"Well, I'm disappointed in the outcome of the game, but I'm awfully proud of the football team," said a visibly shaken up Paul Johnson after the 37-35 loss to Florida State. "Florida State is a very talented team, and you know, it was the kind of game where you couldn't make a mistake."
Georgia Tech hung with the defending National Champions and now winner of 29 straight games for 47 minutes on Saturday night in Charlotte. A first down by running back Dalvin Cook on third-and-seven with one minute left finally clinched the game for the Seminoles and likely a College Football Playoff berth.
It was another resilient effort by the Yellow Jackets after falling behind 37-28 and looking to be done after Justin Thomas threw an interception with 3:22 left in the fourth quarter. Instead, Tech forced a quick punt and drove down the field to score a touchdown in just 1:09.
Harrison Butker followed the touchdown with a disappointing onside kick that turned out to be the last time the Jackets had a chance to get the ball.
After scoring three touchdowns in just four opportunities in the first half, the Georgia Tech offense was unable to generate much after halftime.
"They didn't change anything they were doing the whole game, just wasn't executing as well on the perimeter as we was early on," quarterback Justin Thomas said about the change in performance after halftime.
Florida State had their hands full in the first half with this Georgia Tech team, and head coach Jimbo Fisher praised the way they played the Seminoles.
"Well, first of all, I'd like to say a lot of respect and congratulations to Georgia Tech. They played one heck of a football game," Fisher said about the Yellow Jackets. "We knew going in this thing was going to be very tough. They were probably as hot as anybody playing extremely well this time of year and Paul and his group have done a tremendous job. They've got one heck of a team."
After throwing three first quarter interceptions last week against Florida, Jameis Winston was nearly flawless against Georgia Tech. He threw for 309 yards and three touchdowns on 21-30 passing."Florida was a great team as well as Georgia Tech," Winston said about his turn-around performance. "But sometimes you've just got to calm down, get back in the rhythm of things and get the ball to a guy like Dalvin Cook a couple more times and let him do his thing, and ball out."
Justin Thomas was very impressive himself for the Jackets. He repeatedly used his blazing speed to get by defenders and make huge plays to carry the Georgia Tech offense. His line for the night was 11 carries for 104 yards a touchdown; He threw for 134 yards and one touchdown on 8-14 passing. He also threw one interception on the night that was caused by a miscommunication with Darren Waller. It was the second miscommunication with Waller on the night, and it probably wasn't the most costly.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Johnson sent his offense out to convert a fourth-and-five down by six points. Thomas under threw a jetting Darren Waller and turned the ball over on downs. It appeared that Thomas was expecting a comeback from Waller, but instead he ran what appeared to be a hitch-and-go. Waller would've probably been open as the defensive back jumped forward to defend the comeback.
"He could have did either-or. It was just a miscommunication," Thomas said about the crucial incompletion. "That was probably my first time throwing him that route all year. We weren't on the same page."
That comment hinted the lack of reps Thomas and Waller have had in real-game situations compared to the inactive DeAndre Smelter. Smelter's absence seemed to hurt the Jackets quite a few times in passing situations where Thomas typically targeted his favorite receiver.
"Yeah, I guess we just have that knowing where he's going to be at all times," said Thomas about his connection with Smelter. "But we still came out today and had opportunities. Just sometimes we didn't take advantage of them like we needed to."
Unlike the Georgia game, Florida State really won the battle in the trenches against the Yellow Jackets. The Seminoles' offensive line was truly incredible and gave Winston all the time he could've possibly needed to find open receivers. Even when Tech tried to bring extra pressure from the outside in the second half like Johnson noted, the FSU offensive line picked them up and put the secondary in bad situations.
Dalvin Cook feasted on that great blocking by Florida State by running for 177 yards and one touchdown on 31 carries. Cook is an impressive true freshman who has given Florida State new life in the running game since his quick emergence. He continually found holes and used his quickness to get past Georgia Tech defenders and elude them when they had a chance at tackles.
Synjyn Days and Shaquille Mason both had very good performances in their last chance at an ACC Championship. Days scored three touchdowns on the night and was extremely effective in the first half against the Seminoles. Mason once again led the way for the offensive line to help the Jackets run for 331 yards.
"It was nice to have three touchdowns, but we lost, so that kind of negates the three touchdowns in my book," said Days about his performance. "Knowing that we gave it our all, nobody left anything on the field. Knowing that we have another game, especially for us seniors, we wanted to leave with the ACC Championship, but that didn't happen, so we want to go out there and win our bowl game."
"It was a tough way to go out, but I'm definitely proud of the way these guys played tonight and all year," Mason said about the game. "We had a lot of opportunities, but the ball just didn't bounce the way we'd like, but these guys fought hard all year and tonight against a very good team.
The Georgia Tech defense was unable to force a turnover tonight against one of the most turnover-prone teams in the nation. It was a point of focus for a Yellow Jackets victory, and the opportunistic defense was never able to capitalize on a mistake by the Seminoles. A large part of that is due to the performance by the FSU offensive line. Winston was rarely under pressure, and he was able to make good decisions with plenty of time to make them.
"Yeah, we were just hoping for one there in the second half. It could have been big," Johnson said about forcing a turnover. "But we had our -- an opportunity and we held them to a field goal that first drive of the second half. We had a chance to get back ahead, and that's the one drive that we didn't finish. You know, actually we had two times because we held them to a field goal the next time that we could have gone up. You know, we had our chances."
Cornerback D.J. White had interceptions in four connective games going into the battle with FSU, but he, like the rest of the defense, was unable to make the big play.
"Absolutely, that is something as a defense that we thrive on, we preach that, White said about the usual opportunistic Tech defense. "They came out, and they did a really good job of covering the ball up. We couldn't strip them, and we didn't get our chance to get any picks tonight. They took care of the ball well and when we don't get turnovers, that is something that hurts our team."
Georgia Tech is now likely headed to the Orange Bowl after holding their own with the undefeated Seminoles. Johnson seemed ready to get to the next challenge and get one more win against a quality opponent. It would be a good opportunity for the Yellow Jackets to finish an already special season with an exclamation point.
"So depending on what happens tomorrow, I mean, we could end up with Clemson, Georgia, Florida State, Ohio State. Pretty good four-team parlay. And if it's not Ohio State, it's going to be somebody just like them," said Johnson about moving on to the next opponent. "We're never -- there is no moral victory. We're not into that. We wanted to win the game and are disappointed we didn't win."