ATLANTA — Before the game began, they meandered through a crowd.
Walking down the one-way avenue known as “Yellow Jacket Alley,” Georgia Tech players maintained tradition Saturday afternoon by greeting fans while walking into Bobby Dodd Stadium ahead of a key conference showdown.
Then, several hours later, after the final whistle blew, they once again found themselves navigating their way through a throng of fans. But this time it was a much bigger one, and their journey back to the locker room was met with even greater fanfare.
Victors in a thrilling 28-23 upset over No. 4 Virginia Tech, the 19th-ranked Yellow Jackets were joined on Grant Field by thousands of students and spectators who rushed the field hoping to celebrate with their heroes.
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And after many of them lingered and listened to a fervent, on-field prayer led by team chaplain Derrick Moore, they created a makeshift lane — an alley — as they bid farewell to the players who had just completed one of the biggest wins in school history.
“It’s the biggest thing that’s happened to me since I’ve been here,” Georgia Tech junior quarterback Josh Nesbitt said.
The win was Georgia Tech’s first over a top-five program since the Yellow Jackets beat No. 1 Alabama at home in 1962. It also kept Georgia Tech’s (6-1, 4-1 ACC) hopes alive for advancing to the ACC championship game.
“Winning makes the next game bigger,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said.
As if the emotions of Saturday night’s game weren’t enough, the Yellow Jackets must now venture to Charlottesville, Va., for a contest that could help dictate their playing future this season. Another win, and they may be in the conference championship.
“I mean, there are still games left to be played, so you can’t worry about it. All we can focus on is Virginia,” Johnson said. “What we did (Saturday) was stay alive and put everyone else back in it.”
At 2-0 in conference play, the Cavaliers rank first in the Coastal Division. The Yellow Jackets, at 4-1, are in sole possession of second place and now hold a tiebreaker over the Hokies (5-2, 3-1) in case they both finish the year atop the division.
Leading Georgia Tech to its dramatic charge in front of a near-sellout of 54,405 was Nesbitt. The Greene County product rushed for 122 yards en route to a three-touchdown performance.
Manufacturing several long, successful drives, Nesbitt played with the same passion that led Johnson to call him a “warrior” following last week’s gutsy performance in Georgia Tech’s 49-44 win over Florida State.
“Josh is such a competitor,” Johnson said. “He’ll be the first to tell you he didn’t play well in the first half, but in the second half, I think he might have had just two bad reads on the option. All in all, he does what it takes to win the game.”
Not only did the bulk of Nesbitt’s yards come in the second half, but 272 of Georgia Tech’s 360 total yards came in the final two quarters.
“They lined up differently than they played last year, and we acted like we had never seen that defense,” Johnson said of Georgia Tech’s first half offensively. “They played like a lot of other people have, but for whatever reason in the first half, we were kind of like in zombie land out there.
“In the second half, we executed much better. (The Hokies) played exactly the same way the whole game on defense. We got the reads right and everyone went in the right direction.”
In addition to their offense’s success, the Yellow Jackets got the type of defensive performance that they have been longing to see all year.
Georgia Tech’s defenders combined to shut down the Hokies’ prolific run game and kept shifty quarterback Tyrod Taylor contained.
“We had a good plan and simplified it,” Johnson said. “We didn’t do a lot; the guys just played hard and flew to the ball. We made some mistakes, but all in all, those (players) played well. Everybody knew what they were doing and showed up to play.”
Limiting Hokies running back Ryan Williams — the ACC’s leading rusher entering the game — to 100 yards and sacking Taylor twice, Georgia Tech’s defense responded positively after giving up 539 total yards to Florida State the previous week.
“You have to be really disciplined on defense (playing Taylor),” said linebacker Steven Sylvester who got his second career start. “He scrambles a lot, you have to play your pass responsibility, you can’t run up field because once he gets going, you can’t stop him. So it’s important to get him on the ground as soon as you can.”
Sylvester got Taylor to the ground quickly in the first quarter, sacking the elusive signal-caller on a play that he felt set the tone for the defense and got the crowd even more energized.
Once the team finally returned to its locker room after traversing its makeshift alley, the fans on the field continued their celebration.
Bringing down the north end zone field goal posts some 30 minutes after the game ended, fans took them off the field and out of the stadium.
With fans in tow, the posts were last seen bobbing blissfully in the night down Yellow Jacket Alley.