On a clear and cool night under the lights of Bobby Dodd Stadium, Georgia Tech finally got the better of the dreaded Miami Hurricanes.
With the help of three Miami turnovers, the Yellow Jackets ended a three-game losing streak to the Hurricanes and secured bowl eligibility after missing out on the postseason twice in the previous three seasons with a 27-21 win Saturday evening. Tech (6-4, 4-3 ACC) has now won five of its past six games after starting the season 1-3.
“I’m really proud of our team,” coach Paul Johnson said. “We dug down and made some plays.”
Against the defense ranked second nationally in total defense, the Jackets didn’t maintain its nation-leading average of 377 yards per game, finishing with 231 yards on the ground. However, they avoided mistakes and capitalized on the Hurricanes’. Tech, which came into the game tied for eighth nationally in takeaways, received three from the Hurricanes on Saturday, two of them unforced.
The Jackets exchanged them for 13 crucial points, an 8-yard touchdown run by quarterback TaQuon Marshall and two field goals by kicker Wesley Wells.
“It wasn’t always pretty, but we made fewer mistakes than they did and we were able to capitalize on a couple of their mistakes and come out on top,” Johnson said.
It was a most delicious win for the Jackets, who had lost eight of their past nine to the Hurricanes, none more painful than last year’s loss. In it, Tech led by 11 points in the third quarter only to lose after Miami converted a fourth-and-10 with a tipped pass that enabled their game-winning field goal in the final seconds. This week, Jackets players were not shy about noting how much that loss had impacted the season and stuck with them.
“I haven’t beaten them yet, so it was awesome,” wide receiver Brad Stewart said. “That nailbiter last year where they won on that fluke play, gosh, it’s hard to describe some feelings sometimes. It’s a blessing.”
For Johnson, it was a third win in 11 tries against the Hurricanes (5-5, 2-4), who have lost four games in a row. His counterpart on the east sideline, Miami coach Mark Richt, finally lost a game at the stadium at 177 North Avenue. Richt had won all 14 games in which he had faced the Jackets at Grant Field in incarnations as a Florida State assistant (5-0) and then head coach at Georgia (8-0) and Miami (1-0).
Saturday night at Bobby Dodd again proved magical for the Jackets. In Johnson’s tenure, the Jackets are 8-1 in Saturday night home games, including three wins over top-10 teams.
In a season in which special teams has been, at best, a neutral factor for the Jackets, Tech came out ahead of Miami by gaining takeaways on two Hurricanes returns.
Late in the first quarter with the score 7-7, Tariq Carpenter made one of the special-teams plays of the season, forcing a fumble out of returner DeeJay Dallas on the return after a Jackets touchdown. Ajani Kerr scooped up the loose ball and returned it three yards to the Miami 23-yard line.
The Jackets needed only three plays to get into the end zone for a 14-7 lead, scoring on an 8-yard bootleg run by quarterback TaQuon Marshall in which Stewart and B-back Jordan Mason led the way with blocks on the perimeter.
The Jackets added a 38-yard field goal in the second quarter from Wells, after Miami’s second turnover. The Hurricanes, a shotgun team, went under center at third-and-1 from their 40 and quarterback N’Kosi Perry fumbled the snap, which was recovered by linebacker Charlie Thomas. Marshall drove the Jackets 18 yards to get Wells inside his range and move the Jackets’ advantage to 17-7.
It was a significant win for Tech’s special teams, which have been maligned this season for failing to provide big plays and were at the heart of the loss to South Florida in September by allowing two kickoff returns for touchdowns.
Miami closed scoring in the half with a turnover-induced score of its own. Tech was to take possession after a third-down stop, but Jake Spicer’s bouncing rugby punt hit Nathan Cottrell’s left hand as he retreated to block and the Hurricanes recovered at Tech’s 30. Miami running back Cam’ron Davis broke through the Tech line on a third-and-2 for a 22-yard score to cut Tech’s lead to 17-14.
The Jackets gained another bonus possession early in the third quarter after they went three-and-out on the opening drive of the second half. Miami punt returner Jeff Thomas called for a fair catch at the Miami 16, but muffed the catch and was recovered by Juanyeh Thomas at the 10, a play that recalled a muffed fair catch by Virginia Tech in another momentum-giving play for the Jackets in their win over the Hokies. Wells added a 23-yard field goal for a 20-14 lead with 11:08 left in the third quarter.
“That was huge,” Johnson said. “Even though we couldn’t get it in, we got three points.”
The Jackets induced a three-and-out on Miami’s next series, a drive stunted by a holding call (one of seven flags against the Hurricanes compared to three for the Jackets), and Tech began to reach the end game by driving 62 yards in seven plays for a touchdown and a 27-14 lead with 5:27 left in the third quarter. After six consecutive run plays, Marshall finished the drive with a play-action pass to wide receiver Brad Stewart for a 31-yard score.
It was Stewart’s first catch since the Duke game, a reward for his effective perimeter blocking as the Jackets have been severely run-heavy in the past two games.
“The past couple weeks, we haven’t really had the opportunities to throw the ball that much, so you’ve just got to stay with that confidence that we have as a receiver corps,” Stewart said. “(Wide receivers coach Buzz Preston) always tells us we’ve got to make the big plays because we don’t get them very often, but when we do, they’re crucial.”
Marshall played almost the entire way after sitting out the entire game against Virginia Tech and being replaced by Tobias Oliver against North Carolina. Marshall acknowledged being frustrated by not being able to contribute on the field, but remained positive. He made two big plays on Tech’s final drive of the game, after Miami had driven 95 yards for a touchdown to cut the lead to 27-21 with 6:53 left in the game.
On a third-and-7, Marshall delivered a strike to wide receiver Jalen Camp for a first down moments before he was taken down in the pocket by defensive tackle Tito Odengbo. Marshall said he read Camp’s intention to cut across the middle and put the ball out in front of him to give him the chance to make a play on the ball.
“I just knew that when I got up off the ground, everybody was cheering, so I figured he had caught the ball and got the first down,” Marshall said. “To me, he made the biggest play of the whole night. Because if he doesn’t make that play, then we’ve got to punt, and they get the ball back with momentum, so you never know what happens from there.”
Three plays later, Marshall converted a third-and-2 with a keeper for four yards with a little more than three minutes to play that began to tighten the screws on the Hurricanes. Tech was able to hold the ball until the clock ran out.
Pitt’s win over Virginia Tech snuffed out the Jackets’ slim chance of staying in the ACC Coastal race, but you likely would have had a hard time finding anyone in the Jackets locker room late Saturday night who was giving that much thought.
“I told (the team) after the game – we weren’t just trying to get to six,” Johnson said. “You have to get to six before you get to seven or eight or whatever. But we’ve still got a lot to play for. We’re playing a lot better now than we were earlier in the year and we’ve kind of dug ourselves out of the big hole we dug ourselves in.”