TAMPA, Fla. – As Georgia Tech wide receiver Demaryius Thomas headed out of Raymond James Stadium to the team bus following the Jackets’ 39-34 win over Clemson in the Dr. Pepper ACC championship game, he answered one final very important question.
Yes, Thomas said with a huge grin, he’s coming back.
Apparently, the NFL can wait for at least one of the Jackets’ most talented juniors.
“I’m coming back,” Thomas repeated.
On Saturday, Georgia Tech gave him a reason to.
After only two seasons under coach Paul Johnson – a dramatic coaching change that brought with it an entirely new offense and a new defense – Georgia Tech (11-2, 7-1 ACC) won the program’s first outright conference championship since 1990, when the Jackets last won the national title. That next step might not be so far away, considering Johnson has advanced his team to the Orange Bowl in just two seasons and currently sits at No. 10 in the BCS standings.
“Well, I think it’s a goal, certainly,” Johnson said. “… It’s hard to get there, but it’s certainly the goal when we start every year. That’s what you’re shooting for, is to win the first one and the last one and all of them in between.”
With stumbles against only Miami and Georgia this year, Georgia Tech came awfully close to doing that. The Jackets proved on Saturday, though, that they’re the best team the ACC has to offer in 2009. In what was undoubtedly the most entertaining ACC championship game to date, Georgia Tech used a 13-play, 86-yard drive that ate up 4:45 late in the fourth quarter to come from behind and win.
Because of its remarkable offensive success all season, Georgia Tech is one of the few teams that is able to invoke fear into opposing fans and confidence in its own no matter the situation. So with 6:05 still left on the clock, trailing 34-33, and starting from its own 14-yard line, Georgia Tech knew it could still win. A standard quarterback sneak extended the eventual scoring drive on fourth-and-1, par for the course under Johnson.
“We usually are in four-down territory,” Johnson said with a smirk. “If you watch our games, nobody punts.”
Tonight, nobody did.
Georgia Tech racked up 469 total yards, a championship game record. They moved the ball at will on Clemson’s defense, which was holding opponents to 19.5 points and 304.5 total yards. The most devastating drive to the Tigers, though, was Georgia Tech’s last.
“It makes you sick,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “It’s just sickening. You know, again, at some point we’re going to grow up and be a championship team again.”
Georgia Tech b-back Jonathan Dwyer capped the Jackets’ final drive with a 15-yard touchdown run, and defensive end Derrick Morgan smothered Clemson’s chances at a comeback with a sack on Kyle Parker on the Tigers’ final fourth down. That’s when the oranges began to pelt the field.
The motivation to win the title game, Morgan said, began even before Johnson arrived.
“I think it goes back all the way to our ’07 class,” said Morgan. “We came in here with the mentality that we’re going to win a championship and try to take this program to the next level … We’ve been working hard here since coach Johnson got here – the winter workouts, coaches’ runs, off-season conditioning, all that stuff. A lot of hard work and time went into the season, and it’s paying dividends.”
It could pay off even more, if more juniors like Morgan decide to stick around with Thomas. That’s unlikely, though, as Morgan and Dwyer are potential first-round draft picks.
There are only six scholarship seniors on this roster. Three juniors were elected captains of the team.
What might the future hold for this young, BCS bowl-bound team?
“Hopefully the national championship next year,” said A-back Roddy Jones. “We want to come back and keep getting better. We just want to keep improving, and wherever that takes us, that’s where we’re going to go.”
For now, it’s the Orange Bowl, which means there’s a new standard at Georgia Tech under Johnson.