Having lost to Alabama in its season opener in the Georgia Dome, then returning here following a five-game winning streak, only to get dropped this time by Georgia Tech, it’s safe to assume that whole burning Atlanta thing must have passed through somebody’s head at Virginia Tech. If not several heads.
But alas, the Chamber of Commerce can breathe easier today. They didn’t lose Blacksburg.
“If we lost tonight, we weren’t coming back,” coach Frank Beamer cracked.
Gaining some measure of superiority for the ACC over the SEC — at least for one night — Virginia Tech belted Tennessee, 37-14, in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The result accomplished two things: 1) It will keep Tennessee out of the top-25 rankings, thereby minimizing any gloating by coach Lane Kiffin (hey, go with it); 2) It almost certainly will push Virginia Tech (10-3) into a top 10 finish. Beamer can only imagine what might’ve been this season, if Hartsfield Airport hadn’t been such a gateway to Hades for them.
It’s a wonder Virginia Tech didn’t pass on the invitation to return to Atlanta. The Hokies basically were eliminated from the national championship race in the season opener when they lost to Alabama, 34-24, in the Georgia Dome. They won their next five, but then came back to Atlanta and lost to Georgia Tech, 28-23.
Equally surprising was that when Virginia Tech accepted the bid, their fans didn’t mind coming back. The school’s allotment of 17,500 tickets disappeared in like seven seconds. When you consider the number that came down for the Alabama game and the small allotment that sold for the Georgia Tech game, bowl president Gary Stokan estimates 53,000 fans traveled to Atlanta this season.
“People thought we were crazy for inviting them back,” Stokan said.
Actually, it’s stunning how popular this game has become. This was the 13th straight sellout. Next year’s Chick-fil-A Bowl somehow is already only 3,000 tickets short of a sellout, and the teams haven’t even been announced yet.
Think about it. If Stokan was really evil, he could pit Vanderbilt against Duke next year just for chuckles. Of course, then he’d probably be out of a job. Or a sponsor.
This bowl has come a long way since its days as the Peach Bowl in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. One miserable reminder: The 1985 game between Army and Illinois was played in rain and mud and conditions so dreadful that even Dick Bestwick, then the Peach Bowl’s executive director, said: “The bowl can’t exist status quo. If things go as they have, I would question its reason for existence.” And he was the guy who was selling the thing.
Its current incarnation might be the greatest remainder of what the college bowl season used to be about: Good teams. Intriguing match-ups. Happy and content fans who viewed college football’s post-season as a reward, not an aggravating and illogical exercise in futility (read: BCS).
Virginia Tech? Sure, they’d come back. Georgia fans watched what they’re missing: Bud Foster’s defense. The Hokies held the Vols to five yards rushing, 240 total yards and shut them out in the second half. They also sacked Jonathan Crompton six times.
Tech jumped to a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter on two touchdown runs set by freshman Ryan Williams (one set up by an interception). Tennessee scored the next two touchdowns to tie it. The first on a four-yard touchdown run by Montario Hardesty, which capped an 80-yard drive. The second was a two-yard pass from Crompton to Denarius Moore.
Noteworthy about the second touchdown is it was set up by an interception by Janzen Jackson, a member of Tennessee’s Convenience Store Holdup Trio. Two other players were kicked off the team. Jackson was reinstated, I think because Kiffin determined he believed they were just going to an after-hours library.
Back to the game: The turning point came immediately following the Vols’ second touchdown. Virginia Tech began a possession with 18 seconds left in the half. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor completed a 63-yard pass to split end Jarrett Boykin to the Vols’ 4-yard-line. The clock ticked down to zero. All of the Tennessee players left the field. But officials put two seconds back on the clock after checking replays, and the Vols were forced to come back out and watch Virginia Tech kick a gimme field goal, making it 17-14.
That was it. Virginia Tech scored 20 consecutive points in the second half. Suddenly, Atlanta wasn’t such a bad place.