After 11 games, Georgia Tech doesn’t yet know where this ride will end. This much is certain, however. The Yellow Jackets have little desire for it to be over.
The Jackets, who in recent seasons had made a habit of coming up aggravatingly short of their potential due to a variety of misplays, injuries and bounces, maneuvered their way past their biggest obstacle of the season to date, shoving around Clemson by a 28-6 score on a clear and cold Saturday afternoon at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Tech capitalized on its big plays, turning big offensive plays and takeaways into points, and took advantage of perhaps the biggest turn of the game, a knee injury to Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson that forced him out of the game. That grit has been a central theme to a season that began with the Jackets picked to finish fifth in the ACC’s Coastal Division but, with one more Duke loss, would reach the ACC title game.
“I was so proud of our guys,” coach Paul Johnson said. “I think that, especially defensively, we haven’t had a game like that on defense in a while. Those kids worked so hard.”
No. 22 Tech’s defeat of No. 19 Clemson was the Jackets’ first over a ranked team since beating the same Tigers on the same field in 2011, ending a streak of eight consecutive losses to top-25 teams. It was a third takedown of Tech’s nemeses of late, following wins over Virginia Tech to end the Hokies’ four-game winning streak and Miami to stop the Hurricanes’ five-game run. Clemson (7-3 overall, 6-2 ACC) had won the past two in this historic rivalry.
“A win like this, vs. Clemson on senior day, I will always remember this years from now,” linebacker and team captain Quayshawn Nealy said. “It’s huge. It’s definitely huge.”
On the strength of the best defensive performance of the season and just enough plays from the Jackets offense, Tech raised its record 9-2 overall and 6-2 in the ACC, its first nine-win season and best ACC record since 2009. The final regular-season game will be Nov. 29 against its most formidable opponent, No. 15 Georgia.
“To get nine wins, it’s a great feeling,” Nealy said. “We’re looking at getting No. 10 now. We’re moving on.”
Three weeks after forcing four fumbles in the first six plays of their win over Pittsburgh and one week after returning an interception and fumble for touchdowns against N.C. State, the Jackets did it again, returning two interceptions for touchdowns. Thanks to in-depth video study, safety Jamal Golden read a throwback play as it unfolded, jumping in front of Cole Stoudt’s pass and running 85 unencumbered yards to flip the scoreboard for a go-ahead touchdown in the first quarter.
With help from safety Demond Smith, who disrupted Clemson’s timing by re-directing wide receiver Germone Hopper off his route, cornerback Chris Milton intercepted Stoudt in the third quarter and raced 62 yards for a touchdown and a 25-6 lead. Stoudt had replaced Watson in the third series of the game after the Gainesville High product left the game with a knee injury. The timing of Milton’s interception was critical, as it followed a turnover of Tech’s own, a Zach Laskey fumble that gave Clemson the chance to pull within one score.
Tech, which after the Pitt game Oct. 25 had the fourth-highest third-down defensive conversion rate in the country (51.6 percent), has held opponents to 32.4 percent on third down in the three games since, including 3-for-13 Saturday.
“Our defense, we really wanted to make it a point to not be the weak link and, if we could, really contribute as much as we possibly can because our offense is very prolific,” cornerback D.J. White said.
Tech’s chances to represent the Coastal Division in the ACC title game improved Saturday with Tech’s win and Duke’s 17-16 loss to Virginia Tech. If Duke loses one of its final two games, against North Carolina and Wake Forest, Georgia Tech will go to Charlotte for the third time in Johnson’s seven-year tenure. Georgia Tech couldn’t win the division in a tiebreaker.
Such concerns weren’t primary Saturday following the game. Some players headed off to celebrate, others to watch more football. Tech now has two weeks to ready itself for the Bulldogs.
“I definitely like the week off,” Nealy said. “(It) gives us time to rest our body, get back in good shape, gives us time to get an upper hand on Georgia, see what they’re doing and get ready for them.”