ATLANTA -- After miserable showings in back-to-back losses the past two weeks, many outside Georgia Tech’s program had already written off the Jackets for the season.
Coach Paul Johnson had warned not to do that. Repeatedly.
“Like I said earlier,” he said, “let us finish the season before you do our tombstone.”
After a 31-17 win over No. 5-ranked Clemson on Saturday night, Georgia Tech suddenly has new life. This should come as no surprise, though, to ACC fans who have followed the Yellow Jackets under Johnson. This is a coach -- and in turn a team -- that thrives on proving people wrong. A team that gives the most when fans expect the least. A team that is at its best when the odds are against it. Johnson will tell you about the youth on his team, especially up front, that no doubt has played a role in the team’s inconsistency. But at the heart of Saturday’s upset of undefeated Clemson was an underlying desire to prove Georgia Tech is still a contender -- and to prove doubters wrong.
“I prefer it that way,” said quarterback Tevin Washington. “Nobody gives you a shot.”
Why would they? Georgia Tech was held to season lows offensively in each of the past two weeks. The Yellow Jackets scored just seven points in the loss at Miami. The defense had been average at best all season, and was going to face a Clemson offense that had just scored more than 50 points in each of its past two wins. Georgia Tech wasn’t supposed to win this game, but it did, and it deserved to.
"We know what we can do as a team," Washington said. "It's not about falling down. It's about getting back up."
Both teams have tripped this season, but on Saturday night, Clemson took the harder fall. Considering Clemson’s infamous reputation for losing games it is expected to win, the Tigers’ letdown was actually less of a surprise than how well Georgia Tech played after dreadful performances in Coastal Division losses at Virginia and Miami. This wasn’t the same Georgia Tech team we’ve seen the past two weeks. It was arguably the most complete, convincing performance the Yellow Jackets have had all season, and it came against the best competition they’ll see this year.
“We played with some emotion and some intensity,” Johnson said. “We played better. They are 18- to 21-year-olds, they are a young football team. I keep telling people that, but they don’t want to listen.”
If Georgia Tech plays the way it did against Clemson when they take on Virginia Tech on Nov. 10, the Hokies’ slim lead in the Coastal Division standings could be in jeopardy. Washington ran for 176 yards, a school record for a quarterback. Jemea Thomas had two interceptions. The Jackets were 5-of-6 in the red zone with four touchdowns. The offense racked up 443 yards while the defense forced four turnovers and held Clemson to just 95 rushing yards. Clemson had just three points and 132 yards of total offense in the first half.
One of the biggest plays of the game was made by Georgia Tech’s defense, which hasn’t gotten much credit if any at all this season. Clemson’s Rashard Hall returned an interception to the Georgia Tech 9-yard line with just fewer than 11 minutes left in the game. Thomas then answered with an interception for Georgia Tech in the end zone, spoiling the Tigers’ best shot at making a comeback.
“We knew we had a bunch of doubters and whatnot because of the last two games; we just pulled together,” Thomas said. “We knew we had to use each other to get through it and get done. With adversity, you’ve either got to stand up or lay down. I think we’ve got the type of team where we’re going to stand up and come back and just fight no matter how hard the situation is.”
Clemson is still the front-runner to win the ACC’s Atlantic Division, especially after Wake Forest’s loss to North Carolina earlier on Saturday. Bigger dreams, though, will have to wait.
“They just flat-out whipped us, out-executed us, and no excuses,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.
No national titles, either. For that, Georgia Tech got the tombstone out.