ATLANTA -- Under normal circumstances a last-minute score to win a game and remain undefeated is something to be celebrated. But when it happened at Georgia Tech on Saturday, it really seemed like more of a relief, a way to avoid what appeared to be a head-on collision with embarrassment.
Georgia Tech somehow survived the Georgia Southern invasion at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
It required a 13-yard pass from Justin Thomas to Deon Hill with 23 seconds remaining to give the Yellow Jackets a 42-38 victory. But survive they did.
It also enabled the Yellow Jackets to avoid the indignity of blowing a 25-point halftime lead, something unthinkable against an ACC opponent, much less a team playing its first season of FBS football.
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“It was more exciting than it needed to be,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said. “At the end, we finally found a way to make a play on offense. A lot of stuff to still work on; 3-0 that’s a good thing.”
It looked like Georgia Tech was on its way to a defeat, a fact that empowered the local, vocal contingent of Georgia Southern fans who visited Bobby Dodd Stadium. That’s when fate -- or rather Jamal Golden -- lended a hand and turned things around.
Golden, a senior defensive back, had come up to make a play at the line and was actually blocked. But he somehow managed to reach out and tip the ball that Georgia Southern’s Favian Upshaw had pitched. The ball went to the ground and was recovered by Georgia Tech’s KeShun Freeman. After a video review, officials said the play was a pitch, not an incomplete pass and gave Georgia Tech possession.
Johnson already had decided to challenge the call if it wasn’t reviewed.
From there, the Yellow Jackets drove 72 yards in 11 plays, twice converting third downs. The final conversion was the most important. Georgia Tech needed 7 yards or would likely have settled for a tying field goal attempt to force overtime. But Thomas had other ideas.
“I knew we had to score,” Thomas said. “I wanted to get it in the end zone.”
When the ball was snapped, Georgia Southern’s Edwin Jackson came flying toward Thomas on a blitz. But Thomas made a couple of fancy steps to avoid the hit and looked up to see Hill in the end zone. All that was left was to throw it and for Hill to catch it.
“It was a play we practiced a lot this week,” Hill said. “We wanted to be patient at A-back, wait for a moment, get across the field and get open. And Justin made a great play. We had great protection from the line. Everybody did their job.”
Thomas completed only three passes in the second half but none were more important than the final one. He finished with 137 yards rushing and 188 yards passing, completing 11-of-24 attempts.
“I told (Justin) ‘We’ve got a drive to win the game. We’ve got a chance,’ ” Johnson said. “I wanted to go slow, and I think it worked out about perfect. Justin made a great play.”
Thomas smiled when talking about the final connection to a fellow Alabama native.
“We always say, we’ve got the 334 connection,” he said, referring to the area code that covers their hometowns.
Georgia Tech seemed to have things well in hand at halftime. The Yellow Jackets scored a touchdown on their first five possessions and led 35-10 at the half. But Georgia Southern responded with a vigorous second half.
“I’m extremely proud of our guys, for the effort they gave in the second half,” Georgia Southern head coach Willie Fritz said. “They still believed, and I thought our coaches did a super job of adjustments at halftime. It doesn’t count as a win, of course, but there were a lot of teachable moments and things we learned in the second half.”
The Georgia Tech offense that was so prolific in the first half didn’t look the same after the break. The Yellow Jackets had to punt the first four times they had the ball in the second half, and Georgia Southern roared back to take a 38-35 lead with 10:46 remaining when L.A. Ramsby scored on an 11-yard run.
“There’s a small margin for error when you lose focus,” Johnson said. “In the first half, we converted third downs, and in the second half we didn’t. I think when we look at the tape we’ll see that some of it was bad decisions, some of it was getting behind, and I think we lost our focus.”
But when Georgia Tech got the ball back for one final shot at a win, Johnson was confident his players could respond.
“Even with the way the second half had gone, I was still confident we could get down and score if we didn’t stop ourselves,” he said. “We felt like we had a chance when we got the ball back with four minutes left.”