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Top Ten of the Last Ten, #4: 2015 vs. FSU

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The mother of all college football finishes

Florida State v Georgia Tech
You could be the hero. Just for one day.

I’ve talked at length about the Georgia Tech-Florida State series before. In the bygone era of football, Tech dominated the beginning of the series 7-0-1. A couple decades passed, and then FSU joined the ACC, and the Noles won twelve games in a row. Then, in 2004, the league expanded, and mercifully - for the Yellow Jackets, anyway - the schools were placed in opposite divisions, regaling the series to periodic occurrences. Paul Johnson was hired in 2008, and every game starting with that year’s has been something special.

I’ve already talked about that 2008 game. In 2009 the Jackets paid the Noles a visit in Tallahassee, finding an embattled Bobby Bowden and a Seminole team in disarray. There was an hour-plus long delay for thunderstorms, a whole lot of points, and exactly one punt. The Jackets emerged with a victory well past midnight, their first (and so far only) in Doak Campbell Stadium.

2012 brought the two together in Charlotte for the ACC championship. The Seminoles looked like they could not be stopped on their path to their first conference title in nearly a decade, and only Georgia Tech, there on a technicality, stood in their way. The Jackets wouldn’t go down without a fight, and came within a touchdown of one of the season’s most monumental upsets.

Just two years later, the two teams would battle again for the conference crown. Florida State, fresh off winning a national championship, arrived undefeated, though having had to save themselves from themselves multiple times. With one of the best offenses in the nation and a defense keen on earning takeaways, Tech was fresh off two high-profile upsets and had more than earned their way into this game. In a battle of titans, Tech blinked and FSU didn’t.

That brings us to the following year, the most recent meeting. Florida State had finally run out of luck following their third straight ACC championship, and got pantsed by Oregon in the Rose Bowl. But 2015 was a new year, and even with Heisman winner Jameis Winston having departed for the NFL, the Noles kept their conference streak rolling. They arrived in Atlanta in late October at 6-0, having won their last 28 games against conference opponents, tying a mark set by.... the Florida State Seminoles, when they first joined the ACC.

As for Georgia Tech, well.... 2015 was not a kind year for the Jackets. Nearly all the leading talent that won them the previous year’s Orange Bowl had graduated save for Justin Thomas. That could have been okay, maybe, had they not been struck by the worst injury luck in the history of college football. The injuries came early, and then they came often, and by the time the Jackets were set to face FSU they were decidedly not undefeated.... nor one-loss, nor two-loss. They were sitting at 2-5, having lost each of the last five games and twice that number of players to injury. Any sense of optimism Tech fans may have once held for this season had been torn out, ripped to shreds, and the shreds stomped into the ground until they were but powder. To expect a win here was beyond absurd. You just hoped Tech would make it look competitive for as long as possible.

Did I mention it was Homecoming again?

And yet, despite all the above, there would be no blowout, and not even any high octane offense. What occurred instead was a defensive slugfest. Even with Dalvin Cook in their backfield, Florida State couldn’t get into the end zone. Their first possession gained nine yards. Their second started at Georgia Tech’s 19 yard line after a tipped interception and gained 17: Cook accounted for all of those on the first play, then was stood up each of the next two. They would kick a 20 yard field goal to get on the board first, which is exciting only if it’s your team that’s the massive underdog.

The Noles finally reached the end zone for the first — and only time — on their fourth possession, and the Jackets had to essentially let them have it: a second interception was returned to the Tech 2 yard line, and only then could Cook and FSU break through. It’s amazing that Georgia Tech continued to attempt passes after that, but as we’ll see later, it’s good they did. As for the Noles, I’ve already detailed ten of the points they scored that evening; they only scored six more. Regarding Cook, they were happy to let him handle 100% of the rushing duties that evening; Tech’s defense held him to 82 rushing yards.

Tech’s offense would have appeared overmatched on paper before being ravaged by injury. Yet thanks to the defense, matching Florida State punch for punch was one of the easiest tasks they had all season. After the Noles had kicked another field goal to go up 13-3, a block in the back on the following kickoff had Tech starting the next drive on their own 6. On second down, Thomas found himself two yards deep in his own end zone with three Seminoles closing in. He dodged a defender, then found Ricky Jeune for a 33 yard completion. Two plays later, Thomas kept the ball and ran to the right on a midline play. Jalen Ramsey chased him, but ultimately only succeeded in pulling Thomas’s jersey off his shoulder. Thomas’s 60 yard touchdown run was over 50% longer than any other play in the game, and this tiny offensive burst was just what the Jackets needed to get back into it. FSU managed to chip in one final field goal to close the half, but it would be their final points of the game.

The halftime score read 16-10. Rather than being out of the game already, Tech was still very, very much in it. Where little if any hope existed among the Tech faithful at kickoff, it was now present in abundance. Tech had the ball first in the second half, and spent 6:33 to kick another field goal and bring themselves within 3. They were just one strike away from erasing Florida State’s lead.

And then everything just.... stopped. No one scored anymore. FSU came close, once, following a stretch of plays where it seemed like a new Tech defender had to leave the field each play. But down at the goal line, Everett Golson’s pass to Travis Rudolph in the end zone was ripped away by Lawrence Austin and caught by Jamal Golden. The Seminoles hadn’t committed any offensive turnovers so far that season, so naturally, it was a Ted Roof defense that forced their first.

The Jackets wouldn’t capitalize on the turnover, but they did push the Noles backward on the possession after that. With 4:20 left, they had one last chance - but they quickly found themselves facing fourth down and five at their own 41 yard line. Thomas dropped back to pass and found 3-star recruit Brad Stewart outrunning 5-star recruit Derwin James. With plenty of space, Stewart caught Thomas’ pass for 36 yards, saving the game for the Jackets and setting things up for Harrison Butker to make the game-tying field goal.

There were still 54 seconds remaining, and the Noles would not be satisfied with taking a knee and going to overtime. Just like in 2008, they were shooting to kill, and this time all they would need was a field goal. But every positive play was matched by a miss or a mistake. Just after crossing midfield, they were called for a false start. ESPN’s Mark Jones called it an “egregious, pejorative penalty” — an egregious use of the word “pejorative”, but otherwise a well made point: with sixteen seconds remaining, any loss of yardage was going to make things that much harder for FSU. Golson completed one more pass — to Jesus Wilson, for 9 yards — but his third down pass caught Rudolph unaware and fell incomplete. That brought up fourth down, with six seconds remaining.

And so, on the last play of regulation, Jimbo Fisher and Florida State decided to take a shot. A 56 yard field goal was long — a couple yards past Roberto Aguayo’s longest — but it was doable. He’d just have to kick it a little lower than usual, and the Noles would leave Atlanta with their 29th consecutive victory over an ACC opponent. Unfortunately for Aguayo, the lower angle also gave any leaping defender a better chance at blocking the kick, which Pat Gamble did. The Georgia Tech players and faithful in the stands at Bobby Dodd celebrated, knowing they’d get one last shot at FSU in overtime.

Well, not all the Georgia Tech players. Lance Austin had other ideas.

Austin’s miracle run is almost too unreal to believe. I didn’t believe it was happening while it was happening. I probably still wouldn’t if I hadn’t watched 500 times since then. While everyone else in the stadium not wearing garnet was celebrating, he rushed toward the ball — which was still live, after all — took one look back at his teammates, who along with their coach implored him to stay away, picked it up, and started running. He ran from the far side of the field back to the near side, turned a corner, and the race was on. Golden took the lead, staying in front and inside of Austin. Chris Milton, who had his back to the play following the block, became aware of the commotion behind him and started running just in time to partially block Cason Beatty, who made one final lunge toward Austin and got Golden instead.

Only Aguayo stood between Austin and the end zone now. Aguayo had practiced his whole life for this moment, or at least since the epic Auburn-Alabama finish from a couple years back. He knew he could make the tackle and save the touchdown — and the game — for the Seminoles.

Instead, he overran his target. Reaching back in one last effort, Austin was barely slowed at all, while Aguayo spun in the air — one, two, three times, some say he left orbit and is still spinning to this day — and was joined by his twin as he crossed the goal line.

Sheer, utter madness. The atmosphere in the stadium had gone from exuberant, relieved celebration, to quiet but boiling anticipation, followed by an explosion. As Austin ran past his final blockers, I can clearly recount my thought process, which went, “there’s no way he can make this. This doesn’t happen to Georgia Tech. This doesn’t happen to anyone!” And then it did. You could run that same play again a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand times, and it wouldn’t play out the way it just had.

No sooner had Austin left the back of the end zone and reached the north wall than he was swarmed by teammates and fans alike. The list of accolades seems to run a mile long. It was another night of misery in Atlanta for Florida State. It was another monumental upset for the Jackets on homecoming - the third in seven years. But it wasn’t just a big upset — it was one of the best games of the year. And it wasn’t just an amazing ending - it’s one of the greatest college football endings of all time. It’s a moment that will live forever, and Lance Austin will be its face.

Even Paul Johnson couldn’t hide his feelings about the finish we’d just witnessed. Somehow, Quint Kessenich managed to part the masses and find Johnson for a post-game interview, where he simply proclaimed “it was our turn!” The crowd at Bobby Dodd stayed on the field for a long time. In a season of such abject misery, they were going to let this one soak in for as long as possible. As Mark Jones noted, it was indeed a time to be alive.