BLACKSBURG, Va. — For three quarters Monday night, it appeared Virginia Tech might lose a game dominated by special teams and defense, a rarity for a program known for “Beamerball.”
Fortunately for the Hokies and a nervous sellout crowd of orange-clad fans, Virginia Tech’s Cody Journell came to the rescue just in time in No. 16 Virginia Tech’s 20-17 overtime victory over Georgia Tech.
The place kicker, who was suspended from the team and missed last season’s Sugar Bowl following an arrest for breaking and entering in December and later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of misdemeanor trespassing, hit a 41-yard field goal at the end of regulation and then nailed a 17-yard kick to clinch the first overtime game in Lane Stadium history.
Though it was the first game for both teams this season, both understood beforehand the impact it could have on the ACC standings. The winner of the Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech matchup has gone on to win the ACC’s Coastal division every year since 2005.
Their latest encounter put Journell — who had been reinstated to the team in July — squarely in the spotlight, and not just because of his off-field troubles. Before his clutch kicks, Journell had missed a 38-yard field goal earlier in the fourth quarter with the Hokies trailing, 10-7. In his first public comments since being arrested, Journell told reporters in a postgame news conference he had never before kicked a game-winning or game-tying field goal during his career.
“Any time you get a chance to tie a game up with [six] seconds left and you kick a field goal in overtime, it’s always special,” said Journell, who declined to discuss anything related to the December incident. “My teammates and all my coaches let me know: ‘Hey I’m probably gonna have another kick. We need you out there. If it comes down to it, we need your head in the game.’ I let everything go and did what I needed to do.”
The Yellow Jackets led 10-7 following a 34-yard field goal from place kicker David Scully early in the fourth quarter, but the Hokies’ offense finally answered the bell after an anemic showing in the third quarter.
Quarterback Logan Thomas found wide receiver Demitri Knowles streaking past Yellow Jackets cornerback Rod Sweeting for a 42-yard touchdown with 7 minutes 46 seconds remaining, and it seemed the Hokies were on their way to a come-from-behind victory. Knowles and senior Corey Fuller (career high five catches for 82 yards) both received extensive playing time because of injuries to starting wide receivers D.J. Coles and Marcus Davis.
But the Yellow Jackets wouldn’t wilt. Georgia Tech running back Deon Hill responded with a 10-yard touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter, a play that capped a 13-play, 72-yard drive and left the Hokies trailing, 17-14, with 44 seconds remaining in regulation.
After the game, linebacker Jack Tyler (career high 17 tackles) admitted fatigue played a role in Georgia Tech’s success. The Yellow Jackets had the ball for more than 22 minutes in the second half, and converted a fourth-and-six to extend their final drive in regulation. It marred what was, for the most, a strong effort by Virginia Tech’s defense.
With his team trailing, Thomas did not panic. He connected with Fuller on receptions of 22 and 23 yards that quickly set Journell up for a 41-yard field goal. Cornerback Kyle Fuller then paved the way for Journell’s game winner in the lone extra period when he intercepted Georgia Tech quarterback Tevin Washington.
The exciting finish disguised an otherwise inconsistent night for Virginia Tech’s offense. The Hokies drove the ball into Georgia Tech territory five times before the fourth quarter, but only had seven points to show for it. They finished with just 96 rushing yards.
“I played like garbage. . . . I was the one holding us back,” said Thomas, who finished the game 21 of 38 for 230 yards and two touchdowns but admitted to being “very sporadic” in the passing game. He also gained 40 yards on the ground. “I leave extremely encouraged. I know we didn’t play our best game the first three quarters. In the fourth quarter we turned it on and I know what we can do. The rest of the season, hopefully we can show up.”
Virginia Tech got on the board first, with a promising 12-play, 56-yard touchdown drive that featured several bruising runs by Thomas and some of the no-huddle, tempo-based tweaks that Virginia Tech’s offensive coaches implemented this offseason. Set up by a 12-yard scamper from redshirt freshman Michael Holmes, Thomas found tight end Eric Martin in the back of the end zone for a five-yard reception that put Virginia Tech up, 7-0.
That lead, though, would be short-lived because of a special teams gaffe. On the second punt attempt of his career, Virginia Tech freshman A.J. Hughes watched a solid snap from redshirt sophomore Joe St. Germain sail through his fingertips. Though he recovered the fumble, it set Georgia Tech up on the Hokies 24-yard-line.
Two plays later, Yellow Jackets junior Robert Godhigh evaded tackles by linebacker Jack Tyler and Antone Exum on his way to a 12-yard touchdown run that tied the score early in the second quarter.
Those, though, would be the final points until an exciting fourth quarter, when Thomas whispered into Journell’s ear on the sideline before his penultimate kick that sent the game into overtime: “You got this, brother. We’ve always had your back.”
“I love having him back and hopefully we’ll see a lot more of what he did tonight,” Thomas said. “Hopefully not in the same manner.”