When Paul Johnson faced the Florida State Seminoles, it was electric. From 2008 to 2015, his Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket teams faced the ‘Noles five times, and each one was an instant classic. I’ve written paeans to the 2008 and 2015 games in Atlanta, and the 2012 and 2014 ACC championships will get their due one day. Today I’m here to talk about the game where things got truly electric.
The lightning game of 2009.
2009 had not been a kind year to Florida State. The dynasty years of the 1990s and late 80s grew ever distant in the rearview mirror; after winning at least ten games every year from 1987 to 2000, the Seminoles had only done so once since, in 2003. Ten win seasons gave way to nine and eight win seasons, hitting a low point with back to back 7-6 campaigns in 2006 and 2007. This, combined with five consecutive losses to Florida (a streak that would continue) and a 2-3 start to the season that featured a blowout loss at BYU and — far more egregious — a home loss to South Florida, made the situation in Tallahassee very uncomfortable. Bobby Bowden, the Seminoles’ coach since 1976, was on the hot seat, something that up to then would have seemed unthinkable.
Georgia Tech had surprised everyone in 2008 with a 9-4 record under first year head coach Paul Johnson, but even after that few likely expected the Yellow Jackets to start 2009 4-1. But there they were, headed to Tallahassee, a place they had never won before. They were headed into the eye of a storm, in more ways than one.
FSU took the field walking, not running. They entered locking arms with their coach. The message was clear: the fan base may have been divided, but the team was 100% behind Bowden, and they were going to put on a game that night for him. And put on a game they did — because despite an unfavorable record, the Seminoles were certainly not bereft of talent. They were led by Christian Ponder, who had been a top recruit from Dallas and was a future first round NFL pick. He would throw for 2,700 yards that year — not bad, considering he only played nine games before suffering a season ending injury — and he took little time in demonstrating his ability, leading the Noles on an 8 play, 67 yard touchdown drive in less than four minutes on the first possession of the game. The Yellow Jackets, undaunted, responded with a 9 play, 73 yard touchdown drive of their own, needing just 4:20. If you were looking for strong defensive play in this game — or, at all from Georgia Tech in 2009 — you were in the wrong place. Things were just getting started on the scoreboard.
Then the lightning struck. A game ready to kick things into fifth gear was brought to a screeching halt by an approaching storm. Now everything had to wait, as people were rushed out of the stands and into the concourses of Doak Campbell Stadium. And let me tell you, this was early October in the Florida panhandle — it was still very warm, and unbelievably humid before the storm even started. If you were watching on TV, you had plenty of other college football to watch in the interim. If you were there in person, the wait for the game to resume was agonizing.
Finally, after an hour and eighteen minutes, the game resumed. For the teams involved, it was like nothing had happened. They came out at the start throwing haymakers and promptly went right back to doing so. FSU continued as they started, while Georgia Tech.... let’s just say the Seminole defense seemed less prepared to defend the triple option after the break than they had at the beginning of the game. A nine play, four minute touchdown drive from the Noles was immediately followed by Anthony Allen screaming down the far sideline for 60 yards, setting up Joshua Nesbitt to punch it in from the one yard line on the next play. FSU’s next possession lasted just eight plays and took just 2:45 off the clock, but that was immediately followed by an extremely nice 69 yard run to the house by Jonathan Dwyer. Every possession in the first half was a punch, which in turn was responded to with a counter punch. Only the end of the first half could prevent a touchdown. FSU, with more full possessions, led 35-28 at the half, but Bowden was so flummoxed by the triple option he was at a loss for words. The Noles had run 45 plays to Georgia Tech’s 23, and dominated time of possession 20:23 to 9:37, but their lead was just a single touchdown, with the Jacket set to start the second half with the ball.
Unfortunately for the Jackets, things slowed down in the second half. They were unable to take advantage of starting the half with the ball, instead fumbling just two plays in. But then, something weird happened: defense! Georgia Tech actually held FSU to negative yardage on the ensuing possession, and the resulting field goal was no good. The Jackets immediately capitalized on this opportunity with a 73 yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas. Thomas had to shake off some pass interference on the play, but the future wing winner would not be denied.
While Georgia Tech’s offense had returned to full speed, Florida State’s appeared to be slowing down. A second stalled possession led to a good field goal this time, giving FSU the lead again, but the Noles couldn’t afford to settle for glancing blows while the Jackets were still scoring direct hits. That’s when the Jackets buried them with a patented Paul Johnson Death March: a possession that began just under three minutes into the half and ended sixteen plays later with less than three minutes until the fourth quarter. The drive was capped off by a touchdown run from Marcus Wright from 19 yards out — it could have lasted even longer, but either way, the result was Tech finally taking the lead and establishing they were fully in control. FSU needed to get back into the game quickly. Instead, the Tech defense and an untimely holding penalty forced them into a three-and-out, and the only punt in the entire game.
The Seminoles couldn’t even capitalize on an opportunity they were given: Georgia Tech’s following possession was another death march in the making, but fizzled when Nesbitt fumbled the ball in FSU territory. Just four plays later, the Noles fumbled it right back. No one outside the locker room can know for sure what Georgia Tech’s defense did during halftime — maybe they found a bottle of Michael Jordan’s secret stuff — but after stopping the Seminoles four straight times, the Jackets were in position to put the game on ice. As the Tech offense neared the endzone in the final minutes of the game.... something crazy happened.
Roddy Jones misjudged a pitch from Nesbitt, and the resulting loose ball was picked up by Nigel Carr.... who was immediately met by Nesbitt, who somehow managed to wrestle the ball into his hands. Officially, it was a double change of possession, resulting in a new set of downs for Georgia Tech. Among the many highlight reel plays Nesbitt produced over his career, this one sits at or near the top for pretty much any Georgia Tech fan. It’s an incredible play the likes of which I’d never seen before and have yet to see since. Not one to waste the gift he’d been given (or.... given himself?), Nesbitt ran 22 yards into the endzone two plays later to put the Jackets up 49-38.
There was still 6:30 left in the game, and, naturally, Florida State was not going to go quietly. They spent a scant 2:15 finding the endzone once again to bring the margin to five, but their two-point conversion to make it a field goal game failed. An onside kick attempt found its way into the hands of Jaybo Shaw, and with just over four minutes left, the Seminoles had to hope they could finally stop the Georgia Tech offense in their tracks. But none of their defensive efforts, nor the the gong of a bell ringing over the PA on a crucial 3rd down, would be enough. The Jackets took a knee at first and goal and finally, after six previous visits to Tallahassee and the lightning delay pushing this ending to well after midnight, left their seventh with a victory.
This game would end up being the last of just two meetings between these coaching legends, as Bobby Bowden would ride off into the sunset following the 2009 season — a 7-6 campaign that would normally be seen as disappointing by the Seminole faithful, but would be capped by a massive upset of #16 West Virginia in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day. As for Georgia Tech, well, we all know who won that year’s ACC championship game. It really is a shame Johnson and Bowden didn’t have more opportunities to face each other, though, because when they did, it was electric.