DURHAM, N.C. — Before the ink had fully dried on his initial contract with Georgia Tech, Paul Johnson’s sales pitch began.
The head coach was out to convince everyone — from his players, to fans, to naysayers and supporters — that his spread option offense work at a BCS program and that it would lead his newest team to a conference championship and beyond.
Saturday afternoon at Wallace Wade Stadium, he almost made good on that promise.
Almost, that is — because his work is not done.
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Leading his Yellow Jackets to a 49-10 thumping of Duke, Johnson helped his team clinch the ACC’s Coastal Division crown. As a result, the Yellow Jackets will head to Tampa, Fla., on Dec. 5 to play in the conference championship game for the first time since 2006.
“A lot of people have doubted them along the way, and they’ve just been resilient, and they kept playing,” Johnson said of his players. “Lord knows we can play a lot better and we need to, but I’ll give them credit, they find a way to win.”
Sitting on the losing side of a 10-0 contest as they neared the end of Saturday’s first quarter, the Yellow Jackets (10-1, 7-1 ACC) seemed far from claiming their eighth straight win.
The Blue Devils (5-5, 3-3) struck for two quick scores — an 18-yard touchdown pass and a 31-yard field goal — before Georgia Tech had barely mustered a first down Saturday.
“Offensively, (the Blue Devils) came out in some different looks, and it kind of got some guys off, but once we settled down, it was the same old stuff,” Georgia Tech A-back Roddy Jones said.
“The same old stuff” meant reverting to what comprised a total team effort, in which Georgia Tech’s offense, defense and special teams flowed for one strong effort.
One particular special teams play got the Yellow Jackets going early and led them to scoring the 49 unanswered points. That tally also marked the highest point total the team has ever amassed at Duke.
With nearly one minute remaining in the first quarter, Georgia Tech true freshman kick returner Orwin Smith sprinted 83 yards on his second return of the game. After initially dropping the ball, Smith picked it up and carried it to the Duke 2-yard line, where he was wrestled down. One play later, quarterback Josh Nesbitt added Georgia Tech’s opening score on a dive inside.
“You get to the 2-yard line, you jump over it if you feel someone is close to you,” offensive lineman Cord Howard jokingly said of Smith’s return.
Smith and Howard attended the same Phenix City, Ala., high school.
“Yeah, when he (Howard) messes up or misses a block, I’ll go over to him on the sideline and say, ‘He’s not from Phenix City,’ ” Smith said, laughing. “That’s just from growing up together.”
Following Nesbitt’s score, the Yellow Jackets added four more via the run and another two through the air.
Nesbitt’s first touchdown pass traveled 32 yards and was caught by another true freshman, Stephen Hill, who hauled in the reception as he tip-toed in the back of the end zone. The second strike was a 75-yard bomb that West Laurens product Demaryius Thomas snagged around a defender in front of the Yellow Jackets’ bench before sprinting in untouched.
“Coming into the game I just wanted to calm myself down, and no matter what happened, I wanted to just stay calm throughout the whole game,” Nesbitt said.
Hill said he noticed Nesbitt’s concerted effort at keeping focused.
“He’s calm every game, but it’s like we were having more fun giggling, laughing and staying in the game,” Hill said.
Along with those performances in the passing game, the Yellow Jackets enjoyed another big day from B-back Jonathan Dwyer, who rushed for 110 yards, surpassing the 100-yard mark for the fourth consecutive game. He also exceeded the 1,200-yard rushing mark for the season and finished the day 192 yards shy of the career-high season mark he set last year.
Defensively, tackle Ben Anderson enjoyed a banner day, wrapping up a career-high two sacks and constantly putting pressure on Duke’s backfield.
Blue Devils quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, who has surpassed the 300-yard passing mark multiple times this season, was held to just 212 yards.
“After my first sack, I just turned it up, I guess,” Anderson said. “Over the past few games, I got to the quarterback just after he got rid of the ball — I remember against Virginia that happened multiple times — but to get sacks under my belt really feels good.”
In the conference title game, the Yellow Jackets will take on the winner of the Atlantic Division. Depending on how teams on that side of the conference fare the remaining weeks, Georgia Tech could be looking at a rematch with Clemson.
The Yellow Jackets knocked off the Tigers 30-27 in Atlanta in the second game of the season.
“It’s a compilation of a lot of hard work,” Jones said. “We’ve been working hard ever since the last season ended. This is our goal, but we’ve put ourselves in position to accomplish the ultimate goal, which is an ACC championship.”