ATLANTA — Virginia rallied for the latest win in its comeback of a season, and now the Cavaliers find themselves in a most improbable spot.
Cedric Peerman rushed for 118 bruising yards, including the winning touchdown with 31/2 minutes left, and Virginia won its fourth straight with a 24-17 upset of No. 21 Georgia Tech on Saturday.
Bouncing back from an early 14-3 deficit, the Cavaliers took over the top spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division — a scenario no one could have envisioned during a miserable September. Virginia lost three of its first four games by an average of 36 points.
"This is a team that never cracks," quarterback Marc Verica said. "It shows the kind of resolve this team has, coming back from being down two touchdowns on the road."
Georgia Tech (6-2, 3-2 ACC) was off to its best start since 1990 and looked unstoppable on its first two possessions, scoring a pair of touchdowns. But the Cavaliers (5-3, 3-1) figured out the spread option offense, keeping the Yellow Jackets out of the end zone the rest of the way.
"I’m really disappointed," said Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech’s first-year coach. "We made enough mistakes in about every area to lose the game twice over."
After Scott Blair kicked a 39-yard field goal to tie the game at 17, Virginia drove 70 yards in eight plays. Peerman got loose on a 31-yard run and finished it off with a 3-yard touchdown, lunging for the pylon with 3:29 remaining to end Georgia Tech’s four-game winning streak.
Virginia punted only once, outgained the Yellow Jackets 396-259 in total yards and finished with a big lead in time of possession (34:18 to 25:42), quite a feat against a run-focused offense. The Cavaliers converted 11-of-18 times on third down.
Could this possibly be the same group that lost to Southern Cal 52-7, Connecticut 45-10 and Duke 31-3?
"It took a little time for us to get going," Peerman said. "Our team has come together. We’re more unified. We’re playing better."
The senior running back certainly did his part, breaking numerous tackles and sending more than one defender flying when it’s usually the other way around.
"He’s a tough runner," Georgia Tech defensive end Michael Johnson said. "He’s got a lot of power and balance. His main attribute is his balance. We got some good licks on him, but he just kept staying on his feet."
After Peerman’s score, the Yellow Jackets had one more chance, and a questionable spot gave them a first down near midfield. But Vic Hall clinched the victory by picking off Josh Nesbitt’s pass at the Virginia 43 with 1:18 to go.
Verica completed 29 of 39 for 270 yards and two touchdowns, overcoming two first-half interceptions. He hit Kevin Ogletree for a 14-yard score early in the second quarter to slice into Georgia Tech’s lead, then connected with Maurice Covington on a 34-yard TD over the middle to put Virginia up less than 5 minutes into the third.
Johnson complained that a lineman grabbed him around the neck on Verica’s second TD, and the replay seemed to back him up. No flag was thrown.
"I feel that’s one you just have to call," Johnson said, "when it’s a crucial situation like that and the ref is standing right there."
Nesbitt dove in from the 1 for the Yellow Jackets’ first score, but the sophomore quarterback had two other crucial turnovers in the second half — a pair of fumbles on Virginia’s side of the field.
The most damaging came with Georgia Tech facing second-and-goal at the Cavaliers 5. Nesbitt tried to give a handoff to Jonathan Dwyer going up the middle, but the ball came loose as the QB tried to pull his hands away. Denzel Burrell pounced on it for Virginia at the 7.
"A bad connection," Nesbitt said. "I really can’t believe it, but they showed up to play and just outplayed us."
The Cavaliers went 53 yards in 11 plays on the game’s opening possession, settling for Yannick Reyering’s 25-yard field goal.
With wingback Roddy Jones breaking off runs of 13, 13 and 10 yards, Georgia Tech quickly seized the momentum on its first drive. Nesbitt tumbled into the end zone for his sixth touchdown of the season.
Virginia was driving again when Verica was intercepted by Morgan Burnett, the sophomore safety grabbing his sixth pick of the year. He came into the game tied for the nation’s lead in that category.
Georgia Tech needed only two plays to score again. Nesbitt went to Demaryius Thomas for a 42-yard pass, and Dwyer burrowed in for a 3-yard touchdown. But the Yellow Jackets, after accounting for 118 yards on its first two drives, managed only 141 the rest of the game.
In addition to clearing holes for Peerman, the Virginia offensive line held off a team that was tied for the ACC lead in sacks. Georgia Tech finally got to Verica when Johnson swiped the ball away and Derrick Morgan recovered the fumble, setting up Blair’s tying kick in the fourth quarter.
But that was the home team’s only sack.
"They did a good job," Johnson said. "They’re probably the best O-line we’ve faced so far."