ATLANTA - Halftime only lasts 20 minutes, but Virginia coach Al Groh has found a way to transform his Cavaliers during the break.
Virginia has turned the second half into its personal playground this season, rallying for four consecutive victories after trailing or being tied at the half. The Cavaliers have outscored opponents 177-76 in the second half, including a 37-point blitz against North Carolina to erase a 21-0 halftime hole.
Quite the opposite has happened in the Georgia Tech locker room during the past two games. The Yellow Jackets, after effective first halves, have watched Wake Forest and Maryland dominate from the third quarter on.
Nobody has an answer for why heading into today's game, when the Cavaliers (6-2, 4-1 ACC) travel to the Yellow Jackets (4-3, 1-3) and Bobby Dodd Stadium for this afternoon's game (WJBF-Ch. 6, 3:30).
"The first half is a lot of the things that can cause you to lose, we allowed to happen," Groh said. "In the second half, very few of those things occurred. Our execution and our performance went up significantly."
Virginia has been outscored 149-77 in the first half.
"They haven't changed a lot. They haven't come out with new plays or new defenses," Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey said. "It's better execution."
The Cavaliers have also benefitted from big plays after the half. Last week, Marquis Weeks returned the second-half kickoff 100 yards to ignite the comeback. In come-from-behind victories against Wake Forest and Duke, the Cavaliers got game-saving defensive plays.
"We're not trying to save it for the second half; it's just the way it's working," Groh said. "This team has shown the ability to (come back). They refuse to let the game get away from them."
That's exactly what's happened to the Yellow Jackets in the last two games. Wake Forest owned the ball for 20:20 of the second half, rallying from a 14-10 halftime deficit for a 24-21 victory. Maryland dominated Georgia Tech after halftime, turning a 6-3 lead into a 34-10 rout behind 183 second-half rushing yards by Chris Downs.
"As the game goes on, we lose a little focus and start getting down a little bit," linebacker Ather Brown said. "We've got to try to maintain our focus."
Georgia Tech has won the first half 103-56 but lost the second half 75-72 in its seven games this season. Gailey, in his first season as head coach, doesn't have an explanation for the letdown - especially defensively, where a veteran unit has been exposed in the second half.
"That it's happened in the second half of game has surprised me more than anything," Gailey said. "After we've already been through a half of seeing it and experiencing it and knowing what's happening, and then them moving the ball on us."
Gailey and his assistant coaches use the first part of the halftime period to discuss possible adjustments. While the coaches are huddling, the players rest and refuel.
The final half of the break is used to go over those adjustments with the players. Players typically return to the field with three minutes left before the start of the third quarter to loosen up.
"If you're getting beat 31-0, then you probably should change quite a bit. If it's a tight ballgame and you're playing tough, then you don't change a whole lot," said Gailey, who addresses the team for about 30 seconds in the locker room.
During Georgia Tech's two-game losing streak, they've played well in the first half, prompting the coaching staff to make few adjustments at halftime.
"We have a part of our defensive package for the game, but we know the whole defense, so if (defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta) wants to throw something in, it's pretty easy," senior safety Jeremy Muyres said. "We've made a few adjustments, but for the most part we stuck with what we had in the gameplan."
For two weeks now, that hasn't been enough. With Virginia's penchant for coming back - and this series' wild history, including last season when the Cavs' rallied for a 39-38 victory - both locker rooms will be plenty active.
"You tend to gravitate toward what you think of yourself," Gailey said. "If you think, 'Oh, we're a second-half team,' and you don't work at it, then you won't be a second-half team. If somebody tells you you're not and you go out and fight, then suddenly you become one."
Reach Brian Murphy at (706) 744-4208