ATLANTA — Virginia celebrated enough to cause the official to issue a sideline warning.
The Cavaliers were bubbling over with momentum at the 7:14 mark of the third quarter Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Donte Wilkins had just ruined Georgia Tech’s gamble of going for it on fourth down by stopping Matthew Jordan short of the sticks at the Yellow Jackets’ 29-yard line.
U.Va. led 10-7 but ended up losing 31-17.
How the meltdown unfolded further explains why the Cavaliers are 2-9 in this debut season for coach Bronco Mendenhall.
The Cavs had crucial miscues on offense, defense and special teams on the way to their sixth straight defeat.
“We had similar issues at critical times as the game went on,” Mendenhall said.
When Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson kept his offense on the field for fourth-and-1, Mendenhall saw it as a desperate move.
The game was far from over, but the Yellow Jackets were putting themselves in a tough position. Wilkins’ play dared the Cavaliers to take stranglehold of the afternoon.
“That’s where you have to capitalize,” said quarterback Matt Johns. “That’s what really good football teams do. We needed to get points there.”
Instead, their opportunity resulted in Sam Hayward missing his second field goal attempt of the day.
From there, the Yellow Jackets (7-4, 4-4 ACC) rattled off 17 straight points.
“Maybe it woke everybody up,” Johnson said.
Three plays after Hayward was wide left on his 42-yard attempt, Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas hit a wide-open Clinton Lynch for a 54-yard touchdown, the second of three Jackets scores of more than 50 yards.
Less than three minutes later, Thomas pitched to Qua Searcy for a 60-yard TD. The lead was extended to 24-10 when the Jackets got a Harrison Butker 41-yard field goal following a Johns interception.
“The momentum swing,” said U.Va. center Jackson Matteo, “it was huge. It felt like we were going to go right down and march and put it in the end zone (following the fourth down stop). And we didn’t, we gave it back to them.
“That kind of changed things a little bit. You could feel the momentum swing.
“These past few games, they’re really decided by just a few drives, a few plays. And I think that was definitely one of them.”
Virginia’s now lost three games this season when leading at halftime. Saturday, it was outscored by at least 10 points in the third quarter for the third time in five games.
“I’m not certain yet what the exact issues are,” said Mendenhall. “My easiest description is, as the game moves on this team and this culture really has to believe they’re capable and not be surprised by having a lead.
“There’s some pretty deep habits in there. My job is just to address that through consistency of, ‘Play within your assignment, within your technique and the minute you go outside of that, we’re at risk in terms of turnovers and big plays.’”
Johns, starting for the the first time in a year, was intercepted twice in the fourth quarter. After pulling the Cavs to 24-17 after a 1-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Santoro with 7:18 remaining, he was picked on their next possession. Georgia Tech cornerback Lance Austin returned the turnover 24 yards for a touchdown, cementing the final score.
U.Va. opponents now have four pick-6s this season.
Johns completed 27 of 44 passes for 220 yards, a score and three interceptions.
“I felt very well prepared coming into the game,” said Johns, a senior who was announced as Kurt Benkert’s replacement Monday. “The interceptions I threw, they were the right reads, it’s just two got away from me. And that really cost us.”
Virginia, which led 10-7 at halftime, outgained Georgia Tech, 409-321. It had 25 first downs to the Jackets’ eight. It held possession for 17 more minutes than Tech.
Smoke Mizzell rushed for a career-high 131 yards. Doni Dowling caught a career-high nine passes.
“Those numbers are pretty staggering,” Matteo said.
“Like Coach Mendenhall always says, the ball is everything. You can’t turn the ball over.”
Virginia travels to Virginia Tech next week for the season finale.
Virginia 0 10 0 7 — 17
Georgia Tech 0 7 14 10 — 31
UVA–Hamm 4 run (Hayward kick), 11:55
GT–M.Marshall 67 run (Butker kick), 10:20
UVA–FG Hayward 30, 4:09
GT–Lynch 54 pass from Thomas (Butker kick), 4:22
GT–Searcy 60 run (Butker kick), 1:33
GT–FG Butker 41, 13:49
UVA–Santoro 1 pass from Johns (Hayward kick), 7:18
GT–Lan.Austin 24 interception return (Butker kick), 4:18
First downs 25 8
Rushes-yards 42-189 31-199
Passing 220 122
Comp-Att-Int 27-46-3 5-10-0
Return Yards 84 27
Punts-Avg. 4-41.5 5-43.0
Fumbles-Lost 1-0 3-0
Penalties-Yards 4-30 4-50
Time of Possession 38:37 21:23
RUSHING–Virginia, Mizzell 24-131, Reid 12-63, Hamm 1-4, Johns 5-(minus 9). Georgia Tech, M.Marshall 16-127, Searcy 3-65, Lynch 1-11, Willis 1-5, Jordan 1-0, Thomas 9-(minus 9).
PASSING–Virginia, Dubois 0-1-0-0, Johns 27-44-3-220, (Team) 0-1-0-0. Georgia Tech, Thomas 5-10-0-122.
RECEIVING–Virginia, Dowling 9-68, Mizzell 6-45, Zaccheaus 4-18, K.Johnson 3-57, Levrone 2-20, Santoro 2-7, B.Marshall 1-5. Georgia Tech, Lynch 3-85, Willis 1-19, Jeune 1-18.
MISSED FIELD GOALS–Virginia, Hayward 31, Hayward 42.