NCF Nation: Jackets-Tigers 120509

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.
TAMPA, Fla. – C.J. Spiller's eyes were red and he seemed on the verge of tears as he hung his head in disappointment, despite the glass trophy sitting on the table in front of him for being named the Most Valuable Player of the Dr. Pepper ACC championship game.

It wasn’t the trophy he came here for.

After a title-game record four rushing touchdowns, there wasn’t much more Spiller could do for his team. But it wasn’t enough as Clemson couldn’t find any other answers in its 39-34 loss to Georgia Tech in the school’s first-ever appearance in the ACC title game.

Despite the loss, Spiller said he had no regrets about his decision to return for another season instead of heading to the NFL early last year. Odds are the Tigers wouldn't have even had this opportunity had Spiller not made that choice.

[+] EnlargeCJ Spiller
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesACC player of the year C.J. Spiller rushed for 233 yards and four touchdowns for Clemson.
“I’m very glad I came back,” he said. “It’s where I wanted to be at, the championship game, graduate, be doing that. So hopefully the other guys can see, even recruits, you come to Clemson, it’s no layoff. You’re going to compete for championships year in and year out. You’re going to have the opportunity to even graduate, which is our main priority. I’m very glad that I came back to play with my teammates. They taught me a lot this whole season about never giving up, just sticking in there and gut it out.”

Spiller again put up numbers worthy of Heisman consideration, but after the loss to South Carolina last Saturday, he seems to fall out of favor with many Heisman voters. His 233 rushing yards against Georgia Tech were a title-game record. He averaged an astounding 11.7 yards per carry. His 54-yard run in the fourth quarter was the longest run from scrimmage in an ACC title game, and he finished with the game’s four longest runs – 54, 41, 40 and 36 yards.

“He left it all on the field,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “That’s all you can ask. He left everything he had on the field.”

Final: Georgia Tech 39, Clemson 34

December, 5, 2009
TAMPA, Fla. -- Georgia Tech is going to the Orange Bowl.

For the first time since 1990 -- the last time the Jackets won the national title -- Georgia Tech won the ACC championship. They did it with the help of kicker Scott Blair, with a smooth-running spread option offense that Clemson couldn't contain, and a defense that made some key stops when they needed to most.

C.J. Spiller played an incredible game, but it wasn't enough against the Jackets' more complete offense. I'm heading down to the locker room now for interviews. More later.

Great game in Tampa

December, 5, 2009
TAMPA, Fla. -- I'm listening to Nebraska and Texas fans bemoan the Big 12 championship game in our Virtual Pressbox, and the SEC game this afternoon didn't exactly live up to the hype. Clemson leads Georgia Tech 34-33 as I type this. It's been an entertaining, see-saw game, and has lived up to the expectations of those who have paid attention to this series. It's one of the best in the ACC, and on a day when other title games failed to impress (save for the Big East), the ACC has finally put on a quite a show.

ACC attendance is in (and up)

December, 5, 2009
TAMPA, Fla. -- The attendance at the ACC title game for tickets sold and distributed was just announced at 57,227. Like I said before, still lots of empty seats, but a vast improvement over last year. Last year it was under 30,000. Consider this, though -- the attendance when both of these teams met during the regular season in Atlanta was 52,000. That's a good showing for both schools, considering we're in Tampa.

Scott Blair for ACC title game MVP?

December, 5, 2009
TAMPA, Fla. -- When these two teams met in September, Georgia Tech kicker Scott Blair stole the spotlight with his touchdown pass and game-winning field goal. He's doing it again. Blair seems to have Clemson's number, as Blair has accounted for 12 of the Jackets' points so far on four field goals. That's an ACC championship game record. He's set his career-long twice, first with a 48-yarder then with a 49-yard field goal.

Georgia Tech starting to pull away

December, 5, 2009
TAMPA, Fla. -- Clemson quarterback Kyle Parker has now thrown two costly interceptions, both of which have led to Georgia Tech points. The most recent led to a field goal that put the Jackets ahead 33-20. It's no wonder Dabo Swinney wants to stick with his ground game.

Heading into the second half, both teams had combined for just 57 passing yards. Georgia Tech now has 108, Clemson has 61. What's wrong with that picture? Georgia Tech has done a great job of making the Tigers one-dimensional in this game.

Redemption for Tech's Thomas

December, 5, 2009
TAMPA, Fla. -- Georgia Tech receiver Demaryius Thomas has redeemed himself from last weekend's costly drop against Georgia. Consider that play officially behind him, and it was good to see because we all knew Thomas was better than that drop, and he just reminded everyone.

Thomas caught a 70-yard touchdown pass from Josh Nesbitt to give the Jackets a 30-20 lead. It was Thomas' first catch of the night. Not every Georgia Tech drive has to take five minutes. This one only lasted 1:23, and that's the trick to defending it. That was Thomas' fourth reception of 70 yards or more this year. He now has 1,147 receiving yards this year, the second-highest single-season total in Georgia Tech history.

Spiller at it again

December, 5, 2009
TAMPA, Fla. -- One thought, just one:

Somebody get C.J. Spiller a ticket to New York.

Clemson wouldn't be here right now if it weren't for him, and the Tigers wouldn't be in this game. He's setting records every time he touches the ball. His 19th touchdown of the season inched the Tigers within 23-10 and set a school single-season record. What else does he have to do? I'm not saying he's this year's Heisman winner, but I am saying he deserves to be a finalist for it.
TAMPA, Fla. -- There's been no shortage of excitement in this game so far, and it's as even as expected. Both teams have made mistakes -- Clemson's interception turned into a scoring opportunity for Georgia Tech, and a missed extra point could come back to haunt the Tigers. Georgia Tech hasn't helped itself with penalties, but both teams have done enough in the first half to help fans forget about their losses last weekend.

Here's a quick halftime analysis:

Turning point: In the second quarter, Georgia Tech was on the Tigers' 7-yard line and charged with three straight penalties. The Jackets were pushed back as far as the 32-yard line and had to settle for a field goal. It minimized the damage and the momentum, and Clemson was able to answer on the ensuing possession. In retrospect, though, the turning point of this game could wind up being Clemson’s missed extra point, which was eerily similar to what happened to Pittsburgh in the Panthers’ loss to Cincinnati earlier today.

Stat of the half: Clemson had 125 total rushing yards when these teams met during the regular season, and C.J. Spiller has already racked that up much on his own.

Best player in the half: Spiller. He has scored his 18th touchdown of the season, and tied the school single-season record in the process. His 41-yard touchdown run put him over 1,000 yards this year He enters the second half with 1,035 rushing yards this season, and has 11 carries for 123 yards and two scores in this game. On Clemson’s final scoring drive of the half, Spiller accounted for all five plays, including the touchdown that tied the game at 13.

Georgia Tech settles for another FG

December, 5, 2009
TAMPA, Fla. -- On its last possession, Georgia Tech looked like it was an eighth grader pushing a fifth-grader in the hallway. Just a few nudges in the chest, making the poor kid backtrack.

And then Georgia Tech started to beat itself up.

Just when the Jackets were ready to bulldoze their way into the end zone again -- they got as close as the 7-yard line -- they racked up four penalties, two holding calls and two false starts. Somehow, though, Scott Blair bailed them out again, with another career-long field, goal, this time 49 yards. The Jackets lead 13-7, and Clemson fans should feel fortunate about that, because it could be a whole lot worse.

Different teams, different game

December, 5, 2009
TAMPA, Fla. -- Georgia Tech and Clemson have both improved since they met during the regular season, and it's showing so far in this game, as both teams have taken their turn in the end zone. The Jackets just plowed through the Tigers' defense with ease to take a 10-7 lead here early in the second quarter, but both teams have shown they don't need gimmicks. They're running their offenses effectively and sticking with what they do best.

Of course, as soon as I typed that, Kyle Parker threw an interception that's currently under review. Georgia Tech's defense has come alive since that opening drive.
TAMPA, Fla. -- For the second straight week, a Georgia Tech receiver dropped a key ball that could've prolonged a scoring drive. One week after Demaryius Thomas dropped a fourth-down ball against Georgia on the Jackets' final chance of the game, Roddy Jones just dropped a key pass here in the ACC championship game.

These guys don't get many opportunities to catch the ball, so when they do, they have to hang onto it. Usually, they do. I've been watching Thomas, and he's done a great job of blocking so far in this game. Instead of the chance at the touchdown, though, the Jackets had to settle for a career-long 48-yard field goal by Scott Blair, and trail, 7-3.

Clemson strikes early

December, 5, 2009
TAMPA, Fla. -- Just when it looked like Georgia Tech's defense had learned a lesson from last Saturday's performance against Georgia, Clemson running back C.J. Spiller showed why he should get an invite to New York. Spiller took off on a 40-yard run that helped set up the first scoring drive of the game, and the Tigers lead 7-0.

Clemson only needed seven plays to score on that drive, and Spiller capped it off with a three-yard run, but that was a good mix-up of play-calling by Billy Napier. He got it to the tight end, Michael Palmer, he got it to Jacoby Ford, and he got it to Spiller. That will win you some games.

It was the 13th straight game in which Spiller has scored a touchdown. That ties the school record. It was just the second time this year Clemson has scored on the opening drive.

Clemson-Georgia Tech pregame notes

December, 5, 2009
TAMPA, Fla. -- Raymond James Stadium is starting to fill up, and while there might be more Clemson fans here, the Georgia Tech fans are making themselves heard with their "Yellow-Jackets" chant.

The lone roster change is on Georgia Tech's sideline, where cornerback Rashaad Reid will start in place of Jerrard Tarrant.

The question is which defense shows up tonight. Both teams have showed their vulnerabilities this season. The key stat is is that Clemson is holding its opponents to 19.5 points per game, while Georgia Tech is scoring 35. One player who could be an X-factor in this game is safety DeAndre McDaniel. His ability to move up and give help could be key in stopping the option game. Guys like Jonathan Dwyer and C.J. Spiller are going to get their yards today, though.

It could be yet another record-setting weekend for Spiller:
  • He needs one punt or kickoff return for a touchdown to set the NCAA record for kick returns for touchdowns.
  • He needs three touchdowns to set the Clemson single-season record.
  • He needs one touchdown to tie the school record for consecutive games with a touchdown.
  • He needs 88 yards rushing and 60 receiving to become the first player in school history to reach 1,000 yards rushing and 500 receiving in the same season. He would also be the first player in the nation to do it this year.

For Georgia Tech, junior quarterback Josh Nesbitt needs two touchdowns to tie the ACC single-season record of 19. Junior Demaryius Thomas averages 24.5 yards per reception, which would be the highest in ACC history.

Both teams threw fans for a loop with their subpar performances last week against their respective SEC rivals, but this is the game that counts. If Georgia Tech and Clemson go back to what they were doing prior to last weekend, it should be a great game. Both teams have improved since they met earlier during the regluar season. It's time to find out which one has made the biggest strides.