By HANK KURZ Jr., AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Kurt Benkert knew the game was in his hands, even as a steady rain kept falling and the clocked ticked down to inside three minutes to play.
On a day when the quarterback struggled at times with his accuracy, and his receivers struggled hanging onto the ball, everything came together, culminating in Benkert’s 27-yard touchdown pass with 1:22 remaining to give Virginia a 40-36 victory against Georgia Tech, and bowl eligibility for the first time since 2011.
“It was beautiful,” Benkert, who threw three touchdown passes, said of the 64-yard march in five plays. “It was a lot of fun to be a part of, just guys looking at you in the eyes and knowing that you’re ready to go and vice versa and just believing, truly believing, that we could do it and we could pull it off.”
The victory came after Georgia Tech had covered 90 yards in nine plays and went ahead on a 33-yard touchdown pass with 3:10 remaining, and it left Cavaliers coach Bronco Mendenhall without much voice left. He made certain, though, that he had enough to share his admiration for the way his team bounced back.
“I’m not sure there’s anything that feels better than this right now,” he said.
The Cavaliers (6-3, 3-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) came into the game having lost two in a row, both in lopsided fashion.
“They decided that they wanted to be different and play different than they had the last two weeks,” Mendenhall said.
On the final drive, after a short kickoff set the Cavaliers up at their 36, Benkert hit Olamide Zaccheaus for 19 yards on a first play. Benkert ran for five yards, then hit Jordan Ellis with a pass for five more. An 8-yard connection with Doni Dowling followed, and then the touchdown to Levrone, who was in one-on-one coverage.
“We’ve been on the opposite end of that way too many times since I’ve been here,” said Benkert, a transfer from East Carolina, “and just to have that opportunity, to come over the hump of six wins and to do it in that fashion, I don’t think you could have put together a better storybook ending for that game.”
Unless, of course, you were in the other locker room. Georgia Tech (4-4, 3-3) scored on the first two plays from scrimmage in the second half, opening a 28-13 lead and stunning those that braved the cold rain, but then allowed Benkert and the Cavaliers to begin mounting their comeback immediately.
“It was a killer; we let them drive down the field and score,” Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson said.
When Georgia Tech went ahead late, quarterback TaQuon Marshall twice kept the drive alive by running the ball on third down, the second time to get to Virginia’s 33. On the next play, he found Ricky Jeune on a slant route and the wide receiver took it untouched into the end zone. A two-point conversion run by Marshall made the score 36-33, preventing Virginia from winning with the field goal, but the Cavaliers didn’t need one as Benkert completed all four of his passes on the winning drive.
His touchdown pass to Levrone was his third of the day and the second for the tandem. Levrone also caught a 34-yarder, and Doni Dowling caught a 28-yarder.
After halftime, Marshall ran 78 yards on their first play from scrimmage. Virginia started at its 25 after the ensuing kickoff, and Benkert’s pass for Zaccheaus instead found middle linebacker Bruce Jordan-Willing, who returned it 27 yards for a touchdown. Only 35 seconds had come off the clock and it was 28-13.
After Virginia went ahead in the closing minutes, the Yellow Jackets drove to the Cavaliers’ 37, but on fourth down, Marshall was flushed from the pocket, scrambled toward his own sideline and threw a pass toward no one in particular that landed out of bounds, setting off a celebration at Scott Stadium.
Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets continue to thrive on big plays. Through three quarters, they had 290 yards of offense, but 161 of them came on three plays — passes of 49 and 34 yards by Marshall and the quarterback’s 78-run to open the second half. They finished with 399 yards to Virginia’s 357.
Virginia: The Cavaliers made a nice recovery after two consecutive lopsided losses. Coach Bronco Mendenhall said he addressed bowl eligibility for the first time this week, then told his team the only way they were going to make it happen was by getting back to doing things the way they did earlier in winning five of their first six.
The Yellow Jackets return home to face Virginia Tech in a game that could be key in the Coastal Division race.
Virginia goes back on the road to face Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and Louisville.