ATHENS — The Georgia Tech players gathered in front of their small contingent of fans in a corner of Sanford Stadium. They sang the “Ramblin’ Wreck” fight song. They bounced up and down. Then pinched off pieces of the famous hedge that surrounds the field.
This was a celebration eight years in the making.
The Yellow Jackets unleashed their triple-option offense on Georgia with devastating results Saturday. Roddy Jones rushed for a career-best 214 yards and a couple of touchdowns. Jonathan Dwyer ran for 144 and two scores of his own. When it was done, No. 18 Georgia Tech had overcome a 16-point halftime deficit to stun the 13th-ranked Bulldogs 45-42, its first win in the series since 2000.
“Growing up, all I heard about was how great Georgia was,” said Jones, a redshirt freshman. “It’s great to be part of a team that ends the streak.”
The cold, rainy day wasn’t a total victory for the visiting team: Virginia Tech denied the Yellow Jackets a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game with a 17-14 victory over Virginia.
But Georgia Tech (9-3) celebrated anyway after seven straight losses to the Bulldogs, lingering on the field long after Georgia headed off to the warmth of its locker room. Several players had sprigs of the Sanford hedge between their teeth, clearly satisfied to have far exceeded expectations for coach Paul Johnson’s first season.
“This overshadows everything,” wingback Lucas Cox said. “We weren’t that disheartened (about losing the ACC Coastal Division on a tiebreaker). It would have been nice to have that complement this win.”
Johnson passed on breaking off a piece of hedge for himself. Instead, he showed the sort of swagger that will clearly add some spark to what had been a one-sided series.
“I figured I’d be back,” he said. “Act like you think you’re going to win.”
Georgia (9-3) started the year No. 1 but will likely settle for a spot in the Capital One Bowl — far, far short of its goal of at least competing for a Southeastern Conference title, and maybe even a national championship.
“Nobody thought we would be in this position at the beginning of the season,” linebacker Rennie Curran said. “It was all high hopes. But things didn’t work out the way we wanted to.”
After building a 28-12 halftime lead, the Bulldogs simply had no answer for Georgia Tech’s unique offense, which piled up 409 yards on the ground.
“They do what they do. That’s what they’ve been going all year. That’s what Paul has been doing for years,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “It stretches you from sideline to sideline.”
Jones averaged 16.5 yards per carry — a school record — and broke a couple of tackles on a decisive 54-yard touchdown run down the sideline midway through the fourth quarter. Dwyer had a 60-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage in the second half, turning the momentum in Georgia Tech’s favor.
“People punch you in the mouth and you’ve got to punch them back,” Yellow Jackets’ senior Darryl Richard said. “A lot of punchers can’t handle being punched back.”
Georgia lost despite Matthew Stafford tying a school record with five touchdown passes — three of them to Mohamed Massaquoi — in what might have been his final game between the hedges. The junior quarterback said he’ll consider entering the NFL draft.
Stafford looked like he would go out a winner, despite an errant throw that Morgan Burnett picked off and returned 35 yards for Georgia Tech’s first TD.
Stafford capped Georgia’s opening drive with a 1-yard scoring pass to Tripp Chandler, then hooked up with Massaquoi on touchdown passes of 10, 49 and 3 yards. Georgia Tech botched the extra point after Burnett’s TD, then was unsuccessful on a two-point try after Cox scored on a 2-yard run.
But the Yellow Jackets turned the game around with a stunning display at the start of the third quarter. On what looked to be a routine run, Dwyer broke a tackle and was gone for a long touchdown, then got in on the two-point conversion that made it 28-20.
Georgia went three and out, and Georgia Tech quickly marched for another score on Jones’ 8-yard run. Nesbitt’s conversion run put up another two points, tying the game at 28.
Richard Samuel fumbled the ensuing kickoff, the Yellow Jackets recovered and scored on the very next play: Dwyer’s 23-yard run. Two TDs just 16 seconds apart gave Georgia Tech its first lead of the game, 35-28, and the Bulldogs never recovered, even though Richt gathered his entire team on the sideline for a tongue-lashing.
“We did well in some spots, but that third quarter killed us,” Stafford said.
He finished 24-of-39 for 407 yards, becoming the third quarterback in school history to throw five TDs in game. David Greene and D.J. Shockley also did it. Massaquoi had 11 receptions for 180 yards.
Georgia’s Knowshon Moreno, who like Stafford may leave school early for the NFL, rushed for 94 yards and scored on a 32-yard run. Stafford added a 12-yard scoring pass to A.J. Green with 4:04 remaining, but the Bulldogs couldn’t stop the triple-option.
Georgia Tech ran out the clock without giving Georgia another shot. So much for those skeptics who never thought an offense that brings back memories of the wishbone could succeed at a major-conference program.
“Now we don’t have to listen to them say that it can’t work on this level against a ‘mighty SEC defense,’” said Richard, who had a piece of hedge stuck above his ear. “Georgia Tech is going to be a team to contend for championships.”