Jackets stumble under the lights, fall to UVA 16-9

Sophomore quarterback Jeff Sims prepares to take a snap during Tech’s Oct. 20 loss to Virginia. An injured Sims was replaced by redshirt sophomore Zach Gibson. // Photo by Alex Dubé Student Publications

For the first time in four years, Tech ran onto historic Grant Field at Bobby Dodd Stadium with back-to-back wins. Winning an overtime thriller over Duke on Homecoming and pulling a big road upset against previously ranked Pittsburgh, the Jackets were sitting in a great position to make a run at an ACC Coastal Division title. 

Coming off the bye week, Tech fans and students built a lot of anticipation for a Thursday night primetime game on ESPN versus Virginia, who sat at the bottom of the coastal division and winless in the ACC. Tech was favored by three points at kickoff and looked to go above .500 for the first time since 2018, spark a possible bowl berth and keep hope alive for a division title. 

Tech received the ball to start the game and went three and out, just moving it four yards before punting it to UVA. The defense picked up right where they left off last game as sophomore linebacker Trenilyas Tatum punched the ball out on just the Cavaliers third play from scrimmage, and sophomore defensive back LaMiles Brooks hopped on the loose ball to give Tech the ball at their own 36-yard line. After two running plays, sophomore quarterback Jeff Sims got the offense moving, linking up with senior wide receiver Malachi Carter for 23 yards to Virginia’s 33-yard line. Redshirt junior running back Dontae Smith then carried the ball down to the eight-yard line on six straight run plays; however, the redzone woes continued for Tech as Sims threw an interception in the end zone on third down, giving the ball back to the Cavaliers. 

The defense refused to be denied points off a turnover as Brooks made another big play. This time, he snagged an interception off a tipped pass and took it to the house for a 37-yard touchdown. The Jackets went up 6-0 after sophomore kicker Gavin Stewart’s extra point sailed no good to the left. 

The defense trotted back on the field after forcing two turnovers in just five plays, but Virginia showed some firepower, driving down the field for a touchdown to put the game at 7-6 in favor of the Cavaliers. The Jackets then took the ball up to their own 39 but sputtered and gave it back to the Cavaliers quickly. UVA proceeded to get a first down off a questionable roughing the passer call, but then slung the ball downfield where junior defensive back Zamari Walton was waiting, giving the Tech defense their third takeaway of the game in just over 15 minutes. An exchange of punts ensued until Virginia mounted a quick three-play touchdown drive, putting the Cavaliers up 13-6 midway through the second quarter as their kicker hooked the extra point to the right. 

The Jackets had to find some rhythm offensively at this point, but to the crowd’s surprise, redshirt sophomore backup quarterback Zach Gibson led the team onto the field. Gibson and the offense would cash in on one first down off senior running back Hassan Hall’s 14-yard catch and run, but the Jackets punted soon after. The defense forced UVA to a field goal attempt, which they missed, giving Tech the ball on their own 22-yard line with enough time to do something before heading to the locker room for halftime. 

Gibson led the offense out again and wasted no time, throwing a 25-yard dart to sophomore receiver Nate McCollum. 

With a series of runs split between Gibson and Hall, Tech moved into the red zone, but on third and one from the eight-yard line, Gibson threw the ball away and the Jackets had to settle for a field goal. Stewart knocked a 25-yard kick through the uprights to put it at 13-9 in favor of Virginia at halftime. 

Virginia started the second half with the ball and began a punt-fest that foreshadowed the rest of the game. On Tech’s second possession of the half, Gibson mishandled a handoff and coughed the ball up on his own nine-yard line. The defense came up big time as they backed Virginia up four yards and forced a field goal, keeping it a one possession game and putting the score at 16-9. 

The offense proceeded to look like they never even came out the tunnel as they failed to pick up a first down in their first six drives. The defense continued to stop the Cavaliers, giving Tech a chance to at least tie the game, but the offense took eight sacks in the game and had seven-straight incompletions over six second half drives. Even after Tech’s special teams blocked a punt with just under ten minutes in the fourth quarter to give the offense some momentum and the ball at Virginia’s 37-yard line, the offensive line broke down, leading to another sack that completely swung all momentum away from the Jackets and forced a punt. 

After the defense rose up again and gave the Jackets the ball with just under five minutes to go at their own seven-yard line, Gibson fell down trying to evade a rusher and Tech was forced to punt. However, a Virginia personal foul on the punt kept the ball with Tech, allowing Gibson to finally complete a pass to Carter for Tech’s first first down of the half. Behind a pair of Hall runs, the Jackets moved into Virginia territory where Gibson fell down trying to evade a rusher again, this time for a loss of nine yards on a third down and two. On fourth and 11, Gibson threw an arching pass to Carter that hit him in the numbers, but it ricocheted off him, falling to the ground incomplete. 

The Tech defense managed to come up with a big stop and get the offense the ball one more time with just 27 seconds to go. In desperation, the Jackets moved the ball to their own 36 for one last play where Gibson surveyed the field while moving to his left before just running out of bounds to conclude the contest with Tech falling short 16-9. 

The outcome of this game was a disappointment for Tech’s season, which was looking up. Not all is lost for the Jackets though, as a bowl berth is possible with five games still remaining on the schedule, but a coastal division title holds small odds. The biggest story of the game is Sims’ injury which took him out of the game, leading to Gibson taking over at quarterback for the night. 

The defense deserves major credit as they forced four turnovers and held UVA to just three points in a second half where the Jackets offense was rarely able to hold the ball for more than three plays. 

As Brent Key looks to recover from his first loss as an interim head coach, the Jackets will travel to Tallahassee to face off against Florida State at noon on Oct. 29.