WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — For three quarters, Joshua Nesbitt and Georgia Tech's unique offense hardly looked complicated or potent, and the Yellow Jackets looked far from the team that was once ranked 15th.
Then Nesbitt finally broke free for a 50-yard run, sparking a remarkable rally to keep Georgia Tech in contention in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Nesbitt shook a rough start with three final-quarter scoring drives, capped by his 9-yard touchdown pass to Correy Earls with 15 seconds left in Georgia Tech's 24-20 comeback win over Wake Forest on Saturday night.
"You have to be proud of the way they fought and competed," Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said, "but Lord knows we have a lot of work to do."
Nesbitt had 6 yards rushing on 19 carries entering the fourth quarter, then was unstoppable for the Yellow Jackets (3-2, 2-1), who avoided losing consecutive games under Johnson for the first time.
"We felt like we weren't executing the offense," said Nesbitt, who rushed for 72 yards and threw for 130. "Don't take me wrong, they played a great game. But we felt like we kept hurting ourselves."
Wake Forest's third straight loss was a heartbreaker. Josh Adams rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown and Brandon Pendergrass added a rushing TD for the Demon Deacons (2-3, 1-2), who nearly won with fourth-string quarterback Skylar Jones.
Ted Stachitas and Brendan Cross were injured early in the game with starter Tanner Price already sidelined.
Jones, too, got hurt, but played through a foot injury and completed 9 of 20 passes for 105 yards.
"I don't know what it's going to take to find somebody who is durable enough to make it through a football game right now," coach Jim Grobe said.
After allowing 48, 68 and 31 points in its last three outings, Wake Forest smothered Georgia Tech's triple option attack until Nesbitt finally shot up the middle for a 50-yard run that set up Scott Blair's third field goal from beyond 40 yards, cutting the deficit to 17-9 early in the fourth quarter.
Nesbitt was even better on Georgia Tech's next drive. Facing fourth down, he appeared all but out of room along the right sideline when he found Embry Peeples on the run for a 20-yard touchdown.
Nesbitt then ran up the middle for the two-point conversion to tie it at 17 with 6:58 left.
Jones looked poised on the next possession, connecting with Devon Brown for 26 yards on third down to the Georgia Tech 20. But the drive stalled and Jimmy Newman booted a 26-yard field goal with 2:21 left to put Wake Forest ahead 20-17.
It was just enough time for highly decorated Nesbitt, who scrambled 16 yards on fourth-and-4 early in the winning drive. He found Earls, who played defensive back last season, on a slant route in front of cornerback Josh Bush for the winning score.
"I'm still flabbergasted," said Earls, who was switched back to receiver this year. "It really hasn't hit me yet."
It made up for a miserable three quarters by Georgia Tech, whose loss at Kansas began a string of two losses in three games for the defending ACC champions.
With linebacker Matt Woodlief leading the way, Wake Forest used blitzes and speedy ball pursuit to shut down running lanes and pressure Nesbitt.
Jerrard Tarrant's muffed punt gave Wake Forest the ball at the Georgia Tech 19, and Adams' 2-yard run made it 17-6 late in the third quarter.
Wake Forest, which had lost the last two games by a combined 99-24, had used three quarterbacks by the start of its fourth possession after already being short-handed. Price was scratched following a concussion a week earlier against Florida State.
Stachitas, who has been hampered by numerous injuries himself, took a shot on a scramble in Wake's second possession and was knocked out with lower back pain.
Cross lasted only one full series until he hurt his non-throwing shoulder while he was tackled on a scramble.
Next on the dwindling depth chart was Jones, a junior who didn't play his first two seasons and was moved to receiver last season.
"We just fell a little short," Jones said. "But we still can go to a bowl game, so I feel good about that."