CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Despite coming up short, Georgia Tech showed it belonged in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game.
And while the Yellow Jackets didn’t get the upset, they still walked away with a measure of respect after taking No. 13 Florida State to the wire in a 21-15 loss on Saturday night.
“Everybody has told them they’re not very good and they don’t belong and I think they wanted to show that they did, that they did belong,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “And, like I said, they came out and played their tail off. They played with some effort and some heart.”
Despite its record, Georgia Tech (6-7) is bowl eligible after receiving a waiver from the NCAA on Thursday.
And with the way the Yellow Jackets battled it is hard to imagine a bowl not inviting them.
James Wilder Jr. ran two touchdowns and the Seminoles held off the Yellow Jackets to capture their first Atlantic Coast Conference championship since 2005 and earn a trip to the Orange Bowl.
It was Florida State’s 13th ACC title.
The heavily favored Seminoles (11-2) built a 21-6 lead at the half and held on to win, helping to erase some of the sting from last week’s 37-26 loss to their bitter rival in No. 4 Florida.
Georgia Tech finished with 210 yards rushing, more than 100 yards below its season average and only scored 15 points after averaging 40 in ACC play this season.
“I think we stopped killing ourselves on drives and started making the routine plays more,” quarterback Tevin Washington said.
“That’s pretty much how the game went. I mean, the first half we kept cutting ourselves on the perimeter and missing the blocks here and there and missing blocks over there and missing a read here in there in key situations when we needed to make plays. In the second half I think we did a better job of finishing some drives when we had a chance.”
It looked as if Georgia Tech, a two-touchdown underdog, might get blown out, but the game wasn’t decided until Karlos Williams intercepted Washington with less than a minute remaining.
The Yellow Jackets slowed down the Seminoles in the second half and forced two turnovers by quarterback EJ Manuel to get back in the game.
Defensive end Emmanuel Dieke jarred the ball from Manuel’s grasp and recovered the fumble in the third quarter.
Washington, who hadn’t completed a pass all game, suddenly came alive, hitting Chris Milton for a gain of 18 yards and B.J. Bostic for 32 yards to reach the Florida State 3.
Robert Godhigh picked up a critical first down on fourth-and-1 and Washington scored his 19th touchdown of the season on the following play to cut Florida State’s lead to 21-15 with 6:27 left in the game.
Johnson went for the 2-point conversion and failed, meaning the Seminoles only had to add a field goal to make it a two-possession game.
That didn’t happen though as defensive back Jemea Thomas intercepted Manuel’s pass to give the Yellow Jackets one last chance with 2:17 left in the game.
But Georgia Tech’s last ditch effort ended when Williams intercepted Washington at the Yellow Jackets 44 and returned it to the 4 to seal the victory.
Florida State captured the momentum early.
The Seminoles, who came in with the fourth-best rushing defense in the country, stuffed Georgia Tech on three plays on its first possession setting the tone for the game.
Taking advantage of a shanked punt, the Seminoles took over at the Georgia Tech 42 and scored six plays later as Devonta Freeman took a pitch from Manuel and ran around right end for a 3-yard run. It was Freeman’s eighth touchdown of the season and his seventh in the past six games.
Wilder scored on a 16-yard touchdown run and added a 1-yard plunge to make it 21-3 before the Yellow Jackets added a field goal before halftime.
Florida State outgained Georgia Tech 211-141 in the first half.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher had some concerns about defending Georgia Tech’s triple option offense coming into the game.
The Yellow Jackets came in averaging 40 points per game in ACC play this season and 323.3 yards rushing per game, third-best in the country.
But Florida State, led by ACC Defensive Player of the Year Bjoern Werner, swarmed running backs David Sims and Bostic in the first half, repeatedly stuffing the option. Washington didn’t complete a pass in the first half and the Yellow Jackets were 1 of 7 on third downs.
Georgia Tech played without its leading rusher Orwin Smith, who sat out with an ankle injury. Smith came in averaging 9 yards per carry.
Around the time of the kickoff, a 22-year-old man fell off fourth-floor ramp leading to the upper level at Bank of America Stadium and was taken to an area hospital with what authorities called “life-threatening” injuries.