On the day it welcomed back some of its dearest legends, Georgia Tech chased year-old ghosts out of Bobby Dodd Stadium. Saturday afternoon, the Yellow Jackets summoned big-play pyrotechnics to batter Virginia 56-20 and even a painful score from the 2011 season.
Starting with a 70-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tevin Washington to B-back Zach Laskey on its first play from scrimmage, Tech fleeced the Cavaliers with eight plays of 20 yards or more, scored touchdowns on five of its six first-half possessions and moved one step forward in its pursuit of Virginia Tech to capture the ACC Coastal Division title.
“I challenged those guys, man to man,” coach Paul Johnson said. “Who’s going to back down? Who’s going to step up? And they answered the call.”
With the win, Tech improved to 2-1 overall and 1-1 in the ACC. Only a Virginia touchdown on the last play of the game prevented the blowout from being the most lopsided victory in Tech’s 218-game ACC history. As it stood, it was the fifth biggest.
“I knew it was going to be a dogfight,” cornerback Louis Young said. “I wanted us to be the team this year to get a TKO punch.”
Said Virginia coach Mike London, “It’s a humbling experience when you come in and get beat like that.”
The Jackets overwhelmed the Cavaliers from the start. After forcing a three-and-out from Virginia on the opening series, Tech scored on its first play, recalling memories of the Jackets’ three-game streak of touchdowns on its first play from scrimmage last season. On the play, Laskey released up the middle and then ran an out-and-up route that freed himself from Virginia linebacker Henry Coley. Washington hit him in stride for the touchdown.
It’s a play Tech rehearsed four or five times this week in anticipation of springing it on the Cavaliers.
Johnson “knew that they would bite on the toss hard,” offensive tackle Will Jackson said. “Zach was able to get out in the flats and just run right up the sideline.”
After forcing another punt from Virginia, the Jackets needed only two plays on the next series. A-back Orwin Smith took a pitch from Washington and tore down the right sideline for a 77-yard score, his alley cleared up by blocks from A-back Robbie Godhigh and wide receiver Jeff Greene. Tech led 14-0 less than five minutes into the game.
“I told [Greene], ‘That’s your touchdown,’” said Johnson, who during the week had expressed his displeasure with the Jackets’ perimeter blocking. “’You’re the guy who just rolled the corner,’ and he rolled him, too. He almost had him out of bounds.”
The third series started with another shock to Virginia, a 60-yard run by Washington in which he faked a pitch to Godhigh and then cut upfield before being brought down at the Virginia 15-yard line. He finished the drive by running the ball in on a 4th-and-goal play from the 1, following blocks by right guard Omoregie Uzzi and right tackle Will Jackson.
By halftime, Tech had amassed 386 yards on just 38 plays. It was a convincing response to a mid-week assessment from Johnson.
“This is going to be a big challenge for them this week because we got out our butt handed to us up there a year ago inside the tackle boxes,” he said. “So we’ll see how we do this week.”
Last October, Tech went up to Charlottesville, Va., with a 6-0 record and a No. 12 ranking. The Cavaliers overpowered the Jackets with 272 rushing yards and extinguished their dreams of perfection in a 24-21 upset. It was the start of a dreadful close to the season, in which the Jackets lost five of their last seven games.
Jackson said his enduring memory of the afternoon was “walking off the field with my head in my hands and just being totally torn up about losing to them.”
Saturday’s performance was a worthy tribute to the roughly 30 members of the 1951 and 1952 Tech teams, the latter of which won a share of the national title. They were honored at halftime in conjunction with the unveiling of a statue of legendary coach Bobby Dodd outside the stadium.
Defensively, Tech put the screws on the Cavaliers. The Jackets were equal to the challenge of Virginia’s power running game. Tech limited Virginia to 98 rushing yards and 297 total. Most notably, the Jackets stood firm when the Cavaliers began a second-quarter possession on the Tech 20 after a 72-yard kickoff return.
Trailing 28-7, Virginia went for a first down on 4th-and-1 from the 11 and was stopped when nose tackle Shawn Green beat guard Conner Davis to wrestle running back Perry Jones to the ground for a one-yard loss.
“We really wanted to place an emphasis on getting downhill and being physical with the blocks,” inside linebacker Quayshawn Nealy, who led Tech with 10 tackles and also had an interception.
In a game that defensive coordinator Al Groh said would be “a big chapter” towards revealing the improvement of his defense in his third season, the Jackets forced Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco into one of the poorest days of his career. He was 15-for-25 for 143 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions and was relieved by backup Phillip Sims.
Tech has another score to settle next Saturday. Miami has beaten the Jackets three years running.
Said Washington, “I think Monday, we go back to the drawing board and start over.”