CHARLOTTESVILLE, NOV. 3 -- The University of Virginia's dreamy, undefeated football season is over. It ended today when a Georgia Tech sophomore named Scott Sisson sent a 37-yard kick tumbling between the uprights for the winning field goal with seven seconds remaining for a 41-38 upset victory and breaking the hearts of a record crowd at Scott Stadium.
The nation's No. 1 team, ahead by two touchdowns at halftime and seemingly in control, allowed the 16th-ranked Yellow Jackets to climb back into it with two third-quarter turnovers. The Cavaliers then made the choice to go for a field goal and a tie with 2:34 to play in the game on fourth and goal just inside the 6 before losing in the last, heartbreaking seconds.
Virginia, playing in its biggest game ever before 49,700 spectators, falls out of the national championship race with a 7-1 record, 4-1 ACC; Georgia Tech (7-0-1, 5-0-1) moves closer to the upper echelons of the polls and into the ACC lead.
"This is devastating," said Herman Moore, who caught nine passes for 234 yards, the second-best game by a Virginia receiver, but ended up kneeling on one knee at midfield when it was over. "We helped them win. We helped them a lot."
Sisson got his chance to win the game when Virginia Coach George Welsh went for the tie 2 1/2 minutes earlier. He brought in Jake McInerney to kick a 23-yard field goal that knotted the score at 38. That kick followed four tries by Virginia inside the 5 -- and two illegal procedure penalties that pushed the Cavaliers outside the 5.
Georgia Tech had taken a 38-35 lead on Sisson's 32-yard field goal with 7:17 remaining. It was the first time Virginia had been behind in the fourth quarter all season.
Hardly daunted, the Cavaliers drove from their 28 to inside the Georgia Tech 1 in 4 1/2 minutes but could not get in, settling for McInerney's third field goal.
In games in which so many points are scored, it's not always easy to pinpoint when they're won or lost. This time, it was. After a 48-yard reception by Moore and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, Virginia had the ball just outside the Georgia Tech 5 with a first and five with 5:42 to play. The Cavaliers moved just outside the 1 on first down, then running back Nikki Fisher inched for a yard and a first down one foot from the goal line.
Getting the call again, Fisher didn't make it in, but there were three more downs. On second down, a quarterback sneak by Shawn Moore never got off because of illegal procedure on the left side of the line. So, on second and five-plus, the Moore-to-Moore combination clicked for five yards, back to the 1-foot line.
Now it was third down. Shawn Moore dropped back and fired what appeared to be a touchdown pass to tight end Aaron Mundy, but the play was called back. Virginia had just 10 men on the field, and only six on the line. An offense must have seven men on the line. This too was illegal procedure, and the Cavaliers went back outside the 5.
On third and five, linebacker Calvin Tiggle -- an All-Met from Friendly High School -- broke up a pass. Here, Welsh decided to go for the field goal and tie the score.
"I don't think you go for a touchdown on fourth and six yards," Welsh said. "My God, what are your chances of that? Ninty-nine percent of the coaches would do the same thing. It's 2 1/2 minutes, we have three timeouts and maybe they make a mistake or get a holding penalty and our defense rises up for a change and stops them."
Most who participated agreed with Welsh.
"He made the right call going for the field goal," said Georgia Tech Coach Bobby Ross. "He had three timeouts left."
"If we had stuffed them like we could have, it would have been three and out and we've got the ball back with quite a bit of time left," said Virginia defensive tackle Joe Hall.
But Georgia Tech, known until today for its defensive prowess, drove from its 24 to the Virginia 20 in little more than two minutes on the passing of sophomore Shawn Jones, who threw for 257 yards, before Sisson came on. (Shawn Moore totaled 344 yards passing, a school record.)
What an irony that late field goals became so prominent in this game of great gains and heroic receptions. The Cavaliers, looking every bit the No. 1 team, burst to a 10-0 lead on the first of three Shawn Moore touchdowns, a one-yard sneak, and McInerney's first field goal, a 27-yarder.
McInerney kicked a 51-yard field goal -- his longest in college and the second-longest in Virginia history -- to put the Cavaliers ahead by 13-0 before the Yellow Jackets finally answered with Jones's 23-yard scramble with 9:43 left in the half.
In three minutes the Moores led the Cavaliers to another touchdown and a two-point conversion for a 21-7 lead. The quarterback found the receiver for a 44-yard gain to the 15, then sneaked in for the touchdown and hit Herman Moore for the conversion.
Georgia Tech's Jerry Gilchrist caught a 43-yard pass to bring the Yellow Jackets within a touchdown with 5:22 left, but the Cavaliers closed the half with Shawn Moore's six-yard draw with 36 seconds left to lead 28-14.
On the first play of the second half, things changed. Shawn Moore ran the option to the right, but fumbled when kicked by one of his lineman. It was just the second time he had fumbled all season. Georgia Tech recovered at the Virginia 28 and Gilchrist scored moments later on a 12-yard reverse. Later in the quarter, Jones found wide receiver Emmett Merchant in the end zone for a 26-yarder, and the score was 28-28 with 4:34 left.
But that wasn't all: There were two more touchdowns before the third quarter ended. Shawn Moore threw a 63-yard bomb to Herman Moore to put Virginia in the lead for the last time, then Georgia Tech running back William Bell dashed eight yards for a touchdown.
"We beat them in the first quarter, but I think we thought it would be the same old steamroll," Hall said. "Then we let them get back into the game. They started to believe in themselves. That starts feeding on itself and pretty soon they're playing well. For us, it's not the end of the world, but I sure feel that way right now."