ATHENS — The extraordinary scenes played out simultaneously on opposite sidelines at Sanford Stadium — and epitomized a tale of two seasons.
Georgia’s players dropped to a knee and gathered in a semicircle around coach Mark Richt, who appeared to give everyone quite a tongue-lashing. Across the way, Georgia Tech’s players crammed against each other for an impromptu celebration, hopping up and down in joyous unison.
"We just wanted to show that we came to play," Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt said.
Those contrasting displays, midway through the third quarter of Saturday’s game, offered a revealing look at how the season went for both teams.
The Bulldogs came up far short of expectations. The 15th-ranked Yellow Jackets performed better than anyone could have imagined.
Georgia Tech (9-3) ended a seven-year losing streak to its state rival with a 45-42 victory that set off a raucous celebration between the hedges. The Yellow Jackets will await a bowl invitation, but the debut season of coach Paul Johnson is already an unqualified success.
"Once everything gets in, Georgia Tech is going to be a team to contend for championships," defensive tackle Darryl Richard said.
No. 17 Georgia (9-3) was supposed to be a championship contender. The Bulldogs started the season ranked No. 1 in the country, but crushing losses to Alabama and Florida ended those hopes. Now, they aren’t even the best team in their own state.
"It’s not a season where we reached the goals we set for ourselves," coach Mark Richt said. "A victory could have put a little salve on the wound, but it didn’t happen."
The third loss of the season was much like the first two. Georgia’s defense simply couldn’t stop the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option in the second half, a nagging reminder of its performances against Alabama (the Tide led 31-0 at halftime) and Florida (the Gators romped to a 49-10 victory).
Trailing 26-12 at the start of the third quarter, Georgia Tech scored on its first play from scrimmage when Jonathan Dwyer broke off a 60-yard touchdown run, followed by a two-point conversion. After the Bulldogs went three-and-out, the Yellow Jackets ripped off a 10-play, 56-yard drive capped by Roddy Jones’ 8-yard TD scamper and two-point conversion that tied the game at 28. Finally, after Richard Samuel fumbled the ensuing kickoff, Georgia Tech scored on its very next play, Dwyer’s 23-yard run.
That’s when Richt gathered his players around him on the sideline, hoping to turn the momentum. But it was the Yellow Jackets who stepped on the gas and never let up.
Georgia Tech dominated the third quarter with a 201-1 lead in rushing yards, and essentially finished off the Bulldogs when Jones got loose for a 54-yard touchdown with just over 7 minutes remaining. He broke one tackle and sped right on by Reshad Jones’ weak attempt to push him out of bounds.
Even though Georgia drove for a touchdown that closed the gap to a field goal, Georgia Tech ran off the final 4 minutes without giving the ball back.
In all, Georgia surrendered 409 yards on the ground — its worst showing since 1994. Jones ran for 214 yards, averaging a school-record 16.5 every time he touched the ball. Dwyer added 144 yards on 20 carries. Georgia Tech rallied from a big deficit despite completing just one pass the entire game.
"You can’t do that with this offense," Johnson said sarcastically. "It’s three yards and a cloud of dust."
It wasn’t a total victory for the Yellow Jackets. Virginia Tech beat Virginia 17-14 to clinch a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, sealing the victory with a late interception. If the Cavaliers had won, Georgia Tech would have gone on to face Boston College in Tampa next Saturday.
"It’s bittersweet to me still because I think we could have gone to Tampa Bay and been victorious," Richard said. "But we had our opportunity. We can’t sulk and cry."
Besides, the Yellow Jackets still had plenty of reason to celebrate, and that’s just what they did in front of a small contingent of gold-clad fans. They danced. They sang the "Ramblin’ Wreck" fight song. They broke off branches of the famous Sanford Stadium hedge to keep as souvenirs.
Who knows where they’ll end up next? There are all sorts of bowl options in the convoluted ACC, though the most likely ones would seem to be the Chick-fil-A in hometown Atlanta, the Gator in Jacksonville, Fla., or the Champs Sports in Orlando, Fla.
Georgia will probably accept a spot in the more attractive Capital One Bowl in Orlando, then await word on whether its two best offensive players, quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Knowshon Moreno, will return for another season or enter the NFL draft.
No matter what they decide, the Bulldogs hope to learn from a season that will be remembered for what they didn’t do.
"We’ve got a lot of guys coming back, a lot great athletes," linebacker Rennie Curran said. "I feel like we’re going be fine in the end. We’ve just got to look at this season, learn from our mistakes, learn what went wrong and try to improve on it."