Despite jumping out to a 14-0 lead on Thursday evening, the Jackets were unable to complete the upset on the road in a critical Coastal Division matchup against No. 22 Virginia Tech. A slew of costly penalties and a season-ending injury to senior quarterback Joshua Nesbitt hurt the Jackets’ early momentum, and the Hokies scored 21 fourth-quarter points to secure a 28-21 victory in Blacksburg, Va.
The loss hurt the Jackets’ long-term prospects in multiple ways. It dropped the Jackets to 5-4 overall and 3-3 in conference play; with three ACC losses, they have virtually been eliminated from contention in the race for the Coastal Division title. The Jackets will also have to play the remainder of the regular season without its starting quarterback, who suffered a broken forearm late in the second quarter.
Before the injury, Nesbitt had guided the Jackets’ offense to two quick scores in the first quarter. GT rolled 58 yards on nine plays on its opening drive, with Nesbitt sneaking into the end zone from one yard out to give his squad a 7-0 lead. After the defense stopped VT’s offense just outside field goal range and forced a punt, the Jackets struck quickly. Thanks to several timely blocks on a third-and-1 midline option play, Nesbitt found room to run and went 71 yards for his second touchdown, putting the Jackets ahead 14-0.
Nesbitt also took over the ACC record for career rushing yards by a quarterback with the long touchdown run. The senior passed former Clemson quarterback Woody Dantzler, who had 2,761 rushing yards from 1998-2001.
The Hokies responded with a 77-yard touchdown drive that ended with running back Ryan Williams scoring from four yards out, and they cut the lead to 14-7 early in the second quarter. On their next possession, they were in the red zone and in range to tie the game, but VT quarterback Tyrod Taylor threw to the end zone on third-and-goal, and GT sophomore cornerback Rod Sweeting picked off the pass to end the scoring threat.
Late in the quarter, the Jackets were given new life after forcing a fumble on a VT punt return and recovering. They moved the ball to VT’s six-yard line, but the Hokies retook the momentum in a big way. On third-and-goal, Nesbitt threw to redshirt senior B-back Anthony Allen in the end zone, but VT cornerback Davon Morgan picked it off and began to run downfield. Nesbitt fell while lining up to stop him and attempted an arm tackle, and when Morgan ran through it, the collision broke Nesbitt’s arm.
The game ultimately went to halftime with the Jackets still ahead 14-7, but with GT having to rely on untested redshirt sophomore quarterback Tevin Washington, the Hokies appeared to have the advantage in the second half.
Here, though, the Jackets’ defense played a key role in keeping GT ahead. The Hokies had two drives that started and ended in the third quarter, and both times they failed to get any further downfield than the GT 47-yard line before being forced to punt.
Tech’s offense, however, was unable to extend the lead. Washington guided the Jackets past midfield on their first drive of the third quarter, but two penalties set up a third-and-19 situation; Washington threw an on-target pass to sophomore receiver Stephen Hill down the left sideline, but the ball was dropped, resulting in a fourth down. On GT’s next drive, the Jackets faced a fourth-and-2 from just past midfield and went for it, but reserve and redshirt freshman B-back Richard Watson was unable to reach the marker, so VT took over the ball on downs.
The Hokies followed the failed conversion by driving 55 yards on eight plays, capping the drive with a 15-yard touchdown run by running back David Wilson to tie the game at 14. After a false start penalty and a sack helped to force a quick GT punt, the Hokies went on an 11-play drive that ended with a go-ahead touchdown. Running back Darren Evans carried the ball on seven of the 11 plays, totaling 48 yards on those seven carries, and Taylor connected with tight end Andre Smith for a two-yard touchdown to give VT a 21-14 lead.
With 6:34 left in the game, the Jackets needed a score and got one. Washington opened the drive by connecting with junior receiver Tyler Melton for a 42-yard completion and later picked up 13 yards on a midline option keeper. Redshirt junior A-back Roddy Jones picked up five yards to convert a fourth-and-4 midway through the drive, and sophomore A-back Orwin Smith took a pitch nine yards for the game-tying touchdown with 2:34 left.
It was the Hokies’ special teams unit that responded. GT redshirt senior kicker Scott Blair sent off a short kickoff that VT’s Wilson received at the 10-yard line, and the quick Wilson evaded the Jackets’ coverage unit as he ran 90 yards for a touchdown to give the Hokies a 28-21 lead and put the pressure back on the Jackets.
On the final drive, the Jackets were victimized by two false start penalties, but both times Washington was able to rebound and render them meaningless. The first set up a third-and-17 situation, and Washington scrambled after escaping the pocket, picking up 17 yards to convert for the first down; the second led to a second-and-15, and the quarterback found redshirt senior receiver Kevin Cone deep downfield for a 38-yard gain.
With 14 seconds left, the Jackets faced a second-and-1 from the VT 16 with one timeout left, and they went for the game-tying score. Melton had burned VT cornerback Rashad Carmichael on a big reception earlier, and Washington looked his way again as he ran a corner route on the left side; this time, though, Carmichael stepped in front to make the interception in the end zone, sealing the victory for the Hokies.
The last-second interception capped what had otherwise been a strong relief performance for Washington, who picked up 45 yards on 11 carries and completed two of seven passes for 80 yards. Head Coach Paul Johnson announced that Washington, who earned the back-up job after a solid spring, will start in next Saturday’s home game against Miami.
Redshirt senior B-back Anthony Allen led the Jackets with 125 yards on 23 carries. GT also got a strong performance from the defense, which held the high-scoring Hokies offense to seven points through three quarters and had three players with double-digit tackles, led by sophomore inside linebacker Julian Burnett’s 13. The Jackets, however, were hurt by penalties throughout the game, including six false starts; one of them turned what would have been a fourth-and-1 into a fourth-and-6, forcing the Jackets to punt instead of attempting the short conversion.
Nesbitt had six carries for 86 yards and two touchdowns before getting hurt. While he has been ruled out for the remainder of the regular season, he offered a simple response when asked about the possibility of returning for a bowl game.
“Definitely,” Nesbitt said.