junior wideout Hasise Dubois on UVA’s first possession.
Asked if the coaching staff considered holding out its most dynamic player, Mendenhall said, “No. Our quarterback is Bryce Perkins, and if he was healthy and able to play, we were going to play him. And he was healthy enough to lead our team, which he did, and gave us a great chance to win.”
Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense came in averaging 450.7 yards per game. The ‘Hoos held the Jackets to 305 yards. They didn’t come up with any takeaways, but the Cavaliers stuffed Tech on a fourth-and-1 run from the UVA 19.
“The defense, for the entire day, I don’t know how much fault you can find,” Mendenhall said. “They played very, very well, from start to finish.”
And now only one game remains in Mendenhall’s third regular season at Virginia: the battle for the Commonwealth Cup. UVA plays Friday at Virginia Tech.
“I love my team,” Mendenhall said Saturday night. “I’m sad we lost the game, but you all saw how they played. It’s a whole different team and it’s a whole different program, and that’s encouraging. I’m their biggest fan. I think the world of them and really would like to see them continue to have success. To have meaningful games all the way to the very end is what you try for, and that’s what they’re doing, and that’s what they’ve earned.”
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: With the score 24-24 and 1:17 remaining in the fourth quarter, Georgia Tech faced third-and-6 from its 29-yard line, and Virginia had a chance to get the ball back in good field position.
To that point, the Jackets had not completed a pass, but quarterback TaQuon Marshall threw a deep ball to wide receiver Brad Stewart, who’d slipped past UVA’s top cornerback, junior Bryce Hall. Stewart laid out to make the catch, extending a drive that ended with Wells’ 48-yard field goal.
“Great catch by their receiver,” Mendenhall said.
Another key play: Virginia, trailing 24-21, faced third-and-1 from the Georgia Tech 13 late in the fourth quarter. That’s a situation in which Perkins often runs, but this time the Cavaliers went to the air.
Perkins failed to connect with Reed on a fade route in the end zone, and UVA had to settle for Delaney’s 30-yard field goal, which made it 24-24 with 4:31 left.
“We thought we might catch them sleeping,” Mendenhall said.
NEXT MEN UP: Attrition and health issues have depleted UVA’s defensive line, whose only available veteran is redshirt junior Eli Hanback. Starting up front with Hanback in the Cavaliers’ 3-4 scheme Saturday were true freshman Grant Misch, in his first college game, and graduate transfer Dylan Thompson, who played in only two games during his career at Ohio State.
The start was Thompson’s first, and redshirt freshman Tommy Christ and true freshman Aaron Faumui also played extensively on the D-line Saturday.
Hanback finished eight tackles. Thompson contributed a career-high six stops. Christ had a career-high three tackles, including his first sack as a Cavalier. Misch and Faumui made one tackle apiece.
Defensive line coach Vic So’oto is “working really hard to get anyone that we have remaining at that position on our roster to play, and they did a nice job,” Mendenhall said.
GAME BALLS: It was a disappointing loss for the Cavaliers, but they had multiple standouts Saturday. They included:
* Reed, who had two catches for 78 yards and one touchdown and added 122 yards on five kickoff returns.
* Senior wideout Olamide Zaccheaus, who had 11 catches for 111 yards, both game highs. Zaccheaus, who has caught at least one pass in 40 consecutive games, moved into second place all-time at UVA in career receiving yards (2,613).
* Perkins became the first quarterback in program history to total more than 2,000 yards passing and 600 yards rushing in the same season. He has 2,213 and 730, respectively.
• Inside linebackers Jordan Mack and Robert Snyder, both of whom are from the Atlanta area, had 12 and 11 tackles, respectively, to lead the Cavaliers.
* Sophomore safety Brenton Nelson turned in two big third-down plays, breaking up a pass on the first and tackling quarterback Tobias Oliver for a 3-yard loss on the second.
THEY SAID IT: In the weight room at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Mendenhall and five UVA players – Perkins, Reed, Mack, Thompson and Zaccheaus — met with reporters after the game. Among their comments:
* Zaccheaus on Delaney: “I told him we’re family, no matter what. It’s tough for a kicker, because all eyes are on him, but obviously there were plays before that, that even myself could have made to not get [the game] to that point.”
* Zaccheaus on Armstrong: “He’s a baller.”
* Mack on the defense’s play: “We have nothing to hang our heads about. We went out there and we played physical. We executed. [The Jackets] made plays here and there, but as a defense, as a whole, I couldn’t be prouder.”
* Thompson on his performance: “I think tonight was a very big step forward for me. I know I have a lot more work to do, but I’m going to go back and get on the plane in a little bit and watch the film and not focus on anything else until tomorrow.”
* Thompson on the program he joined in August: “There’s so many young guys on this team that are going to be big names coming up in the future. I’m not going to name them all, but the work ethic they’re starting to show is absolutely unbelievable. I’ve been helped by some of these young guys, just adjusting to the culture, which is something huge to say, because I’m a fifth-year senior, and a freshman’s helping me adjust.”
* Mendenhall on Delaney, who’s now 11 for 14 on field goals this season: “He’s done a really nice job. I’m walking off the field and he comes up to me and says he’s sorry. He did the best he could, just like the rest of our team … I don’t think [the missed field goal] decides it, even though that’s usually what’s the most visible. That series at the beginning with the safety and the kick return for a touchdown, and then the ball bouncing off one of our guys’ legs, all of those are equal if not more impactful than the last play.”
AND THEN THERE WAS ONE: Virginia closes the regular season Friday against Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium. In a Coastal Division game that ABC will televise, the ‘Hoos (7-4, 4-3) meet the Hokies (4-6, 3-4) at 3:30 p.m.
Both teams lost Saturday. Virginia Tech lost 38-14 to the Miami Hurricanes at Lane Stadium.
The Cavaliers, who have lost 14 straight games in the series, haven’t won in Blacksburg since 1998. A UVA win would end Tech’s streak of consecutive bowl appearances at 25.
Perkins wore a protective boot on his left foot when he met with reporters Saturday night. Asked about his availability for the regular-season finale, he answered emphatically.
“I’m going to get treatment and get ready, because I’m playing,” Perkins said.