Tech football improved to 4-0 at home and avenged last year’s early-season loss to Virginia Tech by defeating the No. 4 Hokies 28-23 in Saturday’s homecoming game at Bobby Dodd Stadium. It was the Jackets’ first win at home over an opponent ranked in the top five of the national AP poll since they defeated then-No. 1 Alabama in 1962.
The game was expected to be a shootout; instead, neither team scored in the first quarter—marking the first time that had happened for both in 2009—and the Jackets reached halftime ahead 7-3.
Both offenses picked up after halftime, and junior quarterback Josh Nesbitt led the way for the Jackets. He gained 122 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries. Nesbitt completed just one pass, but it was a 51-yard strike to junior receiver Demaryius Thomas that set up a touchdown.
The defense’s strong first-half performance was a surprise. An improved pass rush was key for the Jackets as they made three stops in the first quarter and held the Hokies in check early on.
“I thought we had a good plan and simplified it. We didn’t do a lot. The guys played hard and flew to the ball…Everybody knew what they were doing and showed up,” said Head Coach Paul Johnson.
The Hokies’ first three drives resulted in a punt, a three-and-out and an interception, the last of which came when Jackets redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Jason Peters tipped a pass at the line and made a diving catch.
On the other hand, the offense was ineffective early. The Jackets were victimized by a missed pitch and a delay-of-game penalty on their first offensive possession, and they committed three consecutive penalties on their second drive.
Virginia Tech finally got on the board with a 34-yard field goal in the second quarter. On the second play of the Jackets’ ensuing drive, Nesbitt hit Thomas for Tech’s lone completion, a 51-yard strike to reach the Hokies’ 13-yard line.
“It wasn’t supposed to go to him…[but] I saw the 1-on-1, and [I] knew he would come down with it,” Nesbitt said.
Five plays later, Nesbitt scored on a quarterback sneak to give the Jackets a 7-3 lead, and the score remained that way at the half.
The Jackets only amassed 88 total yards of offense in the first half, but made adjustments at halftime and were much more effective in the second half.
“They played the second half the same way they played the first. We got the reads right and everyone went in the right direction,” Johnson said.
“They did some things we hadn’t seen before…[but] Coach Johnson put us in position to make some blocks, and it worked,” said redshirt junior center Sean Bedford, who was named ACC Lineman of the Week.
On the Jackets’ opening drive of the second half, big runs from redshirt junior A-back Anthony Allen and Nesbitt set up Nesbitt’s second touchdown, a 1-yard keeper that put the Jackets up 14-3.
The defense stopped the Hokies on a fourth-and-short situation, but the Jackets were unable to capitalize. Virginia Tech intercepted a deep pass to sophomore receiver Tyler Melton, and Hokie running back Ryan Williams ran 66 yards untouched on the next play to cut the lead to 14-10.
On the kickoff, freshman A-back Orwin Smith accidentally knocked over sophomore A-back Embry Peeples as both lined up to catch the kickoff, forcing Tech to start from their own 14.
It was one of many special teams problems for the Jackets. They struggled on kick coverage as well, allowing 30 yards per return.
“It’s a mess…It almost cost us the game,” Johnson said.
Still, the Jackets sustained their longest drive of the day, a 12-play, 86-yard march that took 6:28 off the clock and ended with sophomore A-back Marcus Wright’s 13-yard touchdown run.
“We had our backs against the wall… and [Nesbitt] engineered an 86-yard drive to take the momentum back,” Johnson said.
After the defense forced a three-and-out, the Jackets sustained another 12-play drive, but a Nesbitt pitch went off-target and ended up in the Hokies’ possession. The Hokies capitalized, going 77 yards on six plays to score. The failed conversion attempt left the Jackets remained ahead 21-16.
The Jackets extended the lead on their next drive. On a third-and-7 from the Virginia Tech 39, Nesbitt broke free on a keeper and ran down the left sideline to score his third touchdown of the day and gave the Jackets a 28-16 lead.
Virginia Tech answered quickly, with Taylor following the short kickoff by going 4-for-4 passing and throwing a touchdown to Williams to cut the lead to 28-23. The Hokies attempted an onside kick, but Jackets redshirt sophomore cornerback Jerrard Tarrant made a leaping catch.
The Hokies had used all three of their timeouts on the Jackets’ previous drive, so Nesbitt kneeled three times to seal the victory.
With the win, the Jackets rose to No. 11 in the AP poll and were No. 12 in the initial BCS standings. The team also moved into a three-way tie for second place in the ACC Coastal Division with Miami and Virginia Tech.
“We know we already have a loss, and I don’t think you can win [the Coastal Division] with two…What we did tonight was stay alive and put everyone else back in it,” Johnson said.