Coach Tony Elliott had yet to beat a Power Five opponent entering Thursday night’s game at Georgia Tech. In an ugly game in Atlanta, Ga., the Cavaliers (3-4, 1-3 ACC) bested the Yellow Jackets (3-4, 2-2 ACC) 16-9 for their first conference win.
The teams combined to commit six turnovers, 17 penalties, miss four kicks, go 8-35 on third down and punt 16 times. Senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong and junior punter Daniel Sparks led the way for Virginia, with Armstrong accounting for 346 total yards and Sparks consistently pinning Georgia Tech deep in its own territory. Meanwhile, star Yellow Jacket sophomore quarterback Jeff Sims was hurt in the second quarter and did not return.
After an opening-drive Georgia Tech punt, senior running back Perris Jones fumbled the ball and Georgia Tech pounced to take back possession near midfield. The Yellow Jackets quickly got to work, moving inside the 10-yard line. However, on third-and-goal, a Sims pass was tipped by junior cornerback Fentrell Cypress in the endzone, and senior safety Coen King intercepted it for a touchback.
Virginia did not hold onto the ball long. On its second play, Armstrong targeted senior receiver Keytaon Thompson, but the ball was tipped and returned 37 yards for a score by Georgia Tech sophomore defensive back LaMiles Brooks. Sophomore kicker Gavin Stewart missed the ensuing extra point, but the Yellow Jackets still led 6-0.
Virginia started its next drive strong, as Armstrong found junior wideout Lavel Davis Jr. for a 31-yard gain on a shallow crossing route before leaning on Thompson for the rest of the possession. Armstrong capped off the nine-play, 75-yard drive with a quarterback draw into the endzone, and the extra point sailed through the uprights to give the Cavaliers a 7-6 lead with 2:01 left in the opening quarter.
After exchanging several punts, with another Armstrong interception mixed in, Virginia broke through with a quick three-play touchdown drive midway through the second quarter. After a short Jones run, Armstrong found Thompson along the sideline for 22 yards. Then, he found junior wideout Dontayvion Wicks in space, where Wicks juked his way to a 44-yard score. Freshman kicker Will Bettridge missed the following extra point, but Virginia still led by seven with a game score of 13-6.
For Armstrong, the touchdown marked the 57th passing score of his career — surpassing Matt Schaub as the all-time leader in Cavalier history. The moment was certainly one to be celebrated despite the struggles the quarterback has experienced this season.
A missed Bettridge field goal a possession later gave Georgia Tech the ball with just over a minute to play. The offense — now led by sophomore backup quarterback Zach Gibson — quickly moved the ball into the red zone before settling for a short field goal. The Yellow Jackets converted, and the Cavaliers went into halftime up 13-9.
The second half was dictated mainly by punts, turnovers and penalties. Virginia managed the only three points of the half to reach a score of 16-9 on a field goal from Bettridge, who also missed his second attempt of the night. The main battle was between Sparks and Yellow Jacket sophomore punter David Shanahan. For every time Sparks would pin Georgia Tech inside its own 10-yard line, Shanahan answered with a solid punt of his own.
After a long battle of punts, turnovers and fourth down failures, Armstrong took the ball over inside the Virginia 10-yard line looking to create a long scoring drive to put the game away with under eight minutes to play. After a loss on a handoff to Brown, Armstrong took off on a bootleg and scampered across midfield. He had another rush after that, but a pair of incompletions brought out Sparks once again.
On the ensuing drive, a personal foul penalty on fourth down by the Cavaliers gifted the Yellow Jackets a new set of downs with under four minutes to play. The Yellow Jackets moved the ball into Virginia territory, but a sack by senior linebacker Nick Jackson on third down created a fourth-and-11. Cypress broke up the pass to give Virginia back the ball, with the Cavaliers needing only a first down for the win.
The first down did not materialize, but Elliott ran down the clock under a minute and let Sparks punt, giving the Yellow Jackets 36 seconds and no timeouts to score a touchdown and tie the game. They managed three plays, the last of which saw Gibson chased out of bounds on a Hail Mary attempt as the clock hit zeros, giving Virginia a 16-9 win.
The win was huge for the overperforming Virginia defense, which allowed no offensive touchdowns and just 206 total yards, its fewest allowed to an FBS opponent since 2013. The offense, while able to move the ball well, continued its trend of having penalties, turnovers and missed kicks take points off the board.
While the win was by no means perfect, it is a step in the right direction for a Cavalier team that had dropped three straight contests to open conference play. Elliott and his team now have a result that they can build on going forward.
"We came out of the gate, and we were moving, and then we fumbled the ball. And then we take a shot down the field and [the ball went] right off the fingertips, and I'm really proud of the guys offensively for the way that they responded throughout the course of the game to the adversity," Elliott said. "It's all about how you respond."
Virginia’s next game will see the team return to Scott Stadium for a home date with Miami at 12:30 p.m. Saturday. The game will be broadcast on ACC Regional Sports Networks.