ATLANTA — Georgia Tech had established itself as one of the favorites in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Just like that, it slipped away.
One week after cracking The Associated Press rankings for the first time this season, the Yellow Jackets dropped out Sunday on the heels of an upset loss to Virginia. Now it’s the resurgent Cavaliers who lead the Coastal Division, while Georgia Tech needs some help to reach the ACC championship game.
“We put ourselves in first place in our division, and we let it get away from us,” defensive end Derrick Morgan said. “It’s real frustrating.”
The Yellow Jackets (6-2, 3-2 ACC) had plenty of reason to be frustrated about Saturday’s 24-17 loss:
After scoring touchdowns on its first two possessions, building an 11-point lead, Georgia Tech was held out of the end zone the rest of the game.
Virginia could have left its punter at home. The Cavaliers converted 11 times on third down, also got the necessary yards on a fourth-down play and had to boot it away only once. Not surprisingly, they finished with an edge of more than 81/2 minutes in time of possession.
“We’ve still got to learn how to make the big stop when we need it,” defensive end Michael Johnson said. “They drove 70 yards on us to score the winning touchdown. That’s unacceptable.”
The Yellow Jackets came into the game tied for the ACC lead in sacks, but didn’t get to Marc Verica until the fourth quarter (they did force a fumble on the play to set up a game-tying field goal).
Virginia running back Cedric Peerman broke numerous tackles, rushed for 118 yards and scored the winning touchdown with 31/2 minutes to go.
Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt fumbled twice on Virginia’s side of the field in the second half, one of them a botched handoff at the Virginia 5 late in the third quarter. Nesbitt also threw an interception with just over a minute remaining, ending the Jackets’ last hope.
“We made enough mistakes in about every area to lose the game twice over,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said.
But it’s far too early for anyone to give up hope in the convoluted ACC, where everyone has at least one conference loss and all but three teams have two or more. On the Coastal side, Virginia Tech (5-3, 2-2) also lost Saturday, which left the Yellow Jackets alone in second place behind Virginia (5-3, 3-1).
“We’re not out of it,” Michael Johnson said. “We’ve just got to keep playing and hope things work out for us.”
The Yellow Jackets still have a favorable schedule. Two of their last three ACC games are at home, including next Saturday’s contest against No. 16 Florida State, and it’s very easy to see the division winner having at least two conference losses.
“A good team doesn’t lose two in a row,” Johnson said. “I think we’re a good team.”
Then again, Georgia Tech’s two losses came to Coastal rivals Virginia and Virginia Tech, so those teams would hold the tiebreaker edge in any head-to-head scenario with the Yellow Jackets.
“Right now, we’ve just got to worry about ourselves,” Nesbitt said. “Everything else will take care of itself.”