With two solid tailbacks ahead of David Wilson on the depth chart, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer thought hard about redshirting his speedy sophomore.
The decision not to, Beamer said Thursday night, "is looking better and better."
Wilson returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown with 2:23 to play, rescuing the No. 20 Hokies from a sloppy effort and giving them a 28-21 victory against Georgia Tech.
Wilson also scored on a 15-yard run to pull the Hokies even at 14-all early in the fourth quarter, and was stunned to even get the opportunity to give the Hokies a chance.
"I was excited because they had been avoiding me all game (on kickoffs)," he said, noting that he only had to dodge kicker Scott Blair, who ran him down in a similar spot last year.
Wilson eluded Blair's attempted ankle tackle, and "When I saw green, I just cut the jets on."
The return came just after Yellow Jackets drove 80 yards to tie it, and allowed the Hokies (7-2, 5-0 ACC) to win their seventh in a row and remain in control of their fate in the ACC's Coastal Division. They are the only unbeaten team in ACC play.
The Yellow Jackets (5-4, 3-3), played the second half without quarterback Joshua Nesbitt, who broke his right forearm late in the first half after throwing an interception at Virginia Tech's 1. It came after he led one scoring drive, then ran 71 yards for another touchdown.
"When I made the tackle, I think I hit his knee," Nesbitt said of Davon Morgan, who stepped in front of the pass and returned it 28 yards. "Once I hit it, it went numb."
The absence of Nesbitt made all the difference — for both sides.
"It was big," Hokies linebacker Bruce Taylor said. "Their offense runs through him. He's their playmaker, the guy that makes their offense go, so getting him out of the game was big."
Last year, Nesbitt had 122 yards rushing against the Hokies, including a 39-yard run with 3 minutes left to seal the Yellow Jackets' victory. He had already run for 86 yards on six attempts when he got hurt on the tackle attempt and was helped to the locker room for X-rays.
Still, the Yellow Jackets gave the Hokies all they could handle.
They fell behind 21-14 with 6:34 to play on Tyrod Taylor's 2-yard pass to Andre Smith, but immediately answered behind backup redshirt sophomore quarterback Tevin Washington.
He hit Tyler Melton for 42 yards on the first play after Taylor's scoring pass — Georgia Tech's first pass completion of the game — and they did the rest on the ground. Roddy Jones ran for 5 yards on fourth-and-4 from the Hokies 32, and Orwin Smith ran it in from the 9.
Just 2:34 remained, and Wilson needed 11 seconds to get the lead back. He caught the ball near the 10, cut left, dodged one attempted ankle tackle and used his sprinter speed down the sideline. It was his second kickoff return for a touchdown of the season, and kept the Hokies in line to win the division — and a spot in the ACC title game — by winning their last three.
It also likely means Georgia Tech will not defend its ACC title of a year ago.
"The kickoff return was just a killer," Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson said.
"You get momentum back and go down and score and you don't want to squib kick and give them the ball on the 40 yard-line with 2:35 and all their timeouts left. It was supposed to be a deep right kick and we kicked the ball in the middle of the field and we don't adjust."
Georgia Tech still drove to the Hokies 17, but Rashad Carmichael intercepted a pass in the end zone with 8 seconds left, sealing the Hokies' 17th victory in 22 Thursday night ESPN games. They also came away hoping that the trend of the winner of this game representing the Coastal Division in the ACC title game for all five years the game has been played holds.
"It wasn't a beautiful game," Beamer said, "but the score sure was pretty."
Anthony Allen led the Yellow Jackets, who rushed for 346 yards, with 125 on 23 tries.
The Hokies, who had averaged 45.5 points in their past four games, had troubles of their own for much of the game, even after Ryan Williams' 4-yard run pulled them to 14-7.
Taylor drove the Hokies to the Yellow Jackets 8 later in the second quarter, but on third-and-goal, with about 10 seconds to look for a receiver, he threw right to Rod Sweeting on the back line of the end zone. It was Taylor's first interception in four games.
The Hokies' defense responded with its first three-and-out series, but Jayron Hosely fumbled the ensuing punt and Isaiah Johnson recovered for Georgia Tech at the Hokies 47.
Morgan's interception at the 1 ended that series.
The Yellow Jackets made it look too easy at the start.
After Nesbitt was flushed on the first play from scrimmage — at the 42, no less, after a nice return by Emery Peeples — and threw incomplete, they ran on eight consecutive plays.
Smith went 27 yards on the second play, and Nesbitt converted the only third down with a 3-yard run on third-and-1. He also took it the final yard and it was 7-0 after 3:40.
After the Hokies punted, Nesbitt burned the Hokies quickly, taking another third-and-1 run 71 yards virtually untouched for a touchdown. On the play, he became the career rushing leader among ACC quarterbacks, passing Clemson's Woodrow Dantzler (1998-2001), who had 2,761.