TAMPA, Fla. — There was still one play remaining, but the bombardment began anyway.
As Georgia Tech’s offense took the field late Saturday night to kneel the football for the final time before returning to the Sunshine State next month, several hand-sized orbs flew into its end zone as a celebration party began inside Raymond James Stadium.
Coming from all directions were oranges — boxed by Sunkist — that were tossed onto the field as players began to jump up and down on the field and their sideline.
Once quarterback Josh Nesbitt’s knee finally touched the soggy, slippery stadium turf to solidify a 39-34 ACC championship win, the Yellow Jackets knew that their No. 1 season objective had been fulfilled — they had won their conference and were headed to Miami.
“I just broke down,” Georgia Tech receiver Demaryius Thomas said of the sight of the oranges. “I knew we were going to the Orange Bowl.”
Georgia Tech’s (11-2) postseason destination, the Jan. 5 bowl marks the Yellow Jackets’ first major bowl berth since going to the Citrus Bowl in 1990, days before being declared co-national champions. The Orange Bowl berth is also Georgia Tech’s first to that particular game since 1966.
By winning the ACC championship, the Yellow Jackets claimed their first since the conference went with a title game format in 2005. It was also their first out-right ACC title since being named champions that same 1990 season.
“It was great to see everybody come down here and let us know that they had not fallen off the bandwagon after last week,” offensive guard Cord Howard said, referring to the Yellow Jackets’ 30-24 loss to rival Georgia in their previous game.
As the large, vocal Georgia Tech cheering section rained the oranges upon players, Howard said he grabbed two. One, he ate while he was on the field — the 308-pound lineman admitted he got hungry as the game ended — and another which he threw back into the stands toward his parents.
The game was won just moments prior, when defensive end Derrick Morgan corralled Clemson (8-5, 6-3) quarterback Kyle Parker for a clutch sack on a fourth-and-3 with less than 40 seconds remaining.
After scraping through a 10-for-17, two-interception, 91-yard performance on the night, Parker struggled even more on his team’s final drive. Although he completed one pass for 18 yards on the series, he threw two incompletions.
Despite the one successful pass, a holding call on the first play of the five-play drive made getting a first-down even harder for the Tigers.
Thanks to a penalty that seemed to frustrate Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, the Tigers watched their luck against Georgia Tech vanish once again.
“It was the third game in-a-row that we get a holding call on the last drive against Georgia Tech, so it’s something I’ll have to see if we can figure out what not to do,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “I don’t know that there was a holding call the whole game.”
In the previous two games in this series — both Tigers losses — Clemson was flagged for holding penalties that could have changed the outcome of the close contests.
In the latter of the two games, usually reliable offensive lineman Thomas Austin was penalized for a hold on a play that would have scored a likely game-winning touchdown for Clemson.
“It’s a painful experience,” Swinney said. “The locker room is hurting.”
The first-year head coach went on to reiterate several times that he believed the Tigers would learn from this heartbreaking defeat, and that they would be ready for success in the coming years.
“We’ve come a long way in one year; here we are in the ACC championship game and we’re Atlantic Division champs,” Swinney said. “This is where we’re supposed to be. This is our standard. This is our expectation, so hopefully we can grow from this.”
After leading the Yellow Jackets through a set of difficult games this season, Nesbitt grew up exponentially this year.
As an indication, he led Georgia Tech downfield on its second-to-last drive to respond quickly and swiftly to a Clemson score mid-way through the fourth quarter that gave the Tigers a lead.
Willing the Yellow Jackets downfield before pitching the ball to B-back Jonathan Dwyer for the game-winning 15-yard score, Nesbitt also nearly put them up even further with a hard-run 2-point conversion.
Forced to convert the play from the Clemson 7 — a false start the play before precipitated that — he held onto the ball before running through a linebacker and a safety as he dove for the end zone line. Initially ruled a score, the call was overturned by the officials after a video review.
“Those guys (Nesbitt and Dwyer) have come through for us all year,” sophomore A-back Roddy Jones said. “It was fitting that Josh and Jon led us downfield on that drive for the win.
“I mean, Josh just put us on his back and drove us downfield.”
And because of it, he and the Yellow Jackets are driving on to Miami.