ATLANTA — Eric Berry would stay if he could.
Any number of factors beyond his control made it basically impossible for the Tennessee junior safety, and after the Chick-fil-A Bowl he confirmed what has long been assumed.
Berry is headed to the NFL whether he really wants to or not, closing out his UT career in a 37-14 loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday night in the Georgia Dome.
“I chose to go ahead and enter the draft this following the year,” Berry said. “I really did go over every possible situation, scenario that I could, went over it with coach ( Lane Kiffin), went over it with my parents, and you know coach just told me this would probably be the best thing for me to do is enter the draft.
“It’s really hard. I think that’s why it took me so long to come out here, I had to kind of get myself together because I really don’t want to leave, but I feel like it’s just something I need to do to help my family. Just to see how hard my parents worked over the past 18 years, and raising my brothers, I feel like this is something I can do to help them just sit down and relax and show my appreciation for what they’ve done for me.”
Berry should have plenty of opportunity to do it since most projections have him as a top-five pick in the draft, with some experts slotting him as a possible No. 1 overall choice.
That would mean a huge payday, though if the money were guaranteed to be the same a year from now, Berry would likely be returning for another season.
“You come in saying you only want to do three years and go into the draft, but just the camaraderie dealing the fans and all my teammates, it’s been a very special experience for me,” Berry said. “For me to have to go — I don’t want to go all the way, I want to stay, it’s been so much fun.
“I guess you could call it a sacrifice I have to make being in college and having so much fun.”
Those good times are officially over now, but they at least made him think about staying.
Stunning Completion: It didn’t take the Hokies long to regain the momentum after UT rallied for two touchdowns and a 14-14 tie in the final minutes of the first half.
On first down, quarterback Tyrod Taylor hooked up with Jarrett Boykin for a 63-yard completion to the UT 3-yard line.
The play began with nine seconds left in the half. After the catch, time appeared to have expired, and both teams headed off the field.
However, the officials put two seconds on the clock and brought the players back.
Virginia Tech’s Matt Waldron then kicked a 21-yard field goal to give the Hokies a 17-14 halftime lead.
“That was such a huge play,” Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. “They’re thinking ‘we’re going in tied at the half,’ and the next thing you know, we’re up three.”
Said Taylor: “I knew there was time left, looking at the clock when Boykin made the coach.
“It surprised me that they were playing prevent defense and he was wide open down the middle.”
Moving Up: Montario Hardesty passed one Travis, but not the other one.
The senior running back gained 39 yards to finish the season with 1,345 yards rushing. That put him ahead of Travis Henry for fourth place in single-season rushing at UT.
Travis Stephens set the UT record with 1,464 yards in 2001. Jay Graham is second with 1,438 yards, and Jamal Lewis is third with 1,364 yards.
Moving Up II: Quarterback Jonathan Crompton, who was under constant pressure from the Virginia Tech pass rush, managed to complete 15 of 26 passes for 235 yards.
That gave him 2,800 yards passing for the season. Only three other UT quarterbacks — Peyton Manning, Erik Ainge, and Casey Clausen — have passed for more yards in a season.
Third Try Works: The Hokies finally got it right in Atlanta this year.
They lost their season opener to Alabama in the Georgia Dome. They also lost to Georgia Tech in Atlanta in October.
“If we lost again, we weren’t coming back,” Beamer said jokingly afterward.
Extra Points: UT leads still leads the Virginia Tech series 5-3 … The Vols are 25-23 in bowls, 1-4 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, bowls, and 19-20 in bowls versus ranked opponents. … Virginia Tech’s senior class finished its career with a 41-13 record. The 41 wins are the second most in school history. … This marked the first time the Hokies have won back-to-back bowls.
John Adams contributed to this story.