Given an opportunity to redeem a season that had wallowed in mediocrity, Georgia Tech turned it down.
In the ACC Championship game Saturday night, the Yellow Jackets gave a game effort, but lived out flaws that have plagued them since the Labor Day opener in a 21-15 loss to No. 13 Florida State. In so doing, Tech let slip away a spot in the Orange Bowl and what would have been the school’s fourth ACC championship.
As has often been the case this season, poor tackling and an inability to finish doomed the Jackets, who cranked out 301 yards against the nation’s No. 2-ranked defense, but couldn’t find the end zone until less than seven minutes remained. It echoed Tech’s loss to Georgia last Saturday, when the Jackets outgained the Bulldogs yet lost 42-10.
The loss dropped Tech to 6-7, guaranteeing that the Jackets can finish no better than .500 for the second time in coach Paul Johnson’s five seasons. The team will be required to use the bowl-eligibility waiver from the NCAA to receive a bowl invite, Tech’s 16th in a row. The Jackets will learn their bowl destination Sunday.
The ACC title-game loser can fall no lower than the Sun Bowl, which has the third pick of ACC teams after the BCS bowls. However, Tech officials have said they would be willing to drop past the Sun Bowl, where Tech played last year. If an agreement can be made, Tech’s likely destination would be either the Belk Bowl, back in Charlotte on Dec. 27 (possible opponent: Cincinnati), or the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., on Dec. 31 (Vanderbilt or Mississippi). USC has been projected for the Sun Bowl to face the ACC.
Tech’s last gasp was a drive that began with 2:17 to play on its 15-yard line. The Jackets reached their 42-yard line, but quarterback Tevin Washington’s interception on a pass to A-back Robert Godhigh closed the door.
Far before that, however, a shoddy first half of defense backed Tech into a corner that, against FSU’s swift and punishing defenders, the Jackets had little chance to escape. The Seminoles drove for touchdowns on three of their first four possessions of the game, establishing a 21-3 lead with 4:56 remaining in the half. FSU running back James Wilder Jr. ran hard and shed tackle attempts with ease, gaining 55 yards and scoring two touchdowns in the first half alone. He was named game MVP.
The Seminoles (11-2) averaged 7.3 yards per play in the half, when they did all of their scoring.
The offense, meanwhile, got into gear as the game wore on. After punting on their first three series, the Jackets advanced the ball three times to the FSU 30-yard line or inside over the next five possessions, stretching into the third quarter.
However, those possessions produced only three field goals, leaving Tech behind 21-9 going into the fourth quarter. Two plays, both Washington passes, just missed. On one, he threw to wide receiver Jeff Greene on a third-and-13 from the FSU 30 near the end of the first half. Greene caught the ball near the goal line, but his left foot hit the pylon as he touched down, putting him out of bounds. Tech was relegated to take a David Scully 47-yard field goal.
In the third quarter, on another third-and-13, this time from the FSU 19, Godhigh worked free running to the goal line, but Washington’s pass was just long, forcing another field goal.
Another crucial moment occurred midway through the third quarter with the score 21-6 in FSU’s favor. Inside linebacker Jabari Hunt-Days forced a fumble with a hard shoulder tackle on wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, giving Tech the ball on the FSU 49. However, on the next play, a gadget play blew up.
A-back Synjyn Days — Hunt-Days’ older brother and a converted quarterback — took a toss from Washington, who slipped out of the backfield to the left side. Days dropped back to throw to Washington, who was well-covered, and the pass was intercepted.
The Tech defense, as was the case in games against North Carolina and Duke, rallied strong after halftime. Fueled by standout plays from outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu, Jabari Hunt-Days and defensive end Emmanuel Dieke, Tech contained the Seminoles, forcing two punts and three turnovers in the first five possessions after halftime.
Tech finally got in the end zone with 6:27 left in the game, a 70-yard Washington-led drive that he finished with a 1-yard dive for his 19th touchdown of the season. However, Tech couldn’t make the two-point conversion, as Washington rolled out and then came up short on a run to the corner. It left the score 21-15.
Tech got the ball back on its 15 with a Jemea Thomas interception, leading to Tech’s final unsuccessful possession.