CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In a season in which order and sense have gone into hiding, Georgia Tech now found itself in a situation to set everything right.
The Yellow Jackets had 137 seconds to go 85 yards to beat Florida State, win the ACC championship, go to the Orange Bowl as a six-loss team and jab a thumb in the eye of their legion of doubters.
“I felt like we were going to go down and win the game,” quarterback Tevin Washington said.
It didn’t happen, and a season in which losses have been meted out either in brutally close fashion or by blowout added another of the former. Washington threw an interception from the Tech 37-yard line, closing out a 21-15 loss in the ACC Championship game at Bank of America Stadium to the No. 13 Seminoles. A week after a humiliating loss to Georgia in which coach Paul Johnson called out the team for a “lack of competing,” the Jackets poured themselves into an upset attempt that gave a far better account of themselves but was ultimately unsuccessful.
“I thought they played with some heart and some intensity,” Johnson said. “And we just ran out of time.”
Tech was handcuffed by shoddy defense in the first half and inefficient offense that left it too great a deficit to overcome. Florida State’s power running game and Tech’s poor tackling fueled a 21-3 lead by the second quarter as the Seminoles drove for touchdowns in three of their first four possessions. Tech, meanwhile, found its gear on offense after punting on its first three series. Over the next five series, stretching from the second quarter to the end of the third, Tech advanced the ball three times to the FSU 30-yard line or past. Those three drives produced but nine points.
“The biggest thing was, when we got in the red zone, we got across the 30, we settled for field goals instead of touchdowns, where they capitalized early on their early red-zone trips,” B-back David Sims said.
That said, it was an impressive performance considering all that had preceded it this season. The team that played a physically superior Florida State team to within one possession of the Orange Bowl bore little or no resemblance to the one that lost by three touchdowns to Middle Tennessee State or was trounced by Georgia.
“Never happy when you lose, but I told our guys that I was proud of their effort, so we’ll take that and try to move forward,” Johnson said. “I thought our defense played their tail off, especially in the second half.”
The loss dropped Tech to 6-7, guaranteeing that the Jackets can finish no better than .500 for the second time in Johnson’s five seasons. The team will be required to use the bowl-eligibility waiver it received from the NCAA to gain a bowl invite, Tech’s 16th in a row. The Jackets will learn their bowl destination Sunday.
The ACC title-game loser can fall no lower than the Sun Bowl, which has the third pick of ACC teams after the BCS bowls. However, Tech officials have said they would be willing to drop past the Sun Bowl, where Tech played last year. If an agreement can be made, Tech’s likely destinations would be either the Belk Bowl, back in Charlotte Dec. 27 (possible opponent: Cincinnati) or the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., Dec. 31 (Vanderbilt or Mississippi). USC has been projected for the Sun Bowl to face the ACC.
Tech will seek to arrest its seven-game bowl losing streak. A bowl loss would sink the Jackets to their first eight-loss season since 1994.
Offensively, Tech ran for 183 yards against the nation’s No. 4 rushing defense, more than doubling the Seminoles’ average yield of 85.1 rushing yards. With FSU defensive coordinator Mark Stoops placing the middle linebacker deep to help against the perimeter run game, Sims ran for 91 yards on 19 carries, charging low and hard through the middle.
However, Tech could have used a series of big plays to provide margin for error against the Seminoles’ agile and punishing defense. Besides a 20-yard scramble by Washington, Tech’s two longest runs went for 13 yards. Backup Vad Lee, who played the third and four series of the game in the quarterback rotation but did not return after that, completed a pass to wide receiver Darren Waller for 42 yards and Washington connected with A-back B.J. Bostic for 32 yards.
“When defenses can do that to you, where you have to do it five, six, seven yards at a pop, it’s hard to be consistent enough to get it down there and keep it going,” Johnson said.
At least offensively, Tech will rue perhaps three plays most. Near the end of the first half, on a 3rd-and-13 from the FSU 30-yard line, Washington threw into tight coverage to Greene near the goal line down the left sideline. Greene rotated and caught the ball with his back to the sideline, but as he touched down, his left foot knocked over the pilon at the front corner of the end zone. By rule, that put him out of bounds by inches. Kicker David Scully banged in a 47-yarder – the longest Tech field goal since the 2009 ACC title game – to cut the lead to 21-6.
On FSU’s second drive of the second half, inside linebacker Jabari Hunt-Days drove himself into wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin after a reception, dislodging the ball for a fumble that Rod Sweeting recovered at the FSU 48, which would be Tech’s best starting field position of the game.
Johnson dialed up a gadget play that looked similar to one that he tried to run against Georgia last week before a Bulldogs timeout whistled the play dead. A-back Synjyn Days – Hunt-Days’ older brother and a converted quarterback – took a toss from Washington, who slipped out of the backfield to the left. Days ran right and pulled up and threw back to Washington. However, cornerback Xavier Rhodes peeled back as he read the play and leapt for the interception.
The Tech defense forced a punt on the next series, giving the Jackets the ball back on their 25. Washington drove Tech into the FSU red zone as far as the 16. On 3rd-and-13 from the 19, Washington had A-back Robbie Godhigh open streaking to the end zone, but his pass missed long. Tech was left to kick another field goal, this time a 36-yarder from Chris Tanner that made the score 21-9. (Saturday was the first time Tech made three field goals in a game since the 2010 season.)
“That’s how it goes sometimes,” Washington said. “I wish they went our way, but it didn’t.”
Defensively, Tech played perhaps its best half of the season after halftime. The Seminoles had five possessions before its game-ending kneeldown, which finished with two punts, two fumbles and an interception. Florida State, which had failed to score in only four of its first 48 quarters and had the No. 14 scoring offense in FBS, was shut out in the second half Saturday night. The Tech fans who had traveled up I-85 were frenzied at the sight of a Tech defense making big stops and collapsing the pocket.
“That’s definitely something we can build off,” said outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu, who recorded both of his sacks in the second half. “We have the ability. Our players can match up with anybody in this conference.”
Attaochu’s second sack of FSU quarterback EJ Manuel forced a punt that gave Tech the ball at its 30. Tech converted a 4th-and-1 with a Washington keeper, a 3rd-and-13 with a pinpoint pass from Washington to Bostic for 32 yards and a 4th-and-1 from the FSU 3 with a two-yard carry by Godhigh. Washington scored on the next play – Tech’s first touchdown of the game – for his 19th touchdown of the season.
Tech’s two-point try failed, but now the Jackets trailed 21-15 with 6:27 to play and FSU seemed to be teetering.
The Seminoles pushed out to the Tech 48, but safety Jemea Thomas made a leaping interception off Manuel to return the ball to Tech again at its 15 with 2:17 remaining. After falling short against Virginia Tech and Miami, Tech believed its moment had arrived.
So, however, did the Seminoles.
“We were, like, there’s no way in the world they’re getting in the end zone,” linebacker Vince Williams said.
He was proven correct when his younger brother Karlos intercepted Washington on a crossing route to Godhigh.
“I thought if I would have made a better throw and put it on his outside, he would have had a chance to catch the ball and get up the field,” Washington said. “I kind of left it inside and got undercut and they made a play on the ball.”
Said Karlos Williams, “I just broke on it and tried to tip it up and bat it down, but luckily it tipped up in the air and I just tried to make a sure catch and that’s what happened.”
Tech can take some consolation in pushing the Orange Bowl-bound Seminoles to the hilt. That said, the Jackets were in a 21-3 hole due to their own shortcomings. The Seminoles swamped the Tech defense in the first half, averaging 7.3 yards per play. Running back James Wilder Jr. gained 55 of his 71 yards in the first two quarters, shedding tacklers and bursting through creases for two touchdowns. He was named game MVP.
“The second half is the way that you’d like for them to play all the time,” Johnson said. “That’s the standard.”
Tech rebounded from its 42-10 capitulation to Georgia a week ago, but again was unable to deliver a complete four-quarter effort. A team marked by youth, inconsistent energy and its resilience was on full display in Charlotte. A seventh loss, albeit one against a top-flight team, was the result.
“I wouldn’t say we gave the game away,” Sims said. “I just think they made one more play than we did.”
Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech blog