ATLANTA — Paul Johnson is embarrassed. His players are lost.
A season that began with such high expectations has totally fallen apart at Georgia Tech.
After a fourth-quarter meltdown that included two fumbles and two costly penalties, the Yellow Jackets assured themselves of their first losing regular season since 1996 by falling to Virginia Tech 23-21 on Thursday night.
It likely ended their slim hopes of qualifying for an 18th straight bowl game, which is tied with rival Georgia for the second-longest active streak in the nation.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a season like this,” said Johnson, in his eighth year as Georgia Tech’s coach. “We’re just not very good right now.”
Freddie Burden summed it up best.
“I’m lost,” the junior center said. “I don’t know,” he added, shaking his head. “I don’t know.”
Virginia Tech rallied from an early 14-point deficit to give retiring coach Frank Beamer his 278th career victory.
As he walked off the field, a small Virginia Tech contingent saluted him with chants of “Beamer! Beamer! Beamer!”
“I can’t tell you how much this win means,” said Beamer, the winningest active coach in the NCAA’s top division.
The 68-year-old coach announced his retirement last week with the once-mighty Hokies (5-5, 3-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) mired in another mediocre season.
Now, if they can win one of their last two games, Beamer can at least go out with the nation’s longest active bowl streak still intact. Virginia Tech has made 22 straight bowl appearances.
“All our effort was toward Georgia Tech,” Beamer said. “You put your effort toward things that you can control. I thought we did.”
After the Yellow Jackets (3-7, 1-6) fumbled it away on two straight possessions in the fourth quarter, Virginia Tech grabbed its first lead on Travon McMillian’s second touchdown, a 4-yard run with 6:58 remaining. The drive was extended when Lawrence Austin picked up a blatant pass-interference penalty on third down inside the 10.
The biggest penalty came on Georgia Tech’s final possession, as they were driving into range for a potential game-winning field goal. After quarterback Justin Thomas was stopped for a short gain, safety Chuck Clark tried to rip the ball out. Offensive guard Errin Joe took exception, coming in to level the Hokies player.
That drew a 15-yard penalty, essentially ending the home team’s final hope.
Johnson wasn’t happy with the call, thinking both teams deserved a penalty.
Still, he couldn’t deny that his team, not the officials, deserved most of the blame.
“We’ve got to do a better job,” he said. “It’s embarrassing.”
The Yellow Jackets have dropped seven of their last eight games, quite a comedown from last year’s 11-win season that included a trip to the ACC championship game and a victory in the Orange Bowl.
The night started well for Georgia Tech, which jumped ahead while many fans were still stuck in Atlanta traffic.
On the second snap of the game, Thomas stunned the Hokies by connecting with Ricky Jeune on a 58-yard pass. Two plays later, Marcus Allen scored on a 4-yard run, putting the Yellow Jackets up 7-0 less than 2 minutes into the game.
It was 14-0 before the first quarter was done.
After recovering a fumble at the Virginia Tech 45, the Yellow Jackets finished off the short drive with another 4-yard touchdown run, this one by Clinton Lynch.
That was it for Georgia Tech offense, which managed just 128 yards over the final three quarters after putting up 130 in the opening period.
The Hokies’ comeback began with a 10-play, 80-yard drive in the second quarter, the lead sliced in half on McMillian’s first TD from 2 yards out. Then, getting the ball back with just under 4 minutes left in the half, Virginia Tech drove for a tying score. Michael Brewer hooked up with Isaiah Ford on a 17-yard touchdown pass with 35 seconds remaining.
McMillian rushed for 135 yards on 24 carries. Brewer completed 15 of 29 passes for 178 yards.
Virginia Tech started the second half on offense, but it was Georgia Tech that reclaimed the lead. On third down, Brewer threw a pass right to freshman linebacker Brant Mitchell, who returned the interception 32 yards for a go-ahead touchdown.
It didn’t last.
Georgia Tech made too many mistakes to hang on.