- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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ATLANTA -- In the first quarter of Georgia Tech's 30-27 victory over Clemson on Thursday night, the Yellow Jackets looked like a legitimate top-15 team.
The No. 15 Yellow Jackets ran coach Paul Johnson's triple-option spread offense to perfection on their first touchdown, with quarterback Josh Nesbitt making a last-second pitch to Louisville transfer Anthony Allen, who ran 82 yards down the right sideline.
Midway through the first quarter, Georgia Tech cornerback Jerrard Tarrant returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown. A few minutes later, Johnson pulled out a fake field goal from his old Navy playbook, and kicker Scott Blair threw a 35-yard touchdown to receiver Demaryius Thomas, who was uncovered on the right side.
After Blair kicked a 24-yard field goal to give the Yellow Jackets a 24-0 lead with 10:29 to play in the second quarter, it seemed like Johnson might be guilty of indecent exposure. He was pulling down Clemson coach Dabo Swinney's pants on national TV, and the Tigers didn't seem to have an answer for anything Georgia Tech tried.
"I got my butt out-coached in the first half, because we didn't do a good job," Swinney said. "Bam, bam, bam, 21 points."
On the sideline, Georgia Tech's veteran players were encouraging their teammates not to take their feet off the pedal.
"We just kept pushing on the sideline," Yellow Jackets defensive end Derrick Morgan said. "We were telling everyone, 'When you've got someone down, keep them down and keep scoring.' But we let up."
To the surprise of most everyone in Bobby Dodd Stadium, the Tigers -- who seemed to quit on former coach Tommy Bowden after last year's opening 34-10 loss to Alabama in the Georgia Dome -- came storming back. The Tigers cut Georgia Tech's lead to 24-7 at the half on C.J. Spiller's 63-yard touchdown catch, then scored 20 straight points in the second half to take a 27-24 lead.
As bad as Clemson looked in the first half, it could seemingly do nothing wrong in the second. New starting quarterback Kyle Parker delivered strikes down the field. Clemson's defense came up with big stops and intercepted a pass that set up Richard Jackson's 53-yard field goal, which gave the Tigers a 27-24 lead with 11:33 to play.
"I hope nobody left," Johnson said. "We tried to make it exciting for everybody."
For a while, it seemed like Tech's once-easy rout was going to turn into the choke near Coke. Clemson focused its defense on Tech tailback Jonathan Dwyer, a Heisman Trophy candidate. Dwyer ran for 43 yards in the first half, but his second-half performance looked like Tiger Woods' scorecard on the back nine of a putt-putt course. Dwyer didn't have a run longer than 5 yards and was stopped for 2 yards or less six times.
"They are very physical and pounded us inside with their defensive line," Johnson said. "Their two big defensive tackles, we just couldn't do a bunch with them inside."
After Blair's field goal put the Yellow Jackets ahead 24-0 early in the second quarter, they picked up only four first downs in their next seven possessions.
Georgia Tech's offense was going nowhere, and its defense suddenly couldn't slow down the Tigers, either.
"We couldn't have played any worse in the third quarter, both offensively and defensively," Johnson said. "We couldn't get any consistency on offense and gave up too many big plays on defense."
With the game slipping away, Johnson turned over his offense to Nesbitt, a junior from Greensboro, Ga., who seems like the perfect fit for Tech's old-school offense. After Jackson's career-long field goal put the Tigers in front 27-24, the Yellow Jackets took possession at their 14. Nesbitt smoothly directed a 12-play, 69-yard drive. He ran the ball seven times and threw a 24-yard pass to Allen.
Blair kicked a 34-yard field goal to tie the score at 27-27 with 5:40 to play.
"We changed the formations a little bit, which I really think helped," Johnson said. "We were trying to double some of their guys early on and just couldn't get anything started. Things were able to change a little for us in the fourth quarter."
Things changed dramatically with just over three minutes left. The Tigers drove near midfield, and then Parker completed a 38-yard pass to Jacoby Ford. But instead of having a first down at Tech's 18, the play was nullified by a 10-yard holding penalty. Parker threw incomplete on third-and-21, and Clemson was forced to punt with less than three minutes left.
"This team, at halftime, there was no doubt," Swinney said. "They were focused. We made great adjustments. We scored 27 unanswered points and took the lead. We had a chance to win it at the end. Just like last year, we get a big holding call on another big completion to Jacoby. That's unfortunate, and we weren't able to overcome that."
Georgia Tech took over at its 35 with 2:52 left, and Nesbitt fired a 39-yard pass to Thomas on third down. Four plays later, Blair lined up for the first game-winning field goal of his career. He nailed a 36-yard field goal with 57 seconds to play, and Georgia Tech somehow survived after blowing a 24-0 lead.
"It was a pretty good day," said Blair, who kicked three field goals and threw the first touchdown of his career. "I was really relieved. I've always wanted to kick a game winner, and it's good it went through."
The Yellow Jackets were simply relieved they won. It was an all-too-familiar feeling, after they scored only six points in the second half of a 37-17 victory over FCS opponent Jacksonville (Ala.) State in last week's opener. Tech fumbled five times in that game, losing three.
"I really don't know if there are ugly wins," Johnson said. "Any time you win a conference game and beat a good football team, I am excited that we won. We made a lot of mistakes, but it's early in the year and hopefully we'll get better. People tend to forget that we have a really young football team. We have a really young team and we have to get better at a lot of things."
First and foremost, Johnson believes the Yellow Jackets have to run the ball better than they did in the first two games. Nesbitt also needs to become a more efficient passer. Georgia Tech passes about as much as Texas Tech runs, but the Yellow Jackets will have to throw the ball at some point this season.
Nesbitt was 3-for-14 for 83 yards with two interceptions against Clemson.
"Being able to throw the football would make us that much more dangerous," center Sean Bedford said. "Anthony Allen showed tonight we've got more than Dwyer. We're loaded in the backfield. I don't think we necessarily have to throw the ball, but it's something we have to work on. It would definitely make us more dangerous."
So would learning how to finish games.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
Without Scott Blair, who proved he's as accurate with his arm as he is with his foot, Georgia Tech might have succumbed to Clemson's comeback. The Yellow Jackets' close win raises more questions than answers, writes Mark Schlabach.