CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - On a field that has offered repeated helpings of heartache, perhaps Georgia Tech was due some payback.
The final numbers on the Yellow Jackets’ Saturday afternoon at Scott Stadium — five turnovers, nine penalties, 376 passing yards allowed. The scoreboard, though, offered solace: a 35-25 win over Virginia.
A week after appearing virtually unstoppable against Syracuse, the Jackets at times looked entirely stoppable against the Cavaliers. However, they rose to the occasion just enough times to claim only their second win at Scott Stadium in their past 11 trips, a stretch of games where moments of truth have mostly been colored blue and orange.
Or, it could also be stated, Tech won for the second time in coach Paul Johnson’s three visits to Charlottesville.
“I think the thing that impressed me the most with our team is we kept fighting back,” B-back David Sims said. “We kept bouncing back. We put the defense in a bad position, and they kept answering the bell.”
After winning three in a row and then losing the next three, Tech won its second game in a row to improve to 5-3 overall and 4-2 in the ACC. The Jackets can secure their 17th consecutive bowl appearance with a win Saturday at home against Pittsburgh.
The five turnovers were a high for a Johnson-coached team at Tech. Thought to have perhaps turned a corner after a one-turnover, zero-penalty game against Syracuse, the Jackets reverted to some of their vices — lack of focus and poor ball security. Tech turned the ball over four times in the first half alone and started the second half with an interception for five turnovers in its first eight possessions.
In the three-game losing streak, Tech gave the ball away eight times.
“I don’t know if maybe (after) that first drive they thought it was going to be easy or we lost concentration, but shortly thereafter, we started laying that thing on the ground like a hot potato,” Johnson said. “It’s one thing when they’re knocking ’em out, it’s another thing when you’re just dropping (the ball).”
Depending on your perspective, Virginia either squandered those bonus possessions with questionable play-calling or was bested by Tech’s defense.
Off those turnovers, the Cavaliers lost the ball on downs, went three-and-out two times in a row, couldn’t get the ball in the end zone from the 1-yard line on the final play of the first half and punted.
“When the offense turns over the ball like that, we just look at it as another opportunity to go out there and try to shut ’em out,” said defensive back Jemea Thomas, who made a career-high 15 tackles, 12 of them solo.
Following the fifth turnover, at which point the Jackets somehow led 14-10, the Tech offense finally found its stride. B-back Zach Laskey led a five-play, 62-yard touchdown drive for a 21-10 lead with 4:54 left in the third quarter. Laskey lowered his head for all 62 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown run behind a decisive block by right tackle Chase Roberts.
Virginia answered with a 12-play, 88-yard possession that was extended by a roughing-the-kicker penalty on a punt, finishing it with a 5-yard touchdown pass from quarterback David Watford to wide receiver Darius Jennings. The score brought back the Cavaliers to 21-17.
Tech returned fire, this time as A-back Robert Godhigh took an option pitch from quarterback Vad Lee and followed his blocks 65 yards into the end zone.
Said Godhigh, owner of one of the lost fumbles, “It was a big relief, trying to get a big play to swing the momentum and get the offense going in the right direction.”
Two Virginia possessions later, with the Tech defense wearing down, the Cavaliers closed to 28-25 on a 69-yard drive that consisted of 11 pass plays and included one sack.
Only 3:23 remained, and the Virginia comeback may have appeared hauntingly familiar to Tech fans who have come to expect the worst in Charlottesville.
However, Godhigh and Lee provided again, this time on a gutsy play-action pass that went 38 yards and flipped the field. Sims finished off Virginia for good with a 29-yard touchdown run through the left side for the final 35-25 score.
In their three-game losing streak, Tech gave away the games with mistakes and missed opportunities. On Saturday, against an admittedly weaker opponent, the Jackets created their path to a win.
“It was kind of a crazy game,” Johnson said. “All the turnovers and penalties, and I have to give the kids credit: They found a way to win.”