ATLANTA — With a storybook finish and one gutsy late-game decision, Paul Johnson’s legend grew Saturday Bobby Dodd Stadium.
In front of a somewhat stunned, pin-drop quiet crowd of 51,415, the Georgia Tech head coach — without flinching — opted to have his offense convert a short-yardage fourth-down that held the team’s season in the balance.
Leaving his place-kicker on the sidelines for what was sure to be a 22-yard, game-tying overtime field goal, Johnson pushed his offense back onto the field after a timeout and asked his quarterback to get a first down.
“You got to play to win,” Johnson said. “If we can’t get a half a yard, then we probably didn’t deserve to win.”
Apparently, the Yellow Jackets did.
With junior quarterback Josh Nesbitt diving ahead 2 yards for the key first-down through a jam-packed Wake Forest defensive line, and then sprinting 3 yards into the end zone one play later, Georgia Tech escaped with 30-27 overtime win that is sure to be remembered as one of Johnson’s greatest moments with the program.
The victory keeps the 10th-ranked Yellow Jackets in clear control of their ACC title hopes and allows them to continue to cling to the notion that a BCS bowl is within reach.
On a day that saw fellow top-10 teams No. 4 Iowa, No. 8 Oregon and No. 9 LSU among the nation’s losers, the Yellow Jackets want their victory Saturday to beget others during the next four weeks. If so, they could be looking at their best season finish since 1990’s national championship campaign.
“We’ve just got to keep winning,” junior receiver Demaryius Thomas said. “Whatever happens, will happen at the end of the season.”
After claiming its seventh straight win, Georgia Tech heads into this weekend’s road contest at Duke with a strong possibility of clinching the Coastal Division title for the first time since 2006. That was the last year the Yellow Jackets appeared in the conference championship game, and it was also the last time they had played Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons won that contest 9-6.
Nesbitt’s successful fourth-down dive came after the Yellow Jackets had gone 0-for-4 on fourth-down conversions during regulation. It also came after they had converted eight of their previous nine fourth-down opportunities in the past five games.
“Before (Johnson) said it, I was coming, running off the field (after the timeout) saying I could get it,” Nesbitt said. “He asked me was I sure, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I know I can get it.’ So he said, ‘We’re running it.’ ”
For Georgia Tech B-back Jonathan Dwyer — who set a career-high 189 yards rushing one week after establishing a previous high of 186 — the sign that Nesbitt and Johnson were on the same page was a big positive.
“I figured most likely with him (Johnson), he was going to go for it,” Dwyer said. “That just shows how much he believes in us, and who wouldn’t want to play for a coach like that whose going to believe in you? And just know that with the game on the line, he’s going to put it in our hands and let us do what we’re supposed to do.”
Dwyer was handed the ball 23 times total, but it was his first handoff of the second half that helped to turn the game’s momentum.
As Georgia Tech trailed 17-10 coming out of halftime, Dwyer dashed 59 yards up the middle of the field for a touchdown run that tied the game and gave the Yellow Jackets a much-needed second-half spark.
Nearly a full quarter later, Nesbitt kept that spark going when he ran in for his first touchdown — a 12-yard score that gave the Yellow Jackets a 24-17 lead.
“I don’t know that he played one of his better games, but in the end, (Nesbitt) fought and competed and found a way to win the game,” Johnson said.
That lead was dashed moments later, however, as Wake Forest quarterback Riley Skinner engineered a seven-play, 74-yard drive on the Demon Deacons’ next possession that ended in a game-tying score.
Connecting with Devon Brown on an 11-yard pass, Skinner kept the Demon Deacons in the ballgame. For the day, the four-year starter — who saw limited practice time last week due to a concussion from the game before — was 26-for-40 passing for 263 yards and two touchdowns.
“The guy’s very seasoned, he knows where he’s going,” Johnson said. “In the second half, we tried to disguise some things a little better — give him a blitz look and drop back into zone, and do some other things — but he’s a pretty sharp cookie. He knows what’s going on out there.”
With the win, Johnson is now 9-1 at Georgia Tech in games decided by fewer than five points.
“To the (players’) credit, they found a way to win it in the end and 30 is more than 27,” Johnson said. “Now, we have the biggest game of the year (this) week.”