Virginia Tech 34, Georgia Tech 20
-- Virginia Tech's trip to Georgia Tech on Thursday night came at a critical juncture. Before a national TV audience, the Hokies had a chance to validate their status among the nation's top 25 or lapse into the late-season slide that has been their hallmark in recent years.
They trotted into Bobby Dodd Stadium as favorites only to run headlong into a ferocious Georgia Tech defense that batted down passes, squelched runs and forced three first-half turnovers to grant a decidedly icy welcome to its new Atlantic Coast Conference rival.
But after stumbling badly at the outset, Virginia Tech quarterback Bryan Randall stormed back to lead his team to 25 fourth-quarter points and a 34-20 victory, solidifying the Hokies' claim on a national ranking in the process.
"This is one of those wins that's great for your football program, and I hope we build on it," Hokies Coach Frank Beamer said. "The way we did it, the way we hung in there, we never gave up."
The No. 22 Hokies (6-2, 3-1) have won four consecutive games and are one victory shy of becoming eligible for their 12th consecutive bowl appearance under Beamer. (They need seven victories, rather than the customary six, because they played an additional game this season, kicking off against Southern Cal in the BCA Classic).
Georgia Tech (4-3, 3-3), meanwhile, saw a promising two-game winning streak snapped in a game that exposed both the limitations and risks of its young offense. Sophomore quarterback Reggie Ball completed 14 of 29 throws for 179 yards and one touchdown but was intercepted twice in the fourth quarter.
The Hokies' Randall was best when it mattered most. With his predecessor Michael Vick looking on from the sidelines, Randall conjured some heroics of his own, flinging touchdown passes of 80 and 51 yards in the fourth quarter and executing the two-point conversion that tied the score at 20 with 5 minutes 28 seconds remaining.
"He had a couple plays early that you wouldn't want to talk about," Beamer said. "But when he gets into the nitty-gritty, you can always count on Bryan Randall."
Both teams got off to a sloppy start, whether rattled by the glare of the ESPN spotlight, a slippery football or the soggy field. The first quarter was scoreless and notable mainly for the rash of penalties and fumbles. Possession changed hands so often that it felt more like a tennis match than a football game, with the ball bouncing from one team to the other and back again.
While Georgia Tech's offense had been erratic all season, the gaffes were uncharacteristic for Virginia Tech. Randall turned over the ball twice, and the Yellow Jackets found ways to capitalize.
Georgia Tech safety James Butler intercepted Randall in the second quarter. Three plays later, Ball fired a throw at wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who made a leaping catch in the back of the end zone to give the Jackets a 7-0 lead. With the catch, Johnson tied the school's freshman record for receiving touchdowns (Kerry Watkins also caught six in 1999).
Hokies return specialist Eddie Royal fumbled the ensuing kickoff return, and it was recovered by Georgia Tech's Jamal Lewis. The Yellow Jackets needed just two plays to score. Tailback P.J. Daniels, whose fumbles had spoiled two promising drives in the first quarter, made up for his earlier bumbling by boring 13 yards into the end zone to put Georgia Tech up 14-0.
The Jackets' 14-point flurry took just 46 seconds and handed the Hokies their biggest deficit of the season.
Virginia Tech answered with an eight-play scoring drive capped by David Clowney's 34-yard touchdown reception, which made it 14-7.
Ball made some clutch throws and big runs under pressure for Georgia Tech, but he also squandered big chunks of yardage while dropping back and scrambling in a vain attempt to make something happen. With his team up 17-7, Ball's judgment bit him again when he was chased out of bounds in the end zone by Hokies defensive end Chris Ellis for a safety. The two points rallied Virginia Tech fans who had fallen largely silent amid their team's halting performance. Trailing 17-9, they shouted, "Let's go Hokies!"
Randall responded in the fourth quarter, hitting Josh Morgan for a completion to Georgia Tech's 1. The drive was squelched by the Yellow Jackets defense, and Brandon Pace hit a 31-yard field goal to make it 17-12.
The Yellow Jackets answered with a 34-yard field goal.
Randall wasn't done yet. He fired a completion to Royal, who ran for an 80-yard touchdown that narrowed the deficit to 20-18. Then he rolled right and hit flanker Richard Johnson for the two-point conversion. His final strike went to Morgan, giving the Hokies their first lead, 27-20, with 3:10 left. With less than a minute left, freshman Roland Minor of Washington grabbed his second interception and ran 64 yards for one last score.