Less than a week after bottoming out, Georgia Tech claimed some validation for a season in which the Yellow Jackets have steadily improved in coach Geoff Collins’ first year but haven’t had much to show for it.
Playing with frenzied energy, the Jackets gained control of the game early with big plays from the offense and then held on by their fingertips at the end. Tech claimed a precious victory Thursday night with a 28-26 defeat of N.C. State at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
“We asked them to start fast and strike first,” Collins said. “They did that. And then we asked them to finish, and that last drive, putting it together with five minutes left on the clock and not even letting them have the ball back was really cool to see.”
Leading 21-3 at halftime, Tech could not stop the Wolfpack in the second half, allowing them to score three touchdowns and a field goal in four second-half possessions. The last touchdown closed the lead to 28-26 with 5:17 to play, and N.C. State went for a two-point conversion to try tie the game.
Safety Christian Campbell’s blitz pressure off the edge forced an incomplete pass from quarterback Devin Leary to preserve the Jackets’ two-point lead. Leary rolled right, away from Campbell, but turned to throw back across the field.
“But he had no idea I was behind him, so as soon as he turned to square up, I was right there in his face,” Campbell said.
It was a sweet moment for Campbell, who had spent the second half of the loss to Virginia Tech last week banished from the field after being disqualified for targeting.
With regret for missing more than half of last week’s game, “I went out and I was just trying to do anything possible to be able to make my team win,” Campbell said.
With two first downs gained on Tech’s ensuing possession – one when quarterback James Graham slipped through the N.C. State defense to convert a third-and-2 on an option keeper and the other when running back Jordan Mason fought for five yards on a third-and-1 – the Jackets were able to kneel down for the last snap, a welcome relief for Tech fans quite accustomed to disaster. The Jackets happily flooded the field, helmets held aloft, as the final seconds ticked off into the night.
“The feeling afterwards is a lot better than ... we were so close,” linebacker David Curry said “It’s an amazing feeling. But we’ve got a lot of stuff to keep on working on.”
It was a most satisfying result after three consecutive losses, the last a 45-0 home defeat Saturday to Virginia Tech, a game in which the Jackets were devoid of energy and attention to detail. On a pleasant November night in Midtown, an announced crowd of 38,198 was rewarded for its loyalty at the end of an autumn rife with defeat.
“Things happened on both sides of the ball, so we really just came back to improve in every aspect of the game – throwing, passing, catching, tackling, just everything,” wide receiver Malachi Carter said. “We came out (Thursday) and tried to clean all that up, and obviously, you saw the results.”
Tech (3-8, 2-6 ACC) was led on offense by Graham, who threw for only 129 yards but had three on-the-money touchdown passes a week after throwing two interceptions and getting pulled from the game against the Hokies.
Graham also ran for 112 yards, the first 100-yard rushing game of his career, with a 26-yard scoring run on a breathtaking quarterback draw in the third quarter. It was Tech’s only score of the second half. Mason pounded out 141 yards, including a 48-yard dash in the first quarter.
“My O-line, my first two long runs, it was just wide open, like butter,” Mason said. “All I had to do was run. That builds confidence in me running.”
The Jackets overcame Graham’s two lost fumbles, one 15 yards from the N.C. State goal line in the first quarter and the other that gave the Wolfpack life while down 28-13 early in the fourth quarter.
Tech’s defense gave up 457 yards to N.C. State (4-7, 1-6), but was able to hold the Wolfpack to field goals on two separate red-zone trips and stopped them on downs on another.
“I guess when you get down there, you get a little bit tighter and everybody plays a little bit tighter, but in my opinion, that’s how you should be playing the whole entire time,” Curry said. “But it’s a good thing. That’s a huge part of the game, that we could keep them out and just get a field goal.”
One of the big plays of the game early was defensive end Jordan Domineck’s tackle for loss on a fourth-and-2 for the Wolfpack at the Tech 10-yard line on N.C. State’s opening drive of the game. The redshirt freshman, who didn’t even get on the field for five of Tech’s first six games, was a playmaking force Thursday with a career-high 10 tackles.
The defense also came through after Graham’s first fumble, which gave the Wolfpack the ball on their 15-yard line and the score 7-0 in Tech’s favor. With the student section raising a clatter in the north end zone, the Jackets stoned the Wolfpack on three consecutive plays, and the ensuing punt returned the ball to Tech at the 50. From there, the Jackets were able to drive for a touchdown (a 13-yard touchdown catch by receiver Tobias Oliver from Graham) and a 14-0 lead, the first two-touchdown advantage that Tech had enjoyed the whole season.
Special teams, which has been hit and miss through the season, came through with another game-changing play, when gunner Jaytlin Askew’s downfield hustle put him in position to recover a muffed punt at the Wolfpack 31-yard line with 1:03 left in the first half.
Starting a drive in opposition territory for the first time since the Pitt game three games ago, the Jackets reached the end zone in just three plays when Graham found wide receiver Ahmarean Brown for his second touchdown catch of the game, this one an 11-yarder on a corner route.
It was the freshman’s seventh touchdown reception of the season, tying him with Tech legend Calvin Johnson for most touchdown catches by a freshman.
The score gave the Jackets a 21-3 lead, setting the stage for N.C. State’s second-half comeback try.