BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Criticize the ACC all you like for its lack of football success, but never doubt the league's ability to provide primetime drama with serious stakes. Sure, other leagues have moved conference games to opening weekend. How many would move a game that always decides a division title?
Since the ACC split into divisions in 2005, the winner of Georgia Tech-Virginia Tech has represented the Coastal Division in the conference title game every season. There is little reason to believe some other team will rise up this year. So the Hokies had to believe the division title hung in the balance Monday night as they took the field at their own 25-yard line, trailing by three with 44 seconds remaining. Quarterback Logan Thomas had endured a bittersweet night -- two beautiful touchdown passes surrounded by overthrows, underthrows and plain bad throws. "The offensive line played great. The receivers played great. The running backs played great," Thomas said. "I was the one holding them back."
Then, with no other choice, Thomas moved them forward. He zipped a slant to Corey Fuller, who turned it into a 22-yard gain to the Viriginia Tech 47. Three downs later, on a fourth-and-four play snapped with 13 seconds on the clock, Thomas fired another slant to Fuller, who took it 23 yards to the Georgia Tech 24. Then Hokies kicker Cody Journell, who missed the Sugar Bowl for being an accomplice to one of the dumbest crimes in student-athlete history and who missed from 38 yards earlier in the quarter, drilled a 41-yarder as time expired to force overtime. After a Tevin Washington interception ended Georgia Tech's chances, Journell hit a 17-yarder to give the Hokies a 20-17 win and a virtual hammerlock on the Coastal Division.
"I think you've got an advantage," Hokies coach Frank Beamer said of the catbird seat his team now occupies. "There's no doubt about that. A big advantage. But there's a lot of football left to play."
While that football is played, the Hokies will control their destiny and the Yellow Jackets will watch scoreboards knowing they need at least two Virginia Tech losses in ACC play to revive their hopes. So much turned in those final 44 seconds. Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson knew exactly what his team had lost. That's why he trudged into his pregame interview, slumped in his chair and stared straight ahead. "We thought we got the momentum late," Johnson said. "To their credit, they came and took it back."
Indeed, Georgia Tech had all the momentum when the clock struck :44. Washington, who averaged only 11.5 pass attempts a game in 2011 running Johnson's triple option, suddenly turned into Joe Montana at the end of the Yellow Jackets' final drive in regulation. Georgia Tech's offense wasn't even supposed to be on the field, but Johnson had an epiphany borne of frustration as the Yellow Jackets -- down 14-10 -- faced fourth-and-6 from the Virginia Tech 37 with 3:03 remaining in regulation. Johnson had planned to punt and try to pin the Hokies inside the 10. Given Virginia Tech's limited offensive success to that point, it seemed a sound plan. Then Johnson scrapped it. "The punt team, I didn't tell them soon enough, I guess," Johnson said. "They weren't getting out there fast enough to suit me. They were milling around. ... I said, 'Screw it. Get off the field. We'll go for it.'"
So Johnson called timeout, gathered his offense and called a play. Washington, who had completed seven of 11 pass attempts at that point, scrambled around and found B.J. Bostic for a 19-yard gain. Three plays later, Washington found a wide-open Deon Hill for a 10-yard touchdown.
That forced Thomas to move his team in a hurry. After marching Virginia Tech 56 yards in 12 plays on the Hokies' second possession, Thomas had struggled. He snapped his funk midway through the fourth quarter when he dropped a 42-yard touchdown pass into the hands of Demitri Knowles, a Bahamas-born track star who specializes in go routes. That gave Virginia Tech its first lead since the second quarter, but Washington made sure that lead didn't last. Thomas responded by bringing the Hokies back down the field and putting the game on the right foot of Journell.
It has been a long offseason for Journell. In May, he was found guilty of one misdemeanor count of trespassing for his involvement in a Dec. 22 home invasion during which a friend of Journell's posed as a pizza delivery man, then pulled an air gun from the pizza box when a Virginia Tech basketball player opened his door. Why were Journell and two friends there? According to arguments by the commonwealth's attorney in court, they
Journell might not have lined up for a game-winner in overtime had Washington simply taken a sack during Georgia Tech's turn with the ball. As the clock neared midnight, Washington turned back into an option quarterback. On third-and-6 from the Virginia Tech 10-yard line, Washington scrambled backward and toward the Georgia Tech sideline looking for an open receiver. As linebacker Bruce Taylor threw Washington to the ground, Washington heaved the ball. He hoped it would sail out of bounds, giving Georgia Tech a field goal try from the 10. But with Taylor tossing him, Washington couldn't put enough on the pass to send it over the sideline. The ball wobbled through the air and fell into the hands of Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller. "I was trying to throw the ball away," a despondent Washington said.
Instead, Washington threw away a chance at a victory. Given the annual stakes of this matchup, he might have thrown away even more.