It was a cooler October afternoon last year. Late October in Atlanta is never cold like it is in the Midwest. And at the same time, Thursday nights in the Midwest are never like it was that night. Virginia Tech, the #22 team in the country was in town to play the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, and I had tickets.
I hadn’t been to a Southern football game for five years. No, not since that September right after college when I saw Auburn play an undermanned Appalachian State team and give the Tiger fans hope that their new head coach, some guy named Tuberville, might actually work out.
I have to state that this was Southern football game, because there is nothing else like it. Whether it is the ACC or the SEC, football in the South is, like the Masters, a tradition unlike any other. The Big XII likes to think they rival the passion, but the truth is that Texas and Oklahoma will always be ruled by high school football. The Big East has changed too many times, with too many rivals coming and going to even come close. It is pretty hard to get your school excited to play Temple, even if they are no longer in the league. I went to school in Big East country, and the biggest college football game was the Army-Navy game, period.
The Big Ten is where I grew up and where I live now, but no, I didn’t go to a Big Ten school. Truthfully, other than a few games a year, the schools in the Big Ten were always outshined by a little Catholic school in Northern Indiana. Now, I have been to Big Ten football games. Northwestern (OK, it barely counts, but they are in the Big Ten), Penn State, Michigan State – none of which had a sliver of the passion that even that 1-AA opponent brought out in the Auburn fans that Saturday night. Maybe at the big games in the Big Ten, there is that fever, but not every game. So it was with great excitement that, when given the opportunity to see the game, I jumped at the chance.
Georgia Tech sits in one of the many downtown areas of Atlanta, Georgia. It is an urban campus, very much like the one where I went to school. The only difference here is that they play football and have an amazing tradition behind it. You see, there was this guy named John Heisman. You may have heard of him. He was head coach of the university for 16 years and led them on a 32 game winning streak. Now they give a trophy named after him, but it really isn’t a big deal to win it.
We rolled into campus a good two hours before game time. This was only partially for tailgating. It was mostly because it would take the better part of a half hour to find a parking spot. After being repeatedly threatened and almost run over by several large pick-up trucks, a spot was secured and the chips and beers were opened. Tailgating at these games is a spectacle in itself. While most college tailgates have bar-be-ques, tailgating at a Southern football game is like bringing your full kitchen with you. I saw deep fried turkeys, hams, roasted pigs, submarine sandwiches as long as a real submarine. And of course, all the trimmings. Considering that the entire spread was wiped clean by the time we began to walk to the stadium, that was some impressive eating.
This was the ESPN Thursday night football game. A nationally televised event featuring the first meeting of these teams since Virginia Tech joined the ACC and only the second meeting ever. The fog was beginning to settle into the campus area as the group I was with wandered from the parking space to the stadium, named after another old coach, Bobby Dodd. We picked up others along the way to the stadium until it was just a mass of people that reached the gates. Sitting in the corner of the end zone, on the home side of the field, the Rambling Wreck and the band were already entertaining the crowd.
The Virginia Tech team on the field last season didn’t feature a guy named Vick. Marcus, he was suspended, but people kept talking about how great it would be when he came back. Instead, another quarterback, very much like him, was at the helm. Bryan Randall was the man they pinned their hopes on. Randall didn’t disappoint. One of the most explosive quarterbacks in the league, Randall threw for over 2200 yards and ran for over 500 more. He was responsible for 24 touchdowns on a team that won the ACC title their first year in the league. Of course, at the end of October, we didn’t know any of that was going to happen.
I was there to root for Reggie Ball and Georgia Tech. Ball was the one that everyone in Atlanta was talking about. He was the young sophomore, the one that could bring Georgia Tech back to the top. But he was young, and he still made mistakes, and those mistakes were going to make the difference in the kind of season that the Yellow Jackets would end up with. Ball would go on that season to finish with 2100 yards through the air and another 300 on the ground. Those were pretty good numbers but it was his mistakes that kept bringing him down. 18 interceptions were not going to make many fans of Mr. Ball, especially when it was two more than the number of touchdowns that he threw. He did manage to back Georgia Tech into the Champ Sports Bowl where they demolished Syracuse. But we didn’t know any of that was going to happen in October.
No, that night was about a new rivalry and an intense spotlight which would take its toll on both sides of the ball. Reggie Ball started the game with a typical young quarterback mistake, being forced to take two timeouts early in the first quarter. The Georgia Tech defense stayed tough, despite pressure from Bryan Randall and his arm. They forced a fumble midway through the first quarter, but the junior running back P.J. Daniels gave the ball right back with one of his own.
Randall tried to capitalize on the miscue. He spread the field with his receivers, hitting several players for short gains. A scramble came up one yard short forcing a decision for a long field goal or a one yard fourth down attempt. Frank Beamer went for it and Mike Imoh couldn’t convert. Again, the Georgia Tech defense had come up strong.
With the momentum provided, Ball led his team up the field again. They went right back to P.J. Daniels, allowing him to regain his confidence. It was working well until another fumble gave the ball back to Virginia Tech. All was not lost on this one though. James Butler intercepted a pass from Randall on first down to keep the Yellow Jackets moving in Hokie territory. And then Reggie Ball went to work, hitting a long pass to Nate Curry before another toss for the touchdown.
On the kickoff following, the return man dropped the ball and Georgia Tech recovered. Suddenly, this crowd, whose emotions had been on a roller coaster since kickoff could see the tide turning. Georgia Tech was competing with a team that they weren’t supposed to. Two plays later, Daniels rushed into the end zone after a 13 yard gain to put Georgia Tech up by two touchdowns. Not only was Georgia Tech competing, they were winning. They were sitting in on what could be one of the bigger upsets of the year so far.
Randall wasn’t going to have any of that. Imoh returned the kickoff the next time, replacing the fumbler. And then Randall went to work with Imoh. They took turns running the ball down the field until Randall struck with the goliath pass of 34 yards to David Clowney. The crowd was silent. All the momentum was gone. The small group of Hokie fans who had made the trek to Atlanta were seeing their team do what they knew they could do, run all over the Georgia Tech defense and then kill them with speed.
Georgia Tech managed to get three more before the half but something about the break did them in. Reggie Ball forgot how to lead the team. Pass after pass went incomplete. Long gains were wiped out by penalties. The pressure of leading on a televised Thursday night game was starting to get to the young quarterback. Late in the third quarter, the Hokies were able to down a punt inside the Georgia Tech 5 yard line.
It only took one play for that to do in the Yellow Jackets. Ball was sacked in the end zone for a safety, and the tide had officially turned. Georgia Tech’s defense was still doing what it could to keep Virginia Tech out of the end zone again. They were holding Randall in check, but the field position was starting to move in favor of the Hokies. They had almost turned the tide back to their side later in the quarter by stopping Virginia Tech repeatedly on the one yard line, forcing a field goal and keeping the lead for the home team. But, they had been on the field a long time. Ball’s drives were not lasting more than three and outs. Something was going to break.
And it did in a big way. After a matching field goal by Georgia Tech, Randall threw it long and hit Eddie Royal for an 80 yard touchdown on the first play after the kickoff. Beamer went for the two point conversion and the tie. A short pass from Randall, and it was done.
At that time, the clock showed a little over five minutes remaining. Ball still had time to perform a miracle if he could somehow get the ball to his teammates. Instead, he and Georgia Tech had to settle for a punt.
With the momentum clearly in his favor, Randall was energized. On a second down pass play, his receivers were covered. This time though, the defense left him alone and he broke through the middle of the line gaining 30 yards with his feet. On the next play, he hit Josh Morgan streaking down the left hand side of the field for a 51 yard touchdown and the lead.
The crowd was stunned. Fans from Georgia Tech began to stream towards the exits. With only three minutes left, they were certain that their team was done. The Hokie fans had begun to celebrate and the television cameras were capturing it all. Even Michael Vick, quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, who was standing on the Hokie sideline was celebrating.
Reggie Ball wouldn’t give up though. After a first failed possession where he threw an interception which seemed to kill all hope, his defense got the ball back for him. This was his chance. A little more than two minutes left and he had the ball with only 60 yards to the end zone. If he could recapture the magic of the first half, his team could celebrate the win.
It wasn’t to be. After a first down which got them into Hokie territory, Ball lofted a pass which was picked off by Roland Minor who took the ball all the way down the field for another Virginia Tech touchdown. The Yellow Jackets got the ball back again, but down by two scores there was little hope. The game had been lost.
Much of what happened in that game was a precursor to what would be the theme for the rest of the Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech seasons. Virginia Tech would not lose the rest of the season until the Sugar Bowl against Auburn. Georgia Tech’s season would have its ups and downs until their bowl game against Syracuse, never managing to win the big game against the ranked opponent.
As for me, I walked back to the car and drove back to my hotel through the Atlanta fog with another night of Southern football under my belt, another great game under the lights.
Ben Miraski writes about college football and basketball on his website MRISports.comPowered by Sidelines