Two years into his rebuilding job at Georgia Tech, Paul Johnson has the Yellow Jackets exactly where he had hoped.
Atlantic Coast Conference champions and headed to a BCS bowl for the first time.
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Jonathan Dwyer’s 15-yard touchdown run with 1:20 remaining capped a long winning drive and gave the 12th-ranked Yellow Jackets a 39-34 victory over No. 25 Clemson in Saturday night’s ACC championship game.
Josh Nesbitt threw a 70-yard TD pass to DeMaryius Thomas and Scott Blair kicked a title game-record four field goals to help the Yellow Jackets (11-2) win the crown – Tech’s first since sharing it with Florida State in 1998 – in their second season under Johnson.
Next up is a trip to the Orange Bowl for the Yellow Jackets’ first major postseason appearance since the 1966 season, when they also made the trek to Miami.
“When we took the job, this is the reason we took it – to have a chance to compete and go to BCS bowl games,” said Johnson, who won two Division I-AA national titles at Georgia Southern and also had a successful stint at Navy before taking over at Tech.
ACC player of the year C.J. Spiller rushed for 233 yards and four touchdowns for Clemson (8-5), which has lost two straight following a six-game winning streak that revived its season after a slow start.
“A lot of people had us written off, but we stayed together,” Spiller said. “You never want to come up short, but those guys just made the extra play to win.”
The Tigers are eager to learn where their first full season under coach Dabo Swinney will end.
“We had the second-best record in the league. There is a (bowl) pecking order and I would hope we will be where we’ll supposed to be,” Swinney said.
Baker, the star of Georgia Tech’s three-point victory over Clemson during the regular season, kicked field goals of 48, 49, 28 and 40 yards. Dwyer ran for two TDs and Nesbitt ran for one for the Yellow Jackets, who rushed for 333 yards.
Spiller’s scoring plays covered 3, 41, 36 and 9 yards, the latter trimming a 13-point deficit to 33-27 with 12 minutes remaining. His longest run of the night, a 54-yarder to the Georgia Tech 9, put him over 200 yards and set up Andre Ellington’s 1-yard run that put the Tigers ahead 34-33 with 6:11 left.
Georgia Tech marched 86 yards in 13 plays to regain the lead. Dwyer finished with 110 yards on 24 carries. Nesbitt, a distant second to Spiller for conference player of the year, rushed for 103 yards on 22 attempts.
“There’s no way that we’re going to lay down and give up,” Dwyer said. “Everybody was boosting everybody up, telling each other we’re going to score.”
The teams combined for 883 yards of total offense, including 656 on the ground. Neither team punted.
“It was a shootout, but unfortunately we just couldn’t get the ball enough,” Swinney said.
“It’s a painful experience and I hope we’ll grow and learn from this. We’ve got a lot of juniors, sophomores and freshmen on this team and hopefully they will understand what it’s all about.”
Spiller, an all-purpose threat from Lake Butler, Fla., hiked his season rushing total to 1,145 yards. He’s scored a Clemson single-season record 20 touchdowns – 11 rushing, four receiving and five on kick returns.
The Yellow Jackets and Tigers were among the hottest teams in the country before stumbling against instate rivals Georgia and South Carolina to close the regular season.
Johnson and Swinney, however, scoffed at the notion that the losses to a couple of middle of the pack SEC teams took some of the luster off a matchup between the ACC’s highest scoring teams.
The title game appearance was the second for Georgia Tech, which failed to score a touchdown in a 9-6 loss to Wake Forest in 2006, and now has its first outright ACC championship since 1990 – the year before Clemson won the most recent of its league-record 13 crowns.
“We’ve come a long way in one year,” said Swinney, who replaced Tommy Bowden on Oct. 13, 2008 and guided the Tigers in the final seven games of last season.
“This is where Clemson is supposed to be. This is our standard. This is our expectation,” Swinney added. “So, hopefully we can grow from this.”