After sputtering to an 0-3 start last season, the Rambling Wreck arrived gratefully at an open date. To Ross, the losses were more galling than those of 1987 or '88, because he was now losing mostly with his players—not those inherited from Curry. Unable to explain their team's futility, the offensive coaches scouted the defense, and the defensive coaches were asked to appraise the Tech attack. Ross and his staff decided to rejigger the defense to get more of a pass rush. It worked. After collecting not a single sack through the first three games, the Yellow Jackets finished the season with 26. On offense, Jones, the redshirt freshman quarterback, settled down and made fewer ill-considered throws. Tech won seven of its last eight games, with its final loss coming against Duke on Oct. 28. The Yellow Jackets have not lost since.
That streak was in peril for more than 57 minutes on Saturday. Scoring on their first three possessions, the Cavaliers quickly led 13-0. Then the brawl turned into a kind of stud-poker hand between the two quarterbacking Shawns. I'll see your six and raise you six. With five minutes gone in the second quarter, Jones turned a broken third-and-six play into a 23-yard touchdown scramble. Score: 13-7. On Virginia's next possession, Moore hurled himself over the goal line on a one-yard sneak, then hit Herman for a two-point conversion to put the Wahoos up 21-7. On Tech's next series, Jones threw three straight completions, the third connecting with flanker Jerry Gilchrist for a glorious 43-yard bomb that pulled Tech to 21-14. Moore and Virginia came right back, the quarterback scoring on a six-yard draw. 28-14.
Jones ended the first half by throwing an interception to cornerback Tony Covington, but he was otherwise keeping right up with the Heisman candidate. Jones had quit football in the summer before his sophomore year at Thomasville (Ga.) High School. "I kind of got tired of it." he says. "Then I decided I didn't like sitting out." So he rejoined—which no doubt pleased his father, Andrew, Thomasville's defensive line coach—in time to start at quarterback in the school's opener. As a senior, Jones was courted by Arizona, Clemson, Georgia, Alabama and others, but he chose Georgia Tech after Ross promised him he would play quarterback. "I remember telling one of the Alabama coaches I wanted to play quarterback, and he got this sort of look" Jones recalls. "He told me that because I was such a great athlete I could end up playing anywhere. Everything he told me after that went in one ear and out the other."
After Jones's pass was picked off by Covington, the Virginia defenders left the field in a festive spirit, laughing and exchanging high fives. "They were a pretty cocky bunch," said Mooney. It didn't quite add up. "After the first quarter, they never really stopped us. We were getting a good push and picking up five yards pretty much whenever we wanted it."
Shawn Moore fumbled on the first play of the second half, and the Yellow Jackets quickly converted the goof into seven on a 12-yard flanker reverse by Gilchrist. Mooney was right. Virginia's defense was so pliable that, by comparison, Tech's was looking like the 1985 Chicago Bears. Tech tailback William Bell picked up 102 yards, 83 of them in the second half, mainly between the tackles. After the first quarter the Cavaliers forced one punt. The Tech offensive line punched hole after gaping hole in the Cavaliers' front five.
Tech evened the game at 28-28 with a marvelous juggling catch by Emmett Merchant in the third quarter, and it was tied again at 35-35. Then Sisson kicked his first field goal, a 32-yarder to give Tech a 38-35 edge. With 2:39 to go, it was fourth-and-goal on the Tech six for the Cavaliers, and Welsh sent in the field goal unit over the protests of some of his players. "I definitely wanted to go for it," said Herman Moore, who made the point that even if the offense had been stopped on the one-yard line, "we keep them down there deep and force them to kick it."
"I would never do it differently," said Welsh of the successful field goal attempt. "There were two and a half minutes left. We had three timeouts. Stop them once, make them throw it into the ground, get a holding penalty, everything's in our favor."
Everything but, as Jones observed later, the fact that "they hadn't stopped us all day." As the Yellow Jackets took over after the kickoff at their own 24, Jones exhorted his teammates in the huddle to "dig down deep." His first call was a gutsy one, "seven-seventy-two," with tailback Bell running a short post pattern. "They did a nice job disguising that coverage [a two-deep zone]," said Ross, "and I was praying Shawn would pick it up."
No sweat, Coach. Having spied free safety Keith McMeans cheating toward the receiver side of the field—a tip-off that the Wahoos were in a zone—Jones feathered a 23-yard strike to Bell, who leaped, he later estimated, "a few feet" in order to catch the ball with his body instead of just his hands. On the next play, Bell rushed inside—and recovered his own fumble—for a 13-yard gain. Two more completions put Tech on Virginia's 20. Moments later, after Sisson kicked his second field goal of the day, jubilant students back in Atlanta stormed empty Grant Field and tore down its goal posts.
In the Tech dressing room senior defensive tackle Jerimiah McClary interrupted Ross's postgame speech to give one of his own. "Coach," said McClary, "this week the seniors decided to give the game ball to someone special to you, and special to us." As 87-year-old Leonard (Bus) Ross shuffled forward to accept his trophy, his son, the coach, stood in the background, hoping no one would notice the mist in his eyes.