CLEMSON, S.C. — Demaryius Thomas let one chance slip through his fingers. He wasn't about to blow a second one, not when it mattered so much to Georgia Tech.
Thomas caught a 24-yard touchdown pass from Josh Nesbitt with 5:22 to go Saturday, lifting the Yellow Jackets to their fourth straight victory, 21-17, and spoiling the feel-good debut of new Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.
Earlier in the fourth quarter, Thomas has slipped behind the Tiger defense but Nesbitt's perfect pass went through his hands steps from the end zone.
"I alligator-armed the ball. I didn't reach out," Thomas said. "I'm still disappointed about that."
Thomas made up for it the best way he knew, waiting through Nesbitt's pump fake and confidently grabbing the ball for the winning score.
"That's the thing with coach Johnson, he's going to give you another chance to make a big play," running back Jonathan Dwyer said.
Georgia Tech sure needed one down the stretch.
The Yellow Jackets (6-1, 3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) took advantage of Clemson's confused offense — coordinator Rob Spence was let go by Swinney soon after taking over — and the inexperience of freshman quarterback to build a lead.
Clemson's botched attempt at a flea-flicker ended with receiver Tyler Grishman's pass picked off by Dominique Reese, who took it 34 yards for the opening touchdown.
Nesbitt finished off a 9-play, 80-yard drive with a 5-yard scoring run just before halftime to go up 14-3.
But feeding off the emotion of Swinney's first game, oft-criticized quarterback Cullen Harper threw for two third-quarter touchdowns to Aaron Kelly, another senior who has so far not lived up to past performances.
That's when the Yellow Jackets dug in.
"The kids have shown some toughness and character on the road," said Georgia Tech's first-year coach, Paul Johnson. "It makes you proud."
Swinney said he was proud of his group, despite the loss.
Bowden left Monday, throwing the one-time ACC favorites into total chaos. Swinney did whatever he could to find a focus and keep the players together.
Swinney instituted a "Tiger Walk" about two hours before kickoff as orange-clad fans showered the coaches and players with cheers and adulation.
Swinney was the first one to Howard's Rock, embracing the Tigers' inspirational monument with both hands and kissing it. He led the way into Death Valley, pumping his fist to the screaming crowd, then urging his players down the hill.
"I am not disappointed in these men today," Swinney said. "I'm proud. These guys are not losers."
It will take another two weeks before Clemson (3-4, 1-3) gets the chance to end its three-game losing streak — the school's longest since 2005 — in its next game at Boston College on Nov. 1.
The emotional week took its toll, Clemson center Thomas Austin said.
"This week was a little surreal, and you don't really know it until you step out there on the field," he said.
Clemson had its chances to rally back after Thomas' TD catch. The Tigers drove to midfield on the following possession and looked like they had converted a fourth-and-12 on Jacoby Ford's 27-yard catch.
But a holding penalty wiped that out.
Clemson tried a hook-and-ladder play on the next play and came up well short.
The Tigers got the ball back on their own 18 with 3 seconds to go. Harper's desperation heave was intercepted.
Dwyer ran for 109 yards, his fifth game over the century mark this season.
Nesbitt also ran for a 5-yard score just before halftime. He had 77 yards rushing.
Kelly had TD catches of 32 and 31 yards, tying the school's career mark of 18 established by tight end Glenn Smith from 1948-51. Kelly finished with 7 catches for 122 yards.
Harper completed 15 of 25 passes for 170 yards and two interceptions to go with his pair of TD throws.
The Tigers played without star runner C.J. Spiller, who injured his hamstring against Wake Forest earlier this month.