ATLANTA -- New coach. New opponent. Same old Georgia Dome.
The University of Tennessee football team again fell short in Atlanta's big downtown bubble Thursday night, losing 37-14 to Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
UT (7-6) overcame a sloppy start and briefly tied the 12th-ranked Hokies (10-3) late in the second quarter, but a defensive gaffe moments later combined with several mistakes in the second half to doom the Volunteers.
Virginia Tech scored the final 23 points of the Atlantic Coast Conference's first Chick-fil-A win since 2004. In the final minutes, chants of "A-C-C!" flooded a dome that earlier was largely filled with a partisan UT crowd.
"This isn't the way I wanted it to end, and it's not the way I thought it would end," UT senior defensive tackle Wes Brown said. "But hats off to them. They just flat-out beat us. They deserved it, no doubt."
The Vols kept getting bad news after the game. Senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton was taken to an area hospital in a stretcher and neck brace for "precautionary reasons," and All-America junior safety Eric Berry confirmed his expected decision to declare for the NFL draft.
"I really did go over every single possible scenario or situation I could," Berry said. "I went over it with coaches. I went over it with my parents. Coach (Lane Kiffin) just told me this would probably be the best thing for me to do.
"Man, this is hard. That's why it took me so long to come out here and talk to you guys. I had to get myself together. I really don't want to leave, but it feels like it's just something I need to do to help my family. My parents have worked so hard for the past 18 years. ... I feel like this is something I can do to help them just sit down and relax and show my appreciation."
The Vols' miserable start suggested a lopsided final score could occur, but they made things interesting with a dazzling second quarter before faltering down the stretch.
Crompton's ill-advised pass was intercepted near midfield on UT's first possession, and the Hokies quickly capitalized. Freshman tailback Ryan Williams squirted through the left side for a 1-yard touchdown run with 6:56 left in the first quarter, and the extra point gave Virginia Tech a 7-0 lead.
The Hokies started another possession in UT territory in the second quarter, and they turned it into another touchdown. A 42-yard pass from Tyrod Taylor to flanker Danny Coale set up another Williams score -- this one from 3 yards -- and Tech's lead doubled to 14-0 with 11:56 left in the first half.
"If they changed the rules, that guy could probably play in the NFL next year," Kiffin said of Williams.
UT had stopped Virginia Tech on third down two plays before that score, but defensive end Ben Martin grabbed Taylor's facemask while wrestling him down in the backfield.
Crompton connected with Denarius Moore for 40 yards to the Hokies' 41-yard line on UT's ensuing drive, and the quarterback completed two third-down darts to Gerald Jones to set up the Vols' first score. Senior tailback Montario Hardesty spun out of a tackle near the 5-yard line on his 4-yard touchdown with 6:43 left in the first half.
Freshman safety Janzen Jackson's first career interception gave UT the ball at the Hokies' 48 with 1:11 left in the first half. Two plays after a 47-yard screen pass from Crompton to Hardesty, Crompton found Moore open in the back of the end zone for a 2-yard score with 18 seconds left in the half.
"At that point, I was thinking, 'Yeah, it's on now,'" Jones said.
The game didn't stay tied for long, though. Time appeared to expire after Taylor heaved a 63-yard pass to Jarrett Boykin, but an instant-replay review put two seconds back on the clock. Matt Waldron's 21-yard field goal as time expired gave the Hokies a 17-14 halftime advantage.
"Man, that was big," Jackson said. "They ran three verticals, and I went after the wrong guy. That definitely took away some of our momentum."
Virginia Tech carried that momentum into the third quarter, staying on the ground for all eight plays of the touchdown drive that extended its lead to 24-14 midway through the third quarter.
The Hokies added a 46-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, bumping their lead to 27-14, and the Vols squandered a great chance minutes later to get back within one possession. Crompton was sacked for a 12-yard loss after a wide-open Moore dropped a potential 59-yard touchdown catch, and UT punted it back to the Hokies with 9:52 left.
"It would have been a six-point game," Kiffin said. "But everything fell apart after that."
Another backup Hokies tailback -- freshman David Wilson -- added a 3-yard touchdown that made it 34-14 with 5:12 left. A Crompton fumble on the next play from scrimmage gave the Hokies yet another short field, and Waldron added another field goal with 2:38 left. Crompton took a few more vicious hits on UT's final drive.
"It's hard to say what happened without watching the film, but they threw a lot of different blitzes in there," UT tight junior tight end Luke Stocker said. "I'm sure there were some breakdowns in the protection. ... I mean, look at what happened."
Vols lose to HokiesStaff Photo by Patrick Smith Virginia Tech flanker Danny Coale catches a long pass during the first half of Thursday's Chick-fil-A Bowl at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Virginia Tech led 17-14 at halftime.
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