Football tops Georgia Tech in thriller, clinches bowl eligibility

Cavaliers break losing streak with deep passing game, big defensive stops

sp-JoeReed-CourtesyVirginiaAthletics

Sophomore wide receiver Joe Reed helped propel the Cavaliers to victory with both his contributions on offense and as kick returner on special teams.

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

After two tough losses on the brink of making a bowl game, the Virginia football team came into its matchup against Georgia Tech hungry to finally get over the six-win hump for the first time since 2011. It took big plays from all units and two wild comebacks, but the Cavaliers nabbed the elusive sixth win in a wet and wild game against Georgia Tech, 40-36.

For a program that had struggled to sustain leads and make big comebacks in recent years, the Cavaliers (6-3, 3-2 ACC) showed immense mental toughness when the Yellow Jackets (4-4, 3-3 ACC) began to gain momentum, responding with big plays almost every time.

“[I am] really, really, really happy for my team and really proud of them,” Virginia Coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “They fought hard, and they played hard today from the very beginning to the end. They supported each other, they played complementary football and they decided that they wanted to be different and play different than they had the last two weeks.”

Virginia set the tone for a wild affair from the beginning, when sophomore wide receiver Joe Reed took the opening kickoff 57 yards into Yellow Jacket territory, leading to an opening field goal. Both defenses stood firm for most of the quarter after the score, until Georgia Tech junior quarterback TaQuon Marshall connected on a 49-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Jalen Camp to put the offense at Virginia’s two-yard line. Marshall ran for a touchdown soon after to give Georgia Tech a 7-3 lead.

The Virginia offense went dormant for most of the second quarter because of numerous drops by receivers, their hands affected by a downpour. The slick conditions caused Virginia junior halfback Olamide Zaccheaus to lose a fumble deep in Cavalier territory, which Georgia Tech quickly cashed in for a score.

The first major turning point of the game came on the ensuing kickoff, when Reed shook tackles and dashed past the Yellow Jacket special teams for a 92-yard kickoff return touchdown.

Virginia senior halfback Daniel Hamm knew a big day was coming for Reed.

“We talk all the time like, ‘Joe, today’s the day,’ … when I saw him take off running, I just knew,” Hamm said. “I just started chasing, I was just like ‘this is about to be a touchdown.’”

Virginia brought momentum into the second half, down 14-13. The game took a major swing towards Georgia Tech right as the half began, when Marshall took the first play from scrimmage for a 78-yard rushing touchdown. On the next offensive play, Virginia senior quarterback Kurt Benkert misfired a short pass, and Georgia Tech freshman linebacker Bruce Jordan-Swilling picked him off, chugging into the end zone and putting the Yellow Jackets at a commanding 28-13 lead.

With the offense’s back against the wall, Benkert caught fire immediately on the following drive. The senior found a rhythm with short completions before lofting a 34-yard touchdown pass to Virginia senior wide receiver Andre Levrone. 

After a pivotal interception by Virginia senior free safety Quin Blanding on Georgia Tech’s next drive, Benkert once again dialed up a deep ball for a 28-yard touchdown to Virginia senior wide receiver Doni Dowling. A two-point conversion knotted the game at 28 in what seemed like the blink of an eye.

The tie led into what would be a wild fourth quarter that featured three lead changes. Virginia took the first lead with an early field goal and looked to have all the momentum needed to win with its defense clamping down. Marshall was intercepted again by Virginia redshirt freshman safety Brenton Nelson and mishandled a snap in the end zone on the next drive, resulting in a safety. 

With the Cavalier offense unable to ice the game, Marshall marched the Yellow Jackets 90 yards downfield on the next drive, firing a 33-yard touchdown pass to put Georgia Tech up 36-33 with just over three minutes left.

Benkert knew he had one drive to lead Virginia to victory in a game that had much at stake. He locked his offense in before their biggest moment of the season.

“[I told them] just look me in my eyes, know that I’m going to ride with you guys and you guys are going to ride with me,” Benkert said. “We’re going to make it happen.”

Benkert delivered on his promise on his most impressive drive of the game. After completing three big passes, he found Levrone in the end zone again on a 27-yard strike to give Virginia the lead in less than two minutes. A final defensive stand solidified Virginia’s most emotional win of the season, as well as the program’s first bowl berth in six years.

Mendenhall and his team were rightly elated after reaching the big milestone.

“I’m not sure there’s anything that feels better than this right now,” Mendenhall said. “I love every team that I coach, and these guys have tried really hard for a year and a half just to be noticed ... They have a special place in my heart, and they have earned that, and I’m lucky I can work with them.”

Less than two years into Mendenhall’s leadership, the Cavaliers achieved a major landmark towards rebuilding their program, giving many upperclassman players an achievement they have desired for years. With winning the ACC Coastal Division still in play, Virginia will shift its focus to a showdown at Louisville next weekend, looking to capitalize on high morale. 

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