Paul Johnson brought a new offense and new enthusiasm to Georgia Tech this season, but the new head coach couldn't change one very bad habit that the Yellow Jackets have in crossroad games.
The long-running step forward/step back cycle of self-destruction continued Saturday when the Yellow Jackets let sole possession of first place in the Coastal Division slip to the team that a month ago emphatically ended Duke's 25-game losing streak in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Virginia came into Bobby Dodd Stadium as a 14-point underdog and walked out with its fourth consecutive victory against a favored opponent, rallying from an early 11-point deficit to beat Georgia Tech, 24-17. What's more, the Cavaliers (5-3, 3-1) seized the lead in the divisional race for the ACC title game in Tampa, Fla., while the Jackets (6-2, 3-2) fell into the crowded cluster of two-loss teams.
When the Yellow Jackets were informed that divisional powerhouse Virginia Tech had not only lost to Florida State but also lost both of its top quarterbacks to injuries, the somber mood deflated even more.
"It looks like Virginia is now in the driver's seat," Johnson said. "We could've really put ourselves in a good position."
That is a refrain Georgia Tech has been singing long before Johnson took over from Chan Gailey, who took over from George O'Leary. Time after time -- regime after regime -- when the Jackets seem poised to take a leap forward, they stumble all over themselves.
They knew it coming in after climbing into the national rankings at No. 21 and into the hunt for a conference title. This homecoming game was for control of their own destiny.
"Coach Johnson told us that if we came out and won, everything else would take care of itself," defensive end Michael Johnson said.
After two possessions and a 14-3 lead, it looked like everything was taken care of nicely. Georgia Tech's power toss sweeps had the Cavs tripping all over themselves.
From there, however, it was the Jackets who inflicted the most damage on themselves (although a strong case could be made that the officials didn't help with a lenient interpretation of holding infractions). They didn't score a touchdown after the first quarter.
"I really can't believe it," quarterback Josh Nesbitt said.
The Jackets failed to get sufficient pressure on Virginia's inexperienced quarterback, Marc Verica. They failed to contain bruising running back Cedric Peerman. They failed to get the visitors off the field in third-down situations (11 of 18 converted). They fumbled the ball away twice in the third quarter, once inside the Cavaliers 10. They failed to convert a Virginia fumble into a touchdown. They failed to come back after the go-ahead score when Nesbitt forced a pass into tight coverage and was intercepted.
It was a pretty complete meltdown on both sides of the ball.
"I'm really disappointed," Johnson said. "We made enough mistakes in just about every area to lose the game twice over."
Every Georgia Tech player that filed through the interview room had a hang-dog look and spoke in tones so hushed it was hard to hear them feeling sorry for themselves.
"Everybody was a little down and upset," Morgan Burnett said of the post-game mood. "When you lose, it hurts period."
It's a whole new cast of characters, but losses like this one have been a little too commonplace no matter who has been at the helm. In 2005 with a chance to challenge for the division title, a 24th-ranked Jackets team lost to an unranked and pretty bad Virginia team in Charlottesville. In 2003 coming off a three-game winning streak that lifted the mood, the Jackets went to Duke and got pummeled. In 2001 in George O'Leary's final season, the Jackets were again ranked and on the road at Virginia only to lose on a hook-and- lateral play in the closing seconds.
Even in 2006 when Georgia Tech reached the conference title game in Jacksonville, they laid an egg against Wake Forest and threw away an Orange Bowl bid.
These things obviously happen all over the place in college football (see Clemson), but it's a pattern Georgia Tech needs to break if it wants to step up to the next level and be mentioned in the same context as in-state rival Georgia.
A divisional title that was within their grasp is now up in the air with conference foes Florida State, North Carolina and Miami on deck. The margin for error has been reduced and the possibility of complicated tiebreaker permutations is likely.
The chance to step forward again comes Saturday when the improving Seminoles come to town. Johnson has drawn an ultimatum for his team.
"Coach Johnson told us that good teams don't lose two games in a row," Michael Johnson said. "I think we're a good team."
Good teams also shouldn't lose to teams they're better than. Georgia Tech knows it failed that test Saturday.
"That's one we let get away," said Paul Johnson.
His predecessors couldn't have said it better.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.