Clemson’s second heart-breaking loss to Georgia Tech this season cost the school a first-ever berth in a BCS bowl game.
Holding the advantage on the scoreboard for the first time since the first quarter, Kevin Steele sent his defense out to protect a 34-33 lead and 6:05 to play.
It was one more touchdown that proved to be too costly in the 39-34 loss to Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets drove 86 yards on 13 plays to go up 39-34, courtesy of Jonathan Dwyer’s 15-yard touchdown run.
“All you’ve got to do is get a three and out or a six and out,” Steele said. “We couldn’t do it. We had our chance to win the game. Defensively, we dropped the ball.
“The offense scored enough to win the game.”
With 1:20 left on the clock, Clemson’s potential game-winning drive ended on Kyle Parker’s fourth-down rush for no gain.
But once again on a final drive against Georgia Tech, a crucial holding penalty put Clemson behind the chains.
“Third game in a row we get a holding call on the last drive against Georgia Tech,” said coach Dabo Swinney, “so it’s something I’ll have to see if we can figure out what not to do.”
The loss drops Clemson to 8-5 on the season and improves Georgia Tech to 11-2.
“It’s extremely disappointing, extremely frustrating,” said Michael Palmer. “Georgia Tech made one more play than we did. That’s pretty much as simple as it goes.”
Paul Johnson’s Yellow Jackets scored on their first seven possessions, racking up over 37 minutes with the ball in their possession. In a game that had no punts, the offense wasn’t forced off the field without some kind of points until Jonathan Nesbitt was stopped in the fourth quarter on a fourth-down run at the Clemson 37-yardline.
One more fourth-down stop at the Georgia Tech 23 would have sealed Clemson’s second trip to Miami this season.
“We’ve just got to help them learn to (make stops) all the time,” Steele said. “Sometimes that’s technique, sometimes it’s schematics, sometimes it’s just making sure that you’re the right guy at the right place.”
Dwyer and Nesbitt rushed for 110 and 103 yards, respectively, pacing the Georgia Tech ground attack that stung Clemson’s defense all night. Neither shined brighter than C.J. Spiller, who rushed for 233 yards and four touchdowns, earning the game’s MVP honors.
Down 33-20 at the start of the fourth quarter, the window on Clemson’s title hopes appeared to be almost completely shut. Thanks to Spiller’s nine-yard touchdown run, the Tigers’ weren’t done yet. After the defense’s fourth-down stop, Spiller rushed twice for 57 yards and caught a pass for five yards, setting up Andre Ellington for a one-yard touchdown run.
As he’s done through the course of his Clemson career, Spiller credited the offensive line.
“Those guys did a great job early establishing the run, so I kind of got comfortable seeing how the defense was playing,” he said. “They were over pursuing. I was able to get a lot of cutbacks.”
Clemson put together a big night on the ground, rushing 34 times and 323 yards. Ellington ran five times for 63 yards and Jamie Harper chipped in with 12 on three carries.
Offensive coordinator Billy Napier put together a game plan that focused on challenging Georgia Tech’s run defense.
“We wanted to make them show us they could stop the run before we even attempted to be balanced,” he said. “We wanted to be heavy run oriented before they could stop us. They never really did and we continued to run the ball. That helped us keep third-down reasonable so that (Derrick) Morgan wasn’t a factor.”
Morgan’s opportunities to pressure Kyle Parker were limited since Clemson threw just 17 times. Of those throws, Parker was intercepted twice with each resulting in field goals by Scott Blair.
“I thought we worked hard. We laid it on the line and gave everything we had,” Parker said. “It just wasn’t good enough.”
The loss leaves Clemson looking a couple of bowl options, none of which include the Orange Bowl. The Tigers are looking at the Champs Sports Bowl or the Music City Bowl as potential destinations later this month.
Ricky Sapp doesn’t believe the back-to-back losses diminish what’s been accomplished during his senior season.
“We had a great season. We fought hard, won big games--I don’t think this loss (takes away from it),” he said. “We just have to get ready for the bowl game.”