CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- When a chunk of the AstroTurf field at Scott Stadium was burned early yesterday morning, it was thought to be no more than a prank by vandals. But as things turned out later in the day, it might have been an omen for the University of Virginia's top-ranked football team.
Trailing by two touchdowns at halftime, and by one late in the third quarter, No. 16 Georgia Tech stormed back behind sophomore quarterback Shawn Jones to upset the previously unbeaten Cavaliers, 41-38, before a record crowd of 49,700 and a national television audience.
Virginia had tied the game at 38-38 on a 23-yard field goal by Jake McInerney with 2 minutes, 34 seconds remaining after Cavaliers coach George Welsh chose to go for the tie on fourth-and-goal from the 6-yard line. The Yellow Jackets then drove 56 yards in six plays to the Virginia 20, where Scott Sisson made a 37-yard field goal with seven seconds to go.
"I was trying not to think about it," said Sisson, a sophomore who earlier had made a 32-yarder to put Georgia Tech ahead, 38-35, with 7:17 to play. "I knew they were going to call a couple of timeouts and try to freeze me a little. I didn't feel too good going in there, but I felt pretty good coming out."
So did Georgia Tech, which had come into the game as a two-touchdown underdog and came out with an Atlantic Coast Conference championship virtually assured. With only one league game remaining against last-place Wake Forest, the Yellow Jackets (7-0-1, 5-0-1) are almost certain to represent the ACC in the Florida Citrus Bowl.
Virginia's defeat, along with Nebraska's loss to Colorado, threw the national-championship picture out of focus, but the Cavaliers (7-1, 4-1) likely are out of the running. "You've got to lose one once in a while," said Welsh. "I think we fouled it up. It's a tough loss for us."
The Cavaliers self-destructed on their next-to-last possession. After Herman Moore caught a 48-yard pass deep in Georgia Tech territory, and a personal foul brought the ball to the Yellow Jackets' 5-yard line, Virginia got the ball three times to the 1. Tailback Nikki Fisher was stopped twice, and two illegal-procedure penalties killed the drive.
The second procedure penalty came when the Cavaliers lined up with only 10 men on the field, six on the offensive line. The penalty negated what would have been a 1-yard touchdown pass from Shawn Moore to tight end Aaron Mundy. After another pass from Moore to Herman Moore was batted away, Welsh chose to go for the field goal.
"I still don't think you try for the touchdown on fourth down and six yards," said Welsh. "My God, what are the chances of that? Ninety-nine percent of the coaches would tell you the same thing."
Georgia Tech coach Bobby Ross agreed with Welsh. "I wasn't surprised by that," said Ross. "They had three timeouts left. I think they did the right thing. I would have done the same thing."
But the two most prominent Virginia players -- the Moores -- second-guessed their coach just a bit. Both said they would have gone for the touchdown.
"I definitely wanted to go for it," said Shawn Moore, who nearly had scored a few plays before for what would have been his fourth touchdown run of the game. "But it was definitely a matter of time. We knew there was still a lot of time to score."
Said Herman Moore: "Personally, I wanted to go for it. You give it back to their offense, and they had moved the ball pretty well the whole game. But I'm not the coach."
The defeat also ruined outstanding performances by the Moores. Shawn Moore, a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy, completed 18 of 28 passes for 344 yards and one touchdown. Herman Moore caught nine passes for a career-high 234 yards, including a 63-yard touchdown.
But after helping the Cavaliers to a 28-14 halftime lead, two turnovers by Shawn Moore enabled Georgia Tech to climb back into the game. His fumble on Virginia's first offensive play of the second half led to a 12-yard touchdown run by flanker Jerry Gilchrist on a reverse. An interception by linebacker Calvin Tiggle -- the pass bounced through Fisher's hands -- led to a 26-yard touchdown pass from Shawn Jones to Emmett Merchant.
"We made too many mistakes on offense," said Welsh, whose offense had played virtually mistake-free for most of the season. "A fumble, an interception. Then we fouled up on the goal line. I don't think we played very well at all on defense in the second half. We never really did stop them."
Said defensive end Chris Slade: "The offense did its job. The defense was horrible."
It could not contain Jones. The sophomore quarterback, who reminds a lot of people around the ACC of a young Shawn Moore, completed 17 of 29 passes for a career-high 257 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 52 yards and one touchdown on six carries.
"He came up very big for us in a big game," Ross said of Jones.