ATLANTA — The Georgia Tech players bounced up and down in the middle of the field, right in unison with the raucous crowd. Josh Nesbitt took the snap and kneeled down one more time.
Then, it was party time.
Nesbitt rushed for 122 yards and three touchdowns — the last of them a 39-yarder tiptoeing down the sideline with 3 minutes left — as No. 19 Georgia Tech ran to a 28-23 win over the fourth-ranked Hokies on Saturday night for its biggest triumph in years.
The gold-clad fans stormed the field, engulfing a team that didn’t mind a bit, and wound up tearing down the goal post in the north end of Bobby Dodd Stadium. No wonder — this was Georgia Tech’s first win at home over a top-five team since the Dodd-coached Yellow Jackets beat Bear Bryant’s top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide in 1962.
"This is the biggest thing that’s happened since I’ve been here," said Nesbitt, a junior quarterback who plays more like a running back out of Georgia Tech’s spread-option offense.
Virginia Tech (5-2, 3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) endured another doomed trip to Atlanta. A season-opening 34-24 loss to Alabama at the nearby Georgia Dome was followed by a second defeat on the return trip south, this one hurting the Hokies’ ACC hopes and probably ruining their shot at a national title.
"What happened out there wasn’t because of lack of effort," coach Frank Beamer said. "Now is the time to come back and let’s go get the next one. There’s a lot of football to be played."
Georgia Tech (6-1, 4-1) completed just one pass but ran for 309 yards — all but 37 of those yards coming in the second half.
"Their offense," Beamer said, "was just hard to stop. Their quarterback was doing a great job, and we got into a little bit of a guessing game."
Nesbitt made up for a fumble that gave Virginia Tech life by finishing off the clinching drive with his best run of the night.
On third-and-7 from the Hokies 39, the quarterback ran to his left, saw two defenders peel away to shadow potential pitch targets, turned up through a huge hole and managed to stay in bounds along the sideline, even when Dorian Porch gave him one last shove around the 5.
"He’s the heart of our team," said running back Jonathan Dwyer, last year’s ACC offensive player of the year.
Nesbitt has run for six touchdowns over the last two weeks, also scoring three times in a 49-44 victory over Florida State. It was the fifth time this season the quarterback was rushed for more than 90 yards, and Georgia Tech has certainly proven in Paul Johnson’s two seasons as coach that its run-oriented offense — incorporating elements of old formations such as the wishbone and veer — can win at the major-college level.
The Yellow Jackets ruined Virginia Tech’s clear path to the ACC title game and made things real interesting in the Coastal Division, which also includes No. 9 Miami.
"We already have a loss and I don’t think you can win our side with two," Johnson said. "One loss is going to win it. What we did tonight was stay alive and put everyone else back in it."
On the heels of two straight shootout wins over Mississippi State and Florida State, the Yellow Jackets slogged through much of the first half.
Georgia Tech managed only 37 yards on 21 carries before halftime, though Nesbitt’s lone completion — a 51-yarder to Demaryius Thomas — set up a touchdown that gave the home team a 7-3 lead heading to the locker room. Nesbitt burrowed over from the 1 with 32 seconds left.
My, how things changed after the break. Virginia Tech stuck with the scheme that had been working, but Johnson’s subtle adjustments started producing huge chunks of yardage on the ground, both inside and out. Nesbitt scampered for 31 yards before finishing off the drive with another 1-yard TD plunge.
Virginia Tech had a chance for a quick response, but Beamer passed on a field goal try on fourth-and-2 from the 18, and Ryan Williams was stuffed short.
Beamer’s questionable decision turned out to be moot. Getting a little greedy, Nesbitt went deep again and was picked off by Porch. On the very next play, Williams went 66 yards up the middle for a touchdown that pulled the Hokies to 14-10.
Georgia Tech kept right on running. Dywer carried five times for 48 yards on a 12-play, 86-yard drive that burned nearly 61/2 minutes off the clock. Marcus Wright finished it off by taking a pitch from Nesbitt and scooting 13 yards to make it 21-10.
The Yellow Jackets were on the verge of clinching it when they drove deep into Virginia Tech territory before Nesbitt made an errant pitch that sailed behind Roddy Jones. Davon Morgan fell on the loose ball, giving the Hokies new life with just under 5 minutes remaining.
They quickly took advantage of the turnover, scooting 77 yards in six plays. Taylor scrambled the final 22 yards for a touchdown that closed the gap to 21-16, but the 2-point conversion failed.
After Nesbitt’s third TD, Taylor flicked an 8-yard TD pass to Williams with 1:48 left. But Jerrard Tarrant corralled the onside kick for Georgia Tech.
Williams ran for 100 yards, while Taylor had 159 passing and 63 on the ground.
"Our big plays," Taylor said, "came a little too late."