It will go down as one of the most heartbreaking defeats in Clemson football history.
Aided by a major special teams blunder late in the 4th quarter, Georgia Tech erased a 10-point lead over the final 3:18 to grab an improbable 28-24 upset victory at an overflowing Memorial Stadium Saturday night.
The gaff came as Clemson had possession with a 24-21 lead with less than 30 seconds remaining to play. After failing to second-and-inches and third-and-inches, the Tigers were forced to punt deep in their own territory.
It would take somewhat of a minor miracle for the Yellow Jackets to either tie or win the game. Ask and ye shall receive.
Clemson senior center Geoff Rigsby rolled his snap along the ground to punter Cole Chason, who couldn’t handle the bouncing ball, which squirted past him. He finally dove on top of it at the Tigers 11 with just 0:16 left in the game.
On the very next play, Georgia Tech quarterback Reggie Ball threw a lofted pass to freshman receiver Calvin Johnson, who promptly reached over Tigers cornerback Justin Miller and caught it for the score.
“It came down to an execution standpoint on our part and we had that fumble on the punt snap,” Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said. “Geoff hasn’t done that in a year and a half, and it just happened to happen tonight.”
The game-winning touchdown came in the exact same place Clemson wide receiver Kelvin Grant caught the game-tying two-point conversion in the final seconds last week against Wake Forest.
This time, however, there was disbelief rather than euphoria.
“We have had tough losses before,” Clemson quarterback Charlie Whitehurst said. “Wake Forest was a tough one last year. But we didn’t give up and we won’t give up now.”
It was the third touchdown reception for Johnson, who finished with eight catches for 127 yards, most of which came against cornerback Tye Hill.
The 20th-ranked Tigers, who fall to 1-1 overall and 1-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, had one final shot to win, but a 31-yard pass attempt from Whitehurst to Kelvin Grant was broken up to complete the incredible Georgia Tech (2-0, 1-0 ACC) victory.
“You may watch a lot of football in your life, but you may never see anything like that,” Yellow Jackets coach Chan Gailey said. “I hope you enjoyed it. I did.”
While it’s easy to single out Rigsby’s snap, there were several other plays that cost the Tigers down the stretch.
Justin Miller dropped a sure interception on one of Georgia Tech’s final possessions and Clemson was called for a celebration penalty after Reggie Merriweather’s long touchdown run, which allowed the Yellow Jackets to get great field position on the following series.
Calvin Johnson reaches over Justin Miller for the game-winning touchdown. (Getty)
But the two biggest plays came on the two plays just prior to the bad snap. Facing second-and-inches and third-and inches, Whitehurst ran two quarterback sneaks up the middle, which resulted in zero yardage and forced Clemson to punt.
“It’s a game of inches,” Whitehurst said. “I wonder how close I got on those two plays. But you have to give them credit for not giving up.”
In the moments prior to the bad snap by Clemson, it looked as though the Tigers would literally run away from the Yellow Jackets in the final quarter of play to stay undefeated on the season.
Clemson reserve sophomore tailback Reggie Merriweather, bolted practically untouched up the middle for a 62-yard touchdown to give the Tigers a 17-7 lead with 8:19 to play.
The run by Merriweather was the longest run by a tailback in the six years under Bowden and the longest run by a Clemson running back since Raymond Priester’s 65-yard dash against South Carolina in 1996.
Following a Yellow Jackets score to make it 17-14, it appeared the backbreaker for Tech came on the Clemson’s very next possession as junior running back Kyle Browning did exactly what Merriweather had previously done and broke free up the middle on a handoff and outraced the defense for a 54-yard touchdown to give Clemson a 24-14 lead with 3:18 remaining in the game.
The Yellow Jackets kept it close when they took the ensuing kickoff and marched right down the field and cut the lead to 24-21, after Ball connected with Johnson on an eight-yard touchdown pass with 1:50 to set up the final dramatics.
It was a wild fourth quarter in which a combined 35 points were scored after the teams combined for just 17 through the first three quarters.
The Tigers finally broke on top of the Yellow Jackets when placekicker Stephen Furr booted a 37-yard field goal to give Clemson 10-7 lead with just 20 seconds left in the third quarter.
Clemson was able to take the lead despite Georgia Tech having the better field position for nearly the entire quarter.
A bit of fortune came Clemson’s way on Georgia Tech’s first possession of the third quarter after the Yellow Jackets had marched all the way to the Tigers 1-1/2 yard line.
On third down, Ball threw an incomplete pass to bring up fourth down. However, when the official went to spot the ball, he moved it back to the 2, causing the Yellow Jackets to lose a half yard.
On fourth down, Georgia Tech ran a sweep with tailback P.J. Daniels, who was stopped a half yard short of the goal line, which gave Clemson possession of the ball.
With Georgia Tech leading in the second quarter, the Tigers tied things at 7-7 when junior wide receiver Curtis Baham hauled in a 22-yard pass from quarterback Charlie Whitehurst on a simple post route with 12:49 left before the half.
The Yellow Jackets struck first after Johnson took in a 37-yard pass from Ball with 4:37 remaining in the first quarter.
The first half statistics were pretty even, but the biggest positive for Clemson came in the rushing attack.
Clemson finished with 199 yards rushing on 30 carries, 90 of which came from Merriweather and 80 of which came from Browning.
Whitehurst finished with 275 yards passing by completing 20 of his 43 attempts. However, he threw two interceptions.
Georgia Tech was led by Daniels, who gained 103 yards rushing, and Johnson, who had 127 yard receiving. Levon Thomas also added a 100 yards receiving and a touchdown, while Ball finished with 251 yards passing and four touchdowns.
“That is a tough on to take,” Clemson linebacker Leroy Hill said. “To be that close to a win and have it taken out of our hands really hurts. As seniors we will regroup and have everyone focused on the next game (at Texas A&M). This game doesn’t end our season. We still have everything to play for.
GT 7 0 0 21 -- 28
CU 0 7 3 14 -- 24
GT – Calvin Johnson 37-yard pass from Reggie Ball with 4:37 left in the first quarter (Travis Bell kick). Drive: 8 plays, 80 yards, 2:55 TOP.
CU – Curtis Baham 22-yard pass from Charlie Whitehurst with 12:49 left in the second quarter (Stephen Furr kick). Drive: 9 plays, 80 yards, 3:09 TOP.
CU – Furr 37-yard field goal with 0:20 left in the third quarter. Drive: 10 plays, 74 yards, 2:48 TOP.
CU – Reggie Merriweather 62-yard run with 8:19 left in the fourth quarter (Furr kick). Drive: 3 plays, 71 yards, 0:51 TOP.
GT – Levon Thomas 19-yard pass from Ball with 4:36 left in the fourth quarter (Bell kick). Drive: 5 plays, 49 yards, 1:20 TOP.
CU – Kyle Browning 54-yard run with 3:18 left in the fourth quarter (Furr kick). Drive: 3 plays, 65 yards, 1:18 TOP.
GT – Johnson 8-yard pass from Ball with 1:50 left in the fourth quarter (Bell kick). Drive: 8 plays, 51 yards, 1:28 TOP.
GT – Johnson 11-yard pass from Ball with 0:11 left in the fourth quarter (Bell kick). 1 play, 11 yards, 0:05 TOP.