ATLANTA — It was easy to understand if football fans started flipping the television channels or got up and walked out of Bobby Dodd Stadium early Thursday night with pictures of a certain ending playing out.
But Paul Johnson thinks those fans probably should not have.
“Well, I hope nobody left,” the Georgia Tech head coach said energetically after Thursday night’s ACC showdown with Clemson. “We tried to make it exciting for everybody.”
In typical Clemson-Georgia Tech fashion, the series’ latest contest ended in the down-to-the-wire, nail-biting manner that has defined the conference rivalry for much of the past two decades.
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After a pair of scoring streaks from both teams, it was Georgia Tech that prevailed at the end of the thriller, coming away with a 30-27 win on a final-minute score.
With just 57 seconds remaining in a game tied at 27, the Yellow Jackets — who led 24-0 at the start of the second quarter — received the game-winning lift when place-kicker Scott Blair booted home a 36-yard field goal, sending the more than 52,000-person crowd into a frenzy.
“Relieved, really relieved,” a smiling Blair said, describing his feelings when he watched the ball sail through the uprights and into the south end zone stands.
That could be considered an understatement.
For Blair, whose career has largely been defined by his struggles instead of his successes, the words “comforted” and “reassured” could be applied, as well.
Last year, he converted just 63 percent of his field goals and couldn’t nail a single one from beyond 39 yards. But in Thursday night’s pressure-packed situation, he came through.
“Scott came up really big,” Johnson said. “Scott always kicks well in practice, and he made it when we needed him to. I think that is really going to help him with his confidence.”
Going 3-for-3 on his field goals, Blair also converted all three of his extra point attempts, a week after missing one PAT wide.
But kicking wasn’t the only thing Blair proved he could do. He was a part of another key special teams play, when he connected with receiver Demaryius Thomas on a pass completion.
Cheated out of another field goal opportunity, Blair broke his place-kicking formation late in the first quarter, when he unexpectedly lobbed a pass to Thomas down Georgia Tech’s sideline. Once Thomas caught the floater, he stiff-armed a Clemson defender before racing in for Georgia Tech’s third touchdown of the game.
“Coach had told me early in the week that if I didn’t score a touchdown in this game, that I was never going to score a touchdown again,” Thomas said. “So I had to take advantage of it. I was happy he called (the play). He knew it was going to work.”
Johnson said the team had practiced the play during the week and that between his 12-year coaching career at Georgia Tech, Georgia Southern and Navy, he has run the fake about three or four times.
“Knock on wood, every time we have run the thing it has been successful,” Johnson said. “It’s tough if you are not really paying attention with all of those guys crossing on the field.”
Like they did in their season opener Saturday against Jacksonville State, the Yellow Jackets got the scoring going early. It took them just one offensive play to break through for a touchdown. Against the Tigers, it only took two.
During the play, the Yellow Jackets handed off to junior A-back Anthony Allen, who scored his first rushing touchdown of his Georgia Tech career when he sprinted untouched for an 82-yard score. The running back is playing this season for the first time after transferring from Louisville nearly two years ago.
“Oh man, it (the field) was wide open, and as soon as I caught the pitch, (receiver Demaryius) Thomas made a good block on the corner,” Allen said. “I almost gave up on the 10-yard line, my legs got tired. But I put it in the end zone for y’all.”
Following Allen’s touchdown, the Yellow Jackets added another on Clemson’s ensuing possession, when punt return specialist Jerrard Tarrant took back his second punt return for a touchdown in as many games.
On the play, the Tigers were set up for a 50-yard-plus field goal, but place-kicker Richard Jackson booted a pooch-style punt toward Georgia Tech’s end zone. Snuffing out the play, Tarrant was in position to field the kick and break through Clemson’s unit for the score.
Following those early game scores, Clemson went on a 27-3 tear before Blair’s game-winning kick. With the Tigers’ offense finally clicking, the Yellow Jackets had trouble closing out the game.
“I just really feel that the team we beat (Thursday) is a very good football team,” Johnson said. “We made just enough plays to get the win.
“We are off to a 2-0 start, which makes the next game bigger.”
Georgia Tech next travels to Miami on Thursday for another ACC game.