WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — For a week, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson questioned and dissected his team’s character. He wondered if they cared enough to know that they weren’t fulfilling their potential.
Instead of a squad fired up to prove its coach wrong from the start, it waited until the fourth quarter to show him what it could do in a 24-20 victory over Wake Forest on Saturday at BB&T Field.
"The best thing I can say is the guys competed until the end," Johnson said. "They kept fighting and kept fighting."
Wake Forest seemed to offer just what Tech needed: a team that couldn’t stop the run (it had allowed more than 500 rushing yards in its past two games) and one that was down to its fourth-string quarterback by the second quarter.
But Tech couldn’t take advantage until it was almost too late. It committed five fumbles, losing two, dropped numerous passes and had eight more penalties — the same problems that deflated it in losses at Kansas and against N.C. State.
Now can be added to that list an inability to run the ball as efficiently as it once could. The Yellow Jackets rushed for 209 yards. It’s the first time since the middle of the 2008 season that Tech was held to less than 250 yards on the ground in consecutive weeks.
But there is a positive: Joshua Nesbitt's arm. He completed 11 of 21 passes for 130 yards, including the game-winner to wide receiver Correy Earls with 15 seconds remaining. It was Nesbitt's best day passing since last season's win at Mississippi State, when he passed for 266 yards.
"We were just executing," Nesbitt said.
But, as Johnson said, "Lord knows we have a lot of work to do."
His worries began with a lackluster loss at Kansas in second week, and grew stronger after the Jackets committed 85 unforced errors in last week’s 45-28 loss to N.C. State.
Despite the season being only five weeks old, Tech needed a win to maintain hopes of defending its Coastal Division title and ACC championship. It didn’t get any help with N.C. State’s loss against Virginia Tech on Saturday. Miami, the Yellow Jackets’ other chief competition in the Coastal Division, also defeated Clemson in Death Valley.
Tech will host Virginia next week in what should be a easy stretch of games, provided Tech plays like it did in the fourth quarter of the Wake game, and not like it did in the first three.
Because of penalties, fumbles and other mental mistakes, Tech was behind 17-6 heading into the fourth quarter.
Scott Blair kicked a 39-yard field goal with 10 minutes, 23 seconds remaining in the game to cut Wake Forest’s lead to 17-9. It was his third field goal of the game. That possession came after Tech’s defense forced a punt when Wake Forest had the ball on Tech’s 36 after punter Sean Poole allowed a high snap to slip through his hands. He recovered to pick up the ball and get it away as several Wake Forest players converged.
After the Blair field goal, the Jackets’ defense forced another punt that Tech would have had on the Deacons’ side of the 50-yard line. Instead, freshman Louis Young was called for a personal foul on the return, backing the Jackets up to their 38.
Instead of more errors, Tech moved the ball and tied the game on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Nesbitt to Embry Peeples on a broken play. Nesbitt went up the middle for the two-point conversion to the game at 17 with 6:50 remaining.
But this time the defense couldn’t hold. Wake Forest quarterback Skylar Jones found flanker Devon Brown in the flat for 26 yards on third-and-4. It was a play similar to one that N.C. State ran successfully frequently last week.
Outside linebacker Anthony Egbuniwe was flagged later in the drive for a personal foul after he hit Jones in the face, giving Wake Forest first-and-goal at the 10-yard line. But the Deacons couldn’t fully take advantage of the mental lapse, kicking a field goal on fourth down at the 9-yard line to take a 20-17 lead with less than three minutes remaining.
That’s when Nesbitt took over for the mostly mistake-free game-winning drive. After missing on his first two passes -- both shots deep -- he found Tyler Melton along the sideline for 6 yards. Going for it on fourth down, Nesbitt evaded Wake's rush and ran 16 yards for the first down to Wake's 47.
He then hit Roddy Jones for 9 yards and Stephen Hill, who otherwise had a forgettable game with two drops, for nine more. After two rushes, he hit Orwin Smith for 9 yards to set up first down at Wake's 16.
After two more rushes, he hit Earls on a slant route that wide receivers coach Buzz Preston noticed earlier might be open.
Nesbitt said he looked off the safety before coming back to hit Earls, who was open at the goal line. Earls finished with two receptions for 18 yards.
However, Tech’s series of errors started much earlier. It committed its third fumble in the first half when B.J. Bostic dropped an option pitch. But unlike the first two fumbles, it couldn’t recover this one. Wake Forest took over on the 43-yard line and methodically drove down the field, scoring on a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line to take a 10-3 lead.
Tech answered with another Blair field goal on its last drive of the half. But, like the rest of its play in the opening periods, it committed mental errors such as two dropped passes by Stephen Hill.