ATHENS -- All season long, Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson has talked about the resilience of his football team and how it has always been able to recover from adversity.
Saturday afternoon at Sanford Stadium, with 92,000 red-clad Georgia fans screaming, daring and taunting them, the Yellow Jackets stretched that elasticity to a breaking point and again found a way to win.
In one of the wackiest games in the 121-year history of the rivalry, Georgia Tech prevailed 30-24 over Georgia when D.J. White intercepted a Hutson Mason pass at the 5 in overtime.
The outcome ended Georgia Tech’s five-year winless drought against its biggest rival and sends the No. 16-ranked Yellow Jackets (10-2) into the ACC championship game with a five-game winning streak and a ton of momentum.
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No. 8 Georgia (9-3) lost to its in-state rival for only the second time in 14 tries under head coach Mark Richt.
The game included five lead changes, three fumbles inside the 5, three blocked kicks and the first fake field goal attempt in Richt’s coaching career.
“It was a really crazy game,” Johnson said. “I am so proud of our players. That is the way they have played all year. And then at the end, D.J. White makes another great play.”
The thunderous Georgia crowd was stunned to silence, the players quietly filing off the field, not knowing how to react. The Georgia Tech players raced to the corner of the west end zone and joined with the few gold-clad fans and the band in singing the fight song.
On the way to the locker room, the players grabbed souvenir pieces of the famed hedges and were met outside the doors by defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who must have grabbed, patted and hugged each of his players as they walked inside.
Conversely, the Georgia dressing room was quiet and still.
Richt said, “I’m very proud of how they played heroically. I’m disappointed the way it ended.”
The fourth quarter was one that will be talked about by both sides for years to come.
Georgia Tech took the lead for the first time at 21-17 on an 8-yard run by B-back Zach Laskey with 4:22 left. Then the Yellow Jackets then recovered the ensuing kickoff when Georgia couldn’t decide who was going to field it and had the ball at the Georgia 27.
But Georgia Tech was unable to score points or run out the clock to put the game away. Instead, it gave the ball back to Georgia via a fumble when quarterback Justin Thomas lost control and Amarlo Herrera recovered for the Bulldogs at the Bulldogs’ 31.
Georgia, starting with 2:41 left and all three timeouts, quickly worked its way downfield with a series of quick passes. And it appeared Georgia had stolen the prize from Georgia Tech when Mason threw a 3-yard pass to Malcom Mitchell on fourth-and-goal with 13 seconds left.
“I believed if we got the ball again, we had a chance to score, and sure enough we did,” Richt said. “It was a dramatic drive, scoring on fourth down. It looked like it was over, but it obviously wasn’t.”
That’s because those elastic Yellow Jackets weren’t quite done. Georgia opted for a squib kick, and Georgia Tech recovered at its 43. With few options left, Thomas managed to churn through the Georgia defense for a 21-yard gain and step out of bounds at the 36.
With four seconds remaining, Georgia Tech’s Harrison Butker came in and kicked a 53-yard field goal, passing over the white crossbar with almost 10 inches to spare. That tied the game at 24 and forced the first overtime game ever played at Sanford Stadium.
“I’m disappointed in my decision to squib kick,” Richt said. “That gave them the field position to get it in range and kick it. That was a poor decision on my part. That was no one’s decision but mine.”
Georgia Tech lost the coin flip and was forced to open on offense. The Yellow Jackets covered the 25 yards in five plays, with Laskey scoring from the 2. Butker, however, had his extra point blocked by Georgia’s Ray Drew, and Georgia Tech led 30-24.
That meant Georgia was a touchdown and extra point from reliable place-kicker Marshall Morgan. But on the fifth play of the Bulldogs’ possession, Mason’s slant pass was stolen away by White, who had his fourth interception, and set off a celebration like Georgia Tech hasn’t experienced since 2008.
“It’s a rivalry game, so of course we’re going to take it a little bit more serious because with us being seniors we haven’t beaten Georgia since we’ve been here,” Georgia Tech B-back Synjyn Days said. “So that was one of the things coming into the season on our goal board, was to beat Georgia. We’ve accomplished that, so kudos to the team, coaches and Yellow Jacket nation.”
The Yellow Jackets racked up 463 yards in total offense and survived two near-catastrophic fumbles. They had allowed Georgia to gain 388 yards but twice forced the Bulldogs to fumble the ball inside the 5, thus denying them points.
Georgia Tech, which controlled the clock for 36:23, got a career-best 140 yards rushing from Zach Laskey and another 94 from Days. Georgia’s Nick Chubb rushed 25 times for 129 yards, but 99 of that came in the first quarter, and Mason completed 18-of-28 passes for 194 yards and one touchdown.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Georgia’s program,” Johnson said. “The stadium. The fans. They have a good football team and a good football program. They have for a long time, and they will for a long time. That’s what makes it even that much more impressive for us to be able to come in here and get a win.”