McClendon’s 19-yard touchdown reception late in the fourth quarter proved the difference as No. 13 Georgia topped 20th-ranked Georgia Tech 14-7 in front of a standing-room only crowd of 56,412 on Saturday night at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Befitting a game dominated by two of the nation’s best defenses, Georgia cornerback Tim Jennings halted the Yellow Jackets’ comeback attempt when he picked off a Reggie Ball pass in the shadow of the end zone with 1:18 remaining.
“He said he was going to do something special and something big-time,” Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said of Jennings, a senior. “That was a senior play.”
Georgia (9-2) extended its winning streak in the rivalry to five, all under head coach Mark Richt. The Bulldogs, champions of the SEC East, take on LSU in next week’s SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
The Yellow Jackets (7-4) completed their regular season and await word on a bowl game, their ninth consecutive. Tech is likely headed to another second-tier bowl after falling just short against its archrival for the second consecutive year.
“You can’t make the type of mistakes that we made we made and expect to beat a good football team in a big rival game,” said Gailey, who fell to 0-4 against the Bulldogs. “You can’t do that.”
Bryan McClendon snapped a 7-7 tie, one that had held up since the first quarter, by hauling in a beautifully thrown pass by senior quarterback D.J. Shockley over Tech senior cornerback Dennis Davis with 3:18 remaining.
Punt returner Thomas Flowers set up the drive with a 33-yard punt return with 5:26 remaining in the fourth quarter gave Georgia the ball at the Tech 39.
McClendon had two costly drops in the first half, including one ball that bounced off his chest and led to a Tech interception. On the opening kickoff of the second half, McClendon, a senior, slipped down at the Georgia 2, nearly sabotaging the Bulldogs.
“I’m just glad coach had enough confidence in me to call my number especially after what a rough start I had,” said McClendon, who finished with two receptions for 24 yards.
After McClendon’s gaffe on the kickoff and the resulting Bulldogs’ punt, the Georgia defense held Tech despite excellent field position.
It was a common theme throughout the cold night. The primetime showdown, the 100th meeting in this storied rivalry, at least according to Tech, was a defensive coordinator’s dream.
It was the rivalry’s lowest scoring game since 1979, a 16-3 Georgia victory — an outcome not entirely unexpected given the teams’ lofty defensive rankings entering the game. The teams combined for 19 punts.
Georgia entered the game ranked 12th in the nation in total defense and eighth in scoring defense. Tech entered 13th in total defense and 19th in scoring defense.
But the Yellow Jackets opened the game with a 78-yard touchdown drive capped off by a diving grab by Calvin Johnson in the end zone. Ball completed 4 of 5 passes for 38 yards on the drive.
Later in the first quarter, Georgia knotted the game at 7 on a 1-yard plunge by fullback Brannan Southerland.
Then the defenses took over, shutting out the offenses until late in the fourth quarter.
After McClendon’s touchdown, the Yellow Jackets quickly moved down the field. Aided by a pass interference call on safety Greg Blue, the Yellow Jackets had first-and-10 at the Georgia 12. That’s when Jennings stepped in front of a Ball pass intended for Damarius Bilbo to secure the win.
“I read the three-step drop and knew what was coming,” Jennings said.
He snatched the ball, raced 29 yards and stepped out of bounds at the 34, setting off a celebration that lasted long after the final whistle and reverberated all the way to Athens.
“Damn, man. What do you think?” Ball said when asked if this loss hurt worse than others. “Did you ever play football? Then you don’t know.”
The Yellow Jackets lost 19-13 in 2004 with Ball tossing away their last chance on fourth down mistakenly believing it was third. This time, the Tech offense, which produced 327 yards, couldn’t deliver inside Georgia territory.
The Yellow Jackets’ best scoring chance, after the first drive, came in the early in the second. Tailback P. J. Daniels rushed for nine yards, setting up a second-and-1 t the Georgia 9, but the Yellow Jackets were flagged for a false start, negating the play. Ball was then sacked, and another false start penalty moved Tech back to the Georgia 37, out of field goal range.
Kicker Travis Bell also missed a 47-yard field goal attempt.
“We should have capitalized earlier,” said Bilbo, one of 17 Tech seniors who will end their careers without a victory against Georgia.