The Bulldog defense rattled Georgia Tech quarterback Reggie Ball, and Georgia beat its in-state rival for the sixth straight time, this time 15-12 in front of 92,756 anxious fans in Sanford Stadium.
The victory wasn’t assured until Matthew Stafford whipped a 4-yard touchdown pass to Mohamed Massaquoi with 1:45 left and Paul Oliver capped a spectacular game by picking off a Ball pass. Ball, a senior, completed six passes and turned the ball over three times.
“We got to Reggie early. We knew he was going to give it to us, and that’s how it went down,” Georgia defensive lineman Ray Gant said. “He’s a competitive guy and when he gets rattled and frustrated, he can’t handle his emotions too well. We took advantage of that, and he pretty much gave us the game.”
The victory cemented a dramatic turnaround for the Bulldogs (8-4), who lost four of five games in the middle of the season but rebounded by beating then-No. 5 Auburn two weeks ago and the No. 16 Jackets on Saturday. It’s the first time an unranked Georgia team has beaten a ranked Georgia Tech.
“That’s the way you do it right there,” senior linebacker Danny Verdun Wheeler said. “People counted us out, but we never counted ourselves out.”
The Bulldogs put themselves in position for a bid to the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta, but still could slip to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn., or the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn.
“I’m hoping the pollsters will put us back in the Top 25,” Coach Mark Richt said. “I think we deserve it. It’s a fantastic finish to what was a rough season. Things looked bleak, and it’s a great job of turning things around against a two great football teams.”
The No. 16 Yellow Jackets (9-3) now will prepare for the ACC Championship Game next week against the winner of Saturday night’s Wake Forest-Maryland game.
“It will be hard,” said coach Chan Gailey, who is 0-4 against the Bulldogs. “We have faced this in years past. It hurts. Regroup, come back next week.”
Ball has the longest distance from which to return. He lost his fourth straight as a starter against Georgia and didn’t look good doing it. He finished the day 6-of-22 passing for 42yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns. He also fumbled the ball away at his own 29-yard line, and Georgia linebacker Tony Taylor snatched it out of the pile and ran into the end zone unobstructed to give the Bulldogs their first points of the game and a 7-6 lead with 3:10 left in the third quarter.
The Yellow Jackets got 146 rushing yards from Tashard Choice but just 42 yards from the rest of the team.
“Our guys really played well,” defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said. “They played fast and hard, and they created turnovers, which was huge for us, especially when our offense was struggling.”
Stafford and Georgia’s offense stumbled around until the final drive. The Bulldogs had 191 yards of offense when they took over at their own 36-yard line trailing 12-7 with 8:50 left to play.
Stafford was 5-for-5 on the drive and completed three passes to Mohamed Massaquoi that converted a third-and-six, went for the game-winning touchdown and scored a two-point conversion. Stafford finished 16-of-29 for 171 yards and one touchdown and had his second-straight zero-interception performance.
Stafford called an audible for the hook route that Massaquoi ran on the decisive touchdown and then froze two defenders with a pump fake that left Mohamed open in the end zone.
“His ability to make plays has been proven since the first time he stepped on that field for us,” Richt said.
Thanks to the maturity shown by their true freshman, Georgia’s seniors walked off the field Saturday as the third straight class of four-year seniors never to lose to the Jackets.
“It means a lot because I feel we let a lot of people down throughout the season, and a lot of people say if there’s one game you don’t lose, it’s Tech,” senior safety Tra Battle said. “To go out and finish the season the way we did, I think it shows this entire team is full of high-character guys.”