ATLANTA — After three days of wallowing in the worst that college football has to offer on display at the inappropriately nicknamed “Happy Valley,” it was refreshing to escape to historic Grant Field for a few hours remembering the collegiality that draws us to the sport.
Well, at least it was collegial until Georgia Tech linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu lost his mind and punched at Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas as he was being sacked on a rare third-and-long stop and irrevocably altered the momentum of the game.
That made it officially a slugfest in what has become an annual Tech-Tech ritual for the right to represent the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division in the title quest. The Hokies won the pole position with a 37-26 victory and the Jackets were eliminated from the race.
“We had some really good momentum and then we got the big penalty that I think really changed the game,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “It’s disappointing.”
For a few hours, however, spirited competition forced ESPN to turn away from the incessant attention paid to the wrenching fallout from a child molestation scandal at Penn State.
It seemed only fitting that a day after Nittany Lion legend Joe Paterno was unceremoniously ousted over the ugliness that occurred under his watch, the newest tenured coaching leader in Division I football had the Thursday prime-time spotlight at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Now in his 25th season, Frank Beamer has built the ACC’s most consistent program at Virginia Tech. His Hokies came into Thursday’s showdown with a 4-2 edge of the Jackets in the six years since the ACC split into two sides.
That this game once again held any significance is a story in itself. Despite gifted running back David Wilson and colossal QB Thomas, the Hokies have stumbled along to its 9-1 record including less-than-imposing wins over the likes of Duke and East Carolina.
Only two weeks ago, Georgia Tech was on the ropes after getting pushed around in consecutive losses to Coastal rivals Virginia and Miami with unbeaten Clemson seemingly poised to bury the Jackets.
Only Johnson, who built his own championship legend in the Division I-AA ranks, seemed to maintain faith that his team remained relevant.
“The sky is not falling,” Johnson said after the humbling loss to Virginia. “Just let us finish the season before you do our tombstone,” he reiterated after the rekindling win over Clemson.
And thus the stage was set for Thursday night. How would Johnson’s triple-option fare against one of the nation’s stingiest rush defenses? How would Wilson and Thomas stack up against former Virginia coach Al Groh’s defense?
The script followed all of the twists. The Hokies rank second in the ACC, allowing only 86.3 rushing yards per game. The Yellow Jackets rushed for 88 on an opening touchdown drive, employing five different rushers to methodically march up the field in 13 plays eating up 6:39.
But Beamer has been dealing misery to Groh’s defenses for years, and frustrated the Jackets this night with a host of third-and-long escapes. The Hokies scored three touchdowns before halftime. One came on a gutsy fourth-down sneak at the goal-line. Another came on a Wilson-dominated drive eating up 60 yards on five carries to set up a third-down Thomas TD pass. The third came on a one-play, 63-yard passing strike after the Jackets had cut it to 14-10 with only 1:00 left in the half.
Still it wasn’t yet time to pronounce the Jackets dead. A field goal to end the first half and two touchdown drives to start the third quarter put Georgia Tech back up 26-21.
All they needed was a stop, and the Jackets had it after sacking Logan on third-and-long deep in Hokie territory. Frustrated that the 6-foot-6 Thomas wouldn’t go down and the refs wouldn’t blow the play dead, Attaochu swatted at the head of the stacked up QB and drew an unsportsmanlike penalty.
“It was just an overdose of adrenaline,” said Attaochu in a refreshing case of accountability explaining that he got emotional trying to hack for the ball. “No excuse for it, though.”
Given new life with the automatic first down, Wilson (175 yards) powered Virginia Tech down the field and Thomas bulled through the defense for a 12-yard “sneak” and a 27-26 lead.
Just like that, the spark Georgia Tech had fought so hard to create was doused. The Hokies stuffed them on fourth-and-inches and converted it into another third-down touchdown pass and a 34-26 lead. The Jackets never threatened again.
With its ACC record and nation’s best 12th consecutive road victory, the Hokies extinguished Georgia Tech’s title hopes and are set up to extend the trend of the Tech-Tech winner claiming the Coastal crown.
“It’s a hard pill to swallow,” said Attaochu.
But for a few hours, two ACC rivals reintroduced the joy of the game after a few of the darkest days in college football history.