(UPDATED: 12:15 a.m.)
Was it all a setup? Was the plan to unravel offensively like never before during Paul Johnson’s tenure on The Flats, lose consecutive games after a 6-0 start, then hit the BCS’s No. 5 team across the head with a 2-by-4 — you know, just for a little drama?
Or maybe Georgia Tech was just teasing Independence Bowl officials.
The Jackets didn’t merely upset Clemson Saturday night. They handled the Tigers with alarming ease. They played easily their best game against their strongest opponent of the season. They allowed Clemson the first three points of the game, then scored the next 24. They had well over 400 yards in offense. They won 31-17.
Did that just happen?
“We played hard and we played with emotion,” coach Paul Johnson said. “When that happens, you have a chance to win.”
And suddenly, a season that seemed to be spinning out of control still has the chance to turn into something special.
When it was over, fans swarmed the field. I’m not sure, but I think I even saw Johnson smile.
“I knew we wouldn’t quit — unlike some people,” Johnson said, referencing doubts about the team from media and fans. “I knew we would play hard.”
Quarterback Tevin Washington, who came back from two shaky performances to rush for 176 yards (a school record for a quarterback) and a touchdown, said, “Coach just told us that it was a great team win and everybody had written us off.”
That won’t be an issue going into the Virginia Tech game Nov. 10. The Jackets (4-2, 7-2) are a game behind the Hokies in the ACC Coastal, but another win over a likely favorite would all but put them in the ACC championship (with only the Duke game remaining on the conference schedule).
Dabo Swinney’s first game as Clemson’s interim head coach came against Tech and Johnson in 2008. The Jackets won 21-17. Johnson was 3-1 in four head-to-head meetings between the two going into Saturday, so it’s not as if the Jackets haven’t had recent success against the Tigers.
But how do you see leads of 24-3 (halftime) and 31-10 (third quarter) coming for a team that only two weeks ago lost to Virginia?
Clemson had won eight straight. It has one of the nation’s most prolific offenses, with 114 points in the last two games. Tech had lost two straight. It’s offense had been more like an old tire with a leaky valve. In the last 10 quarters going into Saturday, the Jackets had scored three offensive touchdowns.
That’s like giving Paul Johnson the key to the U.S. mint and telling him, “You can only take a nickel.”
But neither team looked itself in the first half. Clemson had five full possessions and was held to one field goal, two punts, a fumble and a missed field goal. Swinney left the field with that stunned wildebeest look on his face.
The Jackets failed to gain even a first down on their first two possessions. Then they scored 24 points on their next four.
They got some help. Louis Young forced a fumble on Clemson’s backup running back, D.J. Howard, and Rod Sweeting recovered at the Tigers’ 19. (Officials originally ruled Howard down but the play was overturned on replay.) Six plays later, Orwin Smith scored from the one to give Tech its first lead at 7-3.
But the key to the offense on this night was Washington. He ran and passed better than he had in weeks. It seemed in recent games that his confidence was shaken. When Synjyn Days played the final inglorious minutes in last week’s loss at Miami, the thought occurred Johnson might even make a change at quarterback if Washington struggled early against Clemson.
That wasn’t necessary. He looked like the Washington of early season. He had a career-high 46-yard run in the first half (when he rushed for 85) and then trumped that with a 56-yarder in the third quarter. He completed a 44-yard pass to Stephen Hill (whose spectacular catch led to a late-half touchdown run by Smith). Washington also might’ve thrown a long touchdown pass to Hill but the wide receiver let a perfect pass slip between his hands near the Clemson 20 as he streaked down the right sideline.
The Jackets’ offense was churning. It had touchdown drives of 80 and 78 yards to close the half, making it 24-3. When Clemson scored in the first 1:26 of the second half, Tech responded with a 77-yard scoring drive of its own to make it 31-10.
Tech tried to make it interesting. A Washington fumble at the Clemson three late in the third quarter prevented a potential 38-10 lead and an early celebration. With the score 31-17, a Washington interception with 10:39 left gave the Tigers possession at the Jackets’ nine, with a chance to close to within a touchdown. But on first and goal, Taj Boyd’s pass into the end zone was intercepted by Jemea Thomas (wide receiver Sammy Watkins turned around after the ball already was over his head).
That was it. Clemson had been given its last chance. And Tech had morphed back into a winner.
By Jeff Schultz