BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech had been handed two unexpected gifts before kickoff against Georgia Tech on Saturday afternoon. The first was Duke’s upset of North Carolina on Thursday night, which meant the ACC Coastal Division title would belong to the Hokies with a win over the Yellow Jackets.
The second was Georgia Tech’s injury report, which listed four starters out for the game — including the quarterback, leading rusher and two members of the offensive line.
The table was set for the No. 14 Hokies. But they never showed up in a 30-20 loss before a sellout crowd at Lane Stadium. Virginia Tech (7-3, 5-2 ACC) can still clinch its division — and its first trip to the ACC title game since 2011 — with a win at home Nov. 26 against Virginia.
“That’s part of what I told the kids after the game is, first of all, we didn’t deserve to win the ballgame today,” Coach Justin Fuente said. “We didn’t deserve to win our division today. But because of the way they have played and the way they have conducted themselves, the games they’ve won and the way they’ve played on the road, that dream’s not dead.”
Saturday’s loss featured the type of groan-inducing self-destruction the Hokies were supposed to have remedied after a harrowing loss at Syracuse four weeks earlier.
Quarterback Jerod Evans completed 32 of 45 passes for 316 yards with one touchdown and ran for two more in garbage time.
But his two interceptions — one in the second quarter that led to a Georgia Tech touchdown and one in the third that effectively killed the comeback bid — were devastating. He also was sacked four times.
Fuente’s offense amassed 437 yards, but much of it came with the game already decided. After peaking with consecutive 500-yard games against Miami and Pittsburgh in October, the unit appears to be trending in the wrong direction.
“It’s always easy for a coach to say we never got it in flow or rhythm or that kind of stuff, which is true, but there are reasons for that,” Fuente said. “Our execution level just hasn’t been — or certainly wasn’t today — what it needed to be. When we did get things going, we either turned the ball over or couldn’t covert on third down to keep the drive going, which is disappointing. We just, in general terms, weren’t very good.”
Georgia Tech (6-4, 3-4), on the other hand, ran the game with authority. The Yellow Jackets rushed for 309 yards against a beat-up Hokies defense.
Backup quarterback Matthew Jordan, making his first career start, was effective at the helm of the triple-option attack, rushing for 121 yards. He threw just seven passes, completing two for 34 yards .
Yellow Jackets Coach Paul Johnson waited until just before the game to announce that starter Justin Thomas wouldn’t play because of what Johnson called “just an injury.” But Johnson said he had an idea by Tuesday that a change might have to be made, and Jordan practiced with the starters all week.
In the first half, Jordan rushed for 103 yards and touchdowns of 53 and three yards . The Yellow Jackets jumped to a 20-0 lead, and Virginia Tech held the ball for just 8:48.
With safety Terrell Edmunds out for the first half and the Hokies eager to build an early lead, Fuente had gone against his norm and elected to start with the ball. His decision backfired. Kick returner Der’Woun Greene, in for injured starter Greg Stroman, fumbled the kickoff, and the Hokies’ defense started the game anyway.
“I thought as a team we could bounce back from that,” defensive end Ken Ekanem said. “But it’s kind of hard, just to start of the game, setting the tone. Momentum got on their side pretty quick. That was pretty big for them.”
Georgia Tech’s first two possessions both ended in field goals and chewed up a combined 11:30 of game time. Virginia Tech had the ball for just 89 seconds when the clock read 2:01 in the first quarter.
The Hokies were looking for a big play early in the second quarter when Evans threw deep, but there was confusion among receivers Bucky Hodges and Travon McMillian. Neither was able to make a play on the overthrown ball, but Georgia Tech’s Lawrence Austin did, intercepting it in the end zone. Six plays later, Jordan burst free for his first touchdown to make it 13-0.
The Hokies cobbled together some momentum at the start of the third quarter after the Yellow Jackets fumbled on their own 26 on the first play from scrimmage. Evans led a drive to trim the margin to 20-7, with the touchdown coming on a five-yard pass to Isaiah Ford, who set a program record with his 185th career reception.
Virginia Tech trailed 20-7, and the sellout crowd of 65,632 in Lane Stadium came to life. But turnovers — the Hokies committed four in all and were stopped on a fourth-down attempt in the third — stifled any momentum.
Far fewer fans were still in the stands to see the four scores in the fourth quarter. Both of Evans’s rushing touchdowns came with less than five minutes left in the game, following another Georgia Tech field goal and one final touchdown from the Yellow Jackets. Fittingly, it came on a 56-yard rush.