Sometimes the basket looks as big as a manhole and every shot drops. The offensive line operates like fingers of a giant's fist. The marathon runner's feet are feathers and every breath is as sweet as the last sigh before sleep. Athletes call it the zone.
Georgia Tech experienced the anti-zone for much of Saturday in Charlottesville (home of the anti-zone for them since 1990). An afternoon of stumbling frustration for a Yellow Jacket team that woke up late and knocked off early ended in a solid 27-17 win for the Virginia Cavaliers.
Most observers came into the game with vague expectations of this outcome. Tech (6-3, 4-3 ACC) was a five-point underdog to the Cavs (6-3, 3-3). Tech seems to reserve its worst performances for trips to Hooville.
But the Jackets' trip was more tantalizing this time, if not more painful, as they dug themselves out of a 17-0 hole to tie the game midway through the third quarter.
With 22 minutes to play, the Tech offense was pilling up yards and points, the defense was stuffing the run and chasing Virginia's splendid stump of a quarterback, Marques Hagans, around the lot. Perhaps the curse of Scott Sisson was ended. Perhaps the Jackets would win more than seven games this year, after three straight seven-win seasons.
Nope. Virginia got great field position after a bad kickoff and made a short drive for a field goal. Tech drove right back only to miss a 44-yard attempt. And the fight seemed to drain out of the Jackets the way the light emptied from sold-out Scott Stadium.
Both teams returned to first-quarter form. The Cavs squeezed out a touchdown on a long drive, then squeezed the air out of the football, making themselves bowl-eligible in the process. With games left against Miami and Virginia Tech, the Cavs likely saved themselves from a losing season.
Cavs head coach Al Groh said he told his team that they needed to put Tech away after the Travis Bell miss. "I told them, 'Here's the opportunity for you now, fellas. You've got to be like a shark smelling blood.' And they did. They took the ball and they finished it off."
Hagans was the biggest Virginia hero, all 5-10 and 209 pounds of him. Hiding behind a behemoth offensive line, Hagans hit 21 of 29 passes for 205 yards and the clinching touchdown, a 21-yard post to Deyon Williams.
Hagans also rushed for 41 yards (25 yards net after subtracting for three sacks), and avoided a safety by throwing the ball away while in the grasp of defensive tackle Joe Anoai.
"His scramble ability is outstanding," said Tech head coach Chan Gailey. "Those linemen are so big, and he's a little bitty guy. It's hard to find him. When he's right, he's a very good quarterback."
Tech's own little bitty quarterback, junior Reggie Ball, had a solid outing between the first and fourth quarters, completing 20 of 38 passes for 207 yards and a game-tying 24-yard strike to Damarius Bilbo. Ball threw a first-half interception, but avoided being sacked and rushed for 68 yards on eight carries, mostly on option keepers.
Forced to throw to catch up, the Jackets ran only 27 running plays, amassing 136 yards.
Statistically, Tech's offense kept pace with Virginia's powerful attack, but for the first time since its last trip to southwest Virginia, the Tech defense failed to rise to the occasion.
On Virginia's first two drives, the Jackets were unable to get the Cavs into a third-and-long situation. Both touchdowns were long off-tackle runs by tailback Wali Lundy. Tech's linemen ran twists to get penetration and just managed to get themselves blocked out of the play.
The defense eventually solved Lundy, who finished with 91 yards on 23 carries, but had trouble stopping backup Jason Snelling (nine carries for 49 yards) late in the game. And when they really needed to get to Hagans, on third and nine from the Tech 21 with nine minutes to play, he was able to sit back in a rocking chair and wait for Williams to break open.
"They made a lot of critical third downs," Gailey said. "We've been such a great third-down defense, but they ran the ball effectively and protected well. We couldn't get to the passer. They had a good game plan and executed better than we did tonight."
The Jackets get two more chances to improve their bowl prospects: next week at Miami and Nov. 26 in Atlanta against the Georgia Bulldogs.