Virginia’s knockout punch was telling.
Quarterback Matt Johns handed off to running back Albert Reid on a sweep around left end on a first-and-10 play from the Tech 24 at the start of the fourth quarter. End KeShun Freeman almost foiled the play by driving back tight end Evan Butts into the apparent path of the play. However, Reid hit the brakes and cut to his right, darting up field after seeing a gigantic crease.
Left guard Sean Karl had driven defensive tackle Francis Kallon back and to Kallon’s right, while center Jackson Matteo had turned defensive tackle Patrick Gamble aside to gamble’s left, leaving a wide channel for Reid to shoot. Reid put a move on safety Demond Smith at the 20 and scored untouched.
With the extra point, the Cavaliers led 27-14, a lead that Saturday proved insurmountable in the final 13:15. For the Yellow Jackets, they were among the most demoralizing yards gained by the Cavaliers, who finished with 233 rushing yards on 42 carries. Without defensive tackles Adam Gotsis and Jabari Hunt, two of their top three tackles, the Jackets were a spent and gutted lot.
Coach Paul Johnson called the loss of Gotsis, who injured his right knee on the game’s first play from scrimmage, “a killer.” It was the second game that Gotsis was sidelined early, the first being the loss to North Carolina in which he was disqualified for targeting in the second quarter. It’s no coincidence that arguably the Jackets’ two worst run defense games were against the Tar Heels and Cavaliers.
Gotsis’ absence was hardly the only reason Tech lost both games, but undoubtedly the Jackets’ chances took a severe hit in both instances. Also without Hunt, whom Johnson said was suspended for two games for violating team rules, defensive coordinator Ted Roof played Gamble for a significant majority of the snaps, pairing him with either Kallon or Kyle Cerge-Henderson. Both had their moments, but were behind the Gotsis-Gamble-Hunt rotation for a reason. On the field for 36:43, Virginia enjoyed its second consecutive game with 200-plus rushing yards.
“We missed some tackles,” safety Jamal Golden said. “They made us tackle in space. We’ve just got to do a better job. It’s not like we don’t practice that.”
With or without Gotsis, Tech has now given up 200 yards rushing in five games this season, more than any Tech defense has given up in a season going back at least through the 2000 season. The Cavaliers’ numbers were not puffed up by a couple big plays, either. Virginia had eight run plays of 10 yards or more, often banging the Jackets with speed sweeps. It particularly peeved Johnson, as he said the defense had worked on the play throughout the week of preparation.
“Guys couldn’t get off a block,” he said.
Nothing doing in run game
Tech’s run defense issues coincide with similar challenges on offense. The Jackets were held to 144 rushing yards on 33 carries. In part because the Jackets fell behind two possessions in the fourth quarter but also due to Virginia’s forcing Tech’s hand by controlling Tech’s running game, the Jackets logged their fewest rushing attempts in Johnson’s tenure while throwing the most passes (31).
Quarterback Justin Thomas made faulty reads on option plays, blocking was inconsistent and lost fumbles short-circuited two of Tech’s 12 possessions. Lineup changes played a hand, also. Right guard Shamire Devine was out with an undisclosed injury. Errin Joe played in his place, and in the third quarter Bryan Chamberlain left the game with an undisclosed injury and was replaced by Trey Klock.
The Cavaliers made sure to put hits on Thomas and used techniques, Virginia coach Mike London said, to cause confusion on his reads.
A-back Clinton Lynch had a 49-yard touchdown run on a flawless triple-option play, but besides that, Tech didn’t have a single run of 10 yards or longer.
Limiting UVA’s red-zone opportunities
The Tech defense did at least keep Virginia out of the end zone after the Cavaliers twice had reached the Jackets’ 1-yard line. Virginia had a first-and-goal from the Tech 7 in the first quarter after gaining possession on the Jackets’ 19 after a fumble by B-back Marcus Marshall on their opening possession. Virginia was denied on second and third downs from the 1 with stops by Patrick Gamble on second down and Kyle Cerge-Henderson and Brant Mitchell on second down.
In the third quarter, cornerback D.J. White saved a touchdown with a tackle of wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus at the 1-yard line after a 34-yard run. A holding penalty on first-and-goal from the 1 wiped out a touchdown and put the ball back on the 11. Chris Milton had two pass breakups on second and third down, which left Virginia to try a field goal.
Virginia scored a touchdown on its other red-zone trip, in the first quarter, when it completed a 75-yard drive with a four-yard touchdown run by running back Daniel Hamm.
Tech now has to run the table to make a bowl game, against Virginia Tech, Miami and Georgia. I think the Jackets are eminently capable of winning all three and losing all three, depending on how cleanly they can play. The Hokies and Hurricanes showed Saturday (beating Boston College 26-10 and Duke 30-27 on a wild, eight-lateral kickoff return on the final play of the game, respectively) that they’re not lying down the rest of the way, despite thoughts to the contrary.
The task becomes significantly if Gotsis remains sidelined, obviously.
Tech’s streak of 20 consecutive seasons without a losing conference record bit the dust Saturday, by the way, as the Jackets suffered their fifth ACC loss. It had been the longest active streak in FBS.
It just doesn’t make sense that the pass blocking is as ineffective as it’s been.
“Our pass protection was awful,” Johnson said. “It’s the same basic gap protection. We’re trying to run two-man routes. It’s ridiculous.”
Lynch hat trick
Lynch’s trio of touchdowns should not go ignored, particularly his second touchdown catch, with 1:41 left in the game. His first two scores were the result of play calling and execution, a cleanly-executed triple option (left tackle Bryan Chamberlain did a nice job sealing the inside and A-back Isiah Willis got the play-side safety on the ground) and then a misdirection pass play (similar to the one that A-back Charles Perkins scored on against Pittsburgh) that Thomas did a nice job of spinning away from pressure to find Lynch dragging, wide open, for a 30-yard touchdown.
But the last one was a 22-yard catch in the corner of the end zone, just getting his feet in, on a play in which he was defended so aggressively that pass interference was called safety Wilfred Washee. (Thomas also delivered a strike a moment before getting drilled by defensive lineman Konia Moore.)
Lynch said he wanted to bounce back from not catching a pass earlier in the fourth quarter in the end zone, a play that Johnson contended Lynch was interfered with by Virginia linebacker Micah Kiser.
“Really, just going up and grabbing the ball and making a play,” he said.
Lynch, like Qua Searcy prior to his injury and Mikel Lands-Davis, has shown promise as a playmaker both in the run and pass game. The blocking still has to come, but it could be a dynamic group in seasons to come.
Lynch is the third Tech player this season to score a receiving and rushing touchdown, following Searcy (Tulane) and B-back Patrick Skov (Notre Dame).
Saturday was not quite a fitting tribute to the game played at Scott Stadium 25 years ago Tuesday, when Tech and Virginia played the epic contest that ended with a 41-38 Tech victory that sent the Jackets to a share of the national championship. Tech coaching great Bobby Ross, who lives in Richmond, Va., with wife Alice, attended Saturday’s game as a guest of Tech trainer Jay Shoop. Ross tries to attend every Tech game at Virginia and Virginia Tech.
(While he was waiting, a Virginia staffer came up to exchange greetings. Ross occasionally attends Virginia games even when not playing Tech and is friends with coach Mike London. Virginia defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta was once on Ross’ staff at Maryland, also. As they finished up, the staffer told Ross that if he ever wanted tickets, to please let him know. Ross declined, saying he didn’t want to be a bother, even though the staff member insisted. I think it said a bit about Ross’ personality. I imagine it’s fairly easy for someone who has experienced Ross’ success, and the spoils that often come with it, to develop a sense of entitlement, but that evidently isn’t the case with Ross. Coincidentally, I saw Bobby Cremins act in a similar way when I talked with him at the ACC tournament a couple years ago. Interesting.)
As he waited for Shoop and team dentist Aaron King to emerge from the locker room, he recalled telling Virginia coach George Welsh after the game that it was a shame that someone had to lose, of which the same could probably not be said of Saturday’s contest.
Ross pointed out the spot on the north sideline at about the 30-yard line where he tried to put kicker Scott Sisson’s mind at ease before his game-winning field goal.
“(Late offensive line coach Pat Watson) came up to me and he said, ‘Coach, why don’t you go up there and tell Scott a joke,’” Ross said. “I said, ‘I don’t know any (darn) jokes. He said, ‘Why don’t you do that?’ So I went up there and I just said to Scott, ‘You O.K.?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I told Pat I told him a joke.”
Sisson, of course, drilled the winner from 37 yards with seven seconds to play.
Ross will be one of more than 100 former players, coaches and staff who will attend the Nov. 12 game against Virginia Tech when the 1990 team will be honored.