ATLANTA — Georgia Tech has improved its chances of earning a spot in the ACC championship game, and this time, it was the defense playing the lead role.
Jamal Golden and Chris Milton returned interceptions for touchdowns, and No. 24 Georgia Tech beat No. 18 Clemson 28-6 on Saturday to gain ground in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division race.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, a Gainesville High graduate, did not return after a first-quarter knee injury. Cole Stoudt threw three interceptions after replacing Watson.
Golden had an 85-yard return only three plays after Watson’s injury, and Milton returned an interception 62 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter.
Clemson, held to 190 yards, never recovered from losing Watson.
“Today was the best we’ve played defensively, bar none,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said.
With the loss by Clemson (7-3, 6-2, No. 19 CFP), No. 2 Florida State clinched the ACC’s Atlantic Division before playing Miami on Saturday night.
Justin Thomas’ 65-yard run set up his 5-yard touchdown pass to DeAndre Smelter in the third quarter as Georgia Tech (9-2, 6-2, No. 22 CFP) earned its fourth straight win.
Coupled with Virginia Tech’s 17-16 win over Duke on Saturday, Georgia Tech moved ahead of the Blue Devils (8-2, 4-2, No. 21 CFP) in the Coastal Division. Duke, which beat Georgia Tech on Oct. 11, would win a tiebreaker with the Yellow Jackets if it finishes 6-2 in the ACC.
“We’re finished with our ACC schedule. There’s nothing else we can do,” Johnson said. “We have to wait and see what happens to Duke.”
Georgia Tech fans rushed the field after the win.
Thomas completed 8 of 11 passes for 102 yards with a touchdown.
“We didn’t have our best game, but the defense picked us up and put points on the board,” Thomas said.
Clemson led 3-0 and was driving inside the Georgia Tech 10 when Watson’s injury changed the game.
Watson, who returned as a starter after missing three games with a broken bone in his right hand, hurt his left knee when making a cut on a 7-yard run for a first down. He fell to the ground and grabbed his knee before being escorted to the sideline and then to the locker room.
“He just planted,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Just unbelievable. ... That was a tough loss for us, but we don’t make any excuses.”
Swinney said ligament damage is a possibility.
“It’s a tough situation for the team,” Stoudt said of Watson’s injury. “We’re all sad and hurting for him.”
Stoudt’s first interception came on his third play. He rolled to his right before turning and throwing to his left. Golden had an open field after stepping up for the interception.
Stoudt’s first pass of the second half was intercepted by cornerback D.J. White, setting up a field goal for the Yellow Jackets.
Clemson tried to focus on its running game. Wayne Gallman ran for 82 yards on 14 carries, but the Tigers were held without a touchdown. Ammon Lakip kicked field goals of 27 and 32 yards.
“I was confident in our defense,” White said. “Now six points, that’s something I didn’t see coming.”
Stoudt completed only 3 of 11 passes for 19 yards with three interceptions.
“It just didn’t really go right this day,” Stoudt said. “It’s just something that happens. I’ve just got to move on from it.”
Clemson finished the game with sophomore Nick Schuessler at quarterback.
Watson completed 5 of 7 passes for 27 yards and ran for 40 yards.
Georgia Tech running back Broderick Snoddy’s 46-yard run, the longest of his career, set up a 25-yard field goal by Harrison Butker in the second quarter. Later in the quarter, Snoddy had to be carted off the field after suffering an apparent broken right leg.
With Snoddy on the cart, Georgia Tech’s team circled the junior in a big huddle before he was wheeled off the field. Johnson said Snoddy was to have surgery on Saturday night.