ATLANTA - This was a game that could have put Georgia Tech over the hump, like so many others in the Chan Gailey era.
Going for their third straight victory, the Yellow Jackets built a 14-point lead on No. 22 Virginia Tech in the first half. They were still in good shape with less than six minutes remaining, up 20-12 after Travis Bell's field goal.
Then, it all fell apart.
Bryan Randall threw an 80-yard touchdown pass, soon to be followed by a 51-yarder. And when Roland Minor returned an interception 64 yards for another score, the collapse was complete.
"We had it in the palm of our hands," quarterback Reggie Ball said after Thursday night's debacle. "We just didn't finish it."
In a sense, this game was a microcosm of Gailey's entire coaching tenure. He's coming to the end of his third season with a record of 18-15. The program went 35-14 in the final four years under George O'Leary, Gailey's predecessor.
Most troubling, the Yellow Jackets have failed to maintain any sort of momentum. They have followed some of their best wins with crushing defeats. They have failed to close out games with victory in reach.
"We had a big opportunity to win this game at home on a Thursday night," Gailey said, "and we didn't take advantage of that opportunity."
That's becoming a theme.
In Gailey's first season, the Yellow Jackets stood 6-3 after stunning 10th-ranked North Carolina State 24-17 on the road. The next week, Florida State made a game-saving interception in the end zone, and Georgia Tech closed the season with a 44-point loss at Georgia and a dismal performance against suspension-depleted Fresno State in the bowl game.
Last season, the fans at Bobby Dodd Stadium stormed the field after an upset of Auburn. A week later, the Yellow Jackets had a 13-0 lead in the fourth quarter at Florida State, only to give up two late touchdowns.
Later, Georgia Tech put together a four-game winning streak, its longest run of success under Gailey. But any thoughts of a breakthrough were snuffed out with a humiliating 41-17 loss at Duke, the Blue Devils' first Atlantic Coast Conference victory in four years.
Now, more of the same.
Against Virginia Tech, 54½ minutes of inspired play was wiped out by gruesome breakdowns in the final 5½ minutes.
On Randall's 80-yard touchdown pass, the Georgia Jackets dropped back in a cover-two defense, but safety Duwan Landry was lured to the middle by the tight end. Eddie Royal didn't have anyone within 20 yards of him when the ball arrived, and he had enough room to sprint all the way across the field on his way to the end zone.
The Yellow Jackets went three-and-out, and Randall quickly drove his team to another touchdown. The 51-yarder to Josh Morgan was set up by Georgia Tech's decision to blitz the cornerback. Morgan ran right by safety James Butler, catching the ball in stride and galloping the rest of the way without getting touched.
"We did have some mental errors," linebacker Chris Reis said. "People weren't in the right position."
Georgia Tech (4-3, 3-3 ACC) is still in contention for its eighth straight bowl appearance, but it's no guarantee. There's a trip to North Carolina State (4-3) next week, home games against Connecticut (5-2) and No. 13 Virginia (6-1), and the traditional season finale at 10th-ranked Georgia (6-1).
"This was a big loss for us," Reis said. "But we're already looking ahead.... We're going to learn from our mistakes and get ready to face them."
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