Virginia Tech began Saturday a national championship contender and leading the ACC's Coastal Division.
The fourth-ranked Hokies departed Georgia Tech near midnight eliminated from the national chase and staring up at divisional leader … Virginia.
Doesn't get much grimmer for the maroon-and-orange crowd.
But as disappointing and once-in-a-decade rare as the 28-23 defeat is, there's little sense in red-lining the collective blood pressure.
Virginia Tech lost a wildly entertaining and intriguing game to a quality opponent on the road. No shame there.
"I think you give Georgia Tech credit," Hokies coach Frank Beamer said. "They played great."
Indeed, the 19th-ranked Yellow Jackets dominated the final two-plus quarters and twice led by double figures. Most impressive, they ran through the Hokies (5-2, 3-1 ACC) like no team in 13 years.
It was 1996 when Donovan McNabb and Syracuse rushed for 338 yards against Virginia Tech. That was the only time a Bud Foster-coordinated defense had yielded 300-plus on the ground.
Bud's bunch was uncharacteristically porous in this season's first three games, allowing 601 rushing yards and more than 5 yards a carry to Alabama, Marshall and Nebraska. But the Hokies returned to form against Miami, Duke and Boston College, which combined for 142 yards running, less than 2 per attempt.
So stingy has Virginia Tech been against the rush that from late 2003 to early 2007, the Hokies limited opponents to fewer than 200 yards in 42 consecutive games.
The overriding issue Saturday was whether Virginia Tech could continue that trend against Georgia Tech's triple option, which routinely rushes for more than 300 yards in a game — 401 last week against Florida State.
The answer was yes — for a half. The Jackets (6-1, 4-1 ACC) ran for 37 yards in the first half, 272 in the second, for a 309 total.
"They ran the ball straight down our throats," Virginia Tech tailback Ryan Williams said.
Actually, it was far more nuanced.
Superbly coached by Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech adjusted its blocking schemes and did most of its second-half damage on the perimeter. Quarterback Josh Nesbitt, running back Jonathan Dwyer, wingbacks Anthony Allen and Marcus Wright and receiver Stephen Hill all broke runs of more than 12 yards.
That ball control translated to a 22:28-to-7:32 time-of-possession advantage for the Jackets in the second half. Plus, they converted six of eight third downs.
"I think they knew a couple of our assignments and formations," said linebacker Barquell Rivers, who was credited with a game-high 16 tackles.
Beamer called attempting to slow the option a "guessing game," and far too often the Hokies' defenders and defensive coaches guessed wrong.
When quarterback Tyrod Taylor, outstanding in defeat, scrambled 22 yards for a touchdown to slash the margin to 21-16 with 4:52 remaining, the defense had its final chance.
"I don't know if you can grab him and tag him in a phone booth," Johnson said of Taylor, who passed for 159 yards and rushed for 63.
But Johnson's quarterback was just as maddeningly elusive, and after the Hokies used their final timeout with 3:08 left, Nesbitt provided the dagger with a 39-yard scoring run around left end on third-and-7.
For all its defensive struggles, Virginia Tech also should examine glaring short-yardage failures.
First, Williams was stuffed for a 1-yard loss on third-and-2 from the Yellow Jackets' 16, forcing the Hokies to settle for a second-quarter Matt Waldron field goal.
Then, on Virginia Tech's opening drive of the third quarter, Williams (100 yards rushing and two touchdowns despite flu-like symptoms) gained zip on third-and-2 from Georgia Tech's 18. Out of character, Beamer went for it, and Williams got only a yard on a toss sweep to the right.
"They're flying to the football, and we've got to block it better," Beamer said. "I think that's what it comes down to."
What the season comes down to for the Hokies is they have nearly two weeks to prepare for their next game, Oct. 29 against visiting North Carolina. The Coastal Division is out of their control — juggernaut Virginia is the only ACC team without a league loss — but as last season showed, this conference rarely plays to form.
"You just never know," Beamer said.
We do know Virginia Tech is not national-title caliber.
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime.