ATLANTA – We all saw this coming, right?
We all saw 8-0 Clemson taking its high-powered offense into Bobby Dodd Stadium and getting upended by a Georgia Tech team coming off two consecutive demoralizing losses.
We all saw the Tigers, who scored 56 and 59 points the past two weeks, manage only two touchdowns against the less-than-vaunted Yellow Jackets defense in a 31-17 setback.
Isn’t college football wonderful? Two more undefeated teams went down on Saturday (Kansas State stumbled as well), but Clemson was the highest ranked victim losing to the least regarded opponent.
“We knew we had a bunch of doubters because of the last two games,” said Jackets defensive back Jamea Thomas, who forced a fumble and made a massive fourth-quarter interception in the end zone. “But we just came together.”
While everyone was busy hyperventilating (self included) over Clemson’s relentless Chad Morris offense that has thrust the Tigers back into the national spotlight, it was easy to overlook the offensive genius on the other side of the field.
The beauty of Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson is that he is even more committed to his brand of offensive strategy as Morris is to Clemson’s. It is with religious devotion that Johnson sends his triple-option out to do what it does best.
And Saturday, it was the Ramblin’ Wreck that rolled with precision while the Tigers’ sputtered and started too late. Getting a lead and hanging on is the kind of script that Johnson craves every time.
“We played the game we needed to,” Johnson said. “I saw the time of possession we had it 39 minutes and they had it 21. ... They’re more used to having 16 or 17 possessions a game and we’re more used to 10 or 12.”
The all-orange outfit Clemson wore for the primetime occasion proved fitting, since the Tigers’ aspirations have been downgraded from BCS title shot in New Orleans to Orange Bowl at best.
The first half simply defied reason. That Georgia Tech rolled up 244 yards and 24 points – even after going three-and-out on its first two possessions – was certainly within character.
But Clemson didn’t remotely resemble its ordinary self.
The Tigers’ 15th-ranked offense in the nation had only 132 yards in the first half. After an opening march that stalled at the Yellow Jackets 16 and resulted in a field goal, Tajh Boyd and Co. produced a fumble, two punts and a missed field goal the rest of the way before the half ran out with a three touchdown deficit.
It was such a stunning turn of events that even Johnson shed his permanently sour look and actually smiled when quarterback Tevin Washington came off the field after his 3-yard touchdown run made it 24-3 with 37 seconds left in the half.
Saturday night was a massive turning point for Washington. The Georgia Tech QB had seemingly lost his confidence in consecutive losses to Virginia and Miami that sent the Yellow Jackets tumbling out of the national polls and onto the ropes of the ACC race.
But Washington came alive in the cool evening to reignite Georgia Tech’s championship hopes. He finished with a Jackets quarterback rushing record of 177 yards including career-long runs of 47 and 56 yards that set up 10 points and a 44-yard deep strike to Stephen Hill that set up Washington’s own touchdown run with 37 seconds left in the first half.
Clemson, of course, is a big third-quarter team and came out with a quick strike from Boyd to Sammy Watkins to make it 24-10. Considering the Tigers rallied from 18 points down to outrace Maryland, nobody was counting Clemson out.
But Georgia Tech calmly answered immediately with another long Washington run setting up a TD response.
Georgia Tech was poised to ice it in the third quarter after jumping on a Mike Bellamy fumble and driving to a first-and-goal at the Tiger 1. A four-touchdown lead would have been tough for even Clemson to erase in 19 minutes.
But Clemson’s defense stepped up and forced a fumble, and the Tigers drove the length of the field to make it 31-17 one play into the fourth quarter. Historic Grant Field got awfully quiet while Tiger Rag played.
Georgia Tech, however, is a hard team to come back on. As well as the Yellow Jackets defense played in the first half, Georgia Tech’s best defense remains its offense.
After a dramatic interception exchange (Clemson made a key pick deep in Tech territory with 10:39 minutes left only to give it back six seconds later in the end zone on the next play), the Yellow Jackets sealed the upset by keeping the ball away from the Tigers. The Yellow Jackets converted four third downs with rushes to bleed the clock on a 16-play drive that ate up more than nine minutes and gave the ball back at Clemson’s 22 with 1:29 remaining and no timeouts left.
It must have been excruciating for Morris to watch helplessly with no legitimate chance to respond.
“It was real satisfying knowing we could keep the ball away from them,” said Washington. “Nobody was giving us a chance. ... This was the best game we played all year. It keeps our goals in tact.”
What was a dispiriting end to one dream turned out to be an invigorating rebirth of another. On an evening that few could have foreseen, it just might foreshadow a rematch in the ACC Championship game in Charlotte on Dec. 3.