Georgia Southern came a long way back, but with 23 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas hit Deon Hill with a pass in the flat, and the senior broke a tackle and went 13 yards for a touchdown to lift the Yellow Jackets to a 42-38 win over the Eagles in Bobby Dodd Stadium Saturday afternoon.
Thomas slipped past the Eagle defense on 3rd-down-and-7, rolled right and found Hill. Thomas set up the game-winning drive with a 12-yard scramble on 3rd-and-7 from the Georgia Southern 48-yard line and by running for 14 yards on a quarterback draw two plays later. The touchdown was the Yellow Jackets' only one of the second half as Georgia Southern erased a 35-10 halftime deficit by tallying 28-straight points to take a 38-35 lead.
For the second time this season, the Eagles (1-2) were driving down the field against an ACC opponent on the road, looking to deliver the knockout blow, when their lone turnover of the game got in the way. Against NC State in week 1, it was a fumbled snap on the Wolfpack 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter. This time, it took video replay to overturn an incomplete pass call at the Georgia Tech 27 with 8:49 to play.
On first down, sophomore quarterback Favian Upshaw tried to pitch the ball to Matt Breida, but it was batted down by Yellow Jacket Jamal Golden and recovered by KeShun Freeman. The initial ruling on the field was an incomplete pass but after a look at the tape, the officials ruled that the ball was released at the 27-yard line and first touched at the 27 and therefore a backward pass and fumble. Up to that point, the Eagles had outgained Georgia Tech 379-83 in total yards in the second half.
"I'm very disappointed, obviously, but proud of our kids for competing and continuing to fight," said Georgia Southern coach Willie Fritz. "When you play with the big boys, particularly week after week, and these types of games are always away, you have to play as close to error free as possible, and we just didn't quite do that."
L.A. Ramsby gave the Eagles their first lead of the contest with an 11-yard touchdown run, first in his career, with 10:46 left in the game. Kevin Ellison keyed the drive with a 26-yard scramble on 3rd-and-5, and then hit Matt Breida with a 28-yard pass down the left sideline. The Eagles went for the two-point conversion, and BJ Johnson caught an Ellison pass in the front right corner of the end zone to give the Eagles a 38-35 advantage.
Thomas picked up a first down on Georgia Tech's next drive with an 11-yard run, but on 3rd-and-5, Eagle defensive back Deion Stanley broke up a Thomas pass and the Yellow Jackets were forced to punt. Upshaw replaced the injured Ellison at quarterback and led the Eagles deep into Tech territory. He converted a 3rd-down-and-9 with a 10-yard pass to Breida and ran for a 15-yard pickup on the next play.
"Kevin got injured and couldn't go, and Favian played very well at the end of the game," said Fritz. "One errant pitch, which I'd like to go back and look at, but I thought both guys played a good ball game."
Ellison completed 7-of-10 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown and ran for 107 yards and a score. Upshaw was 6-for-12 for 81 yards and rushed three times for 16 yards. Breida logged 111 yards and two TDs on 11 carries and caught three passes for 52 yards, and Kentrellis Showers pulled in two passes for 66 yards.
Antwione Williams led the defense with 10 tackles, and Jonathan Battle had four stops, including a career-best two tackles for loss. Jay Ellison had a career day with eight stops, and Glover finished with six.
Thomas finished with 188 passing yards and four touchdowns and rushed 20 times for 137 yards and a score for the Yellow Jackets (3-0). DeAndre Smelter caught four passes for 106 yards and a TD, while Zach Laskey rushed for 80 yards and caught two passes for 36 yards and a TD.
Trailing 35-10 at halftime, Ellison ignited the comeback on the Eagles' opening possession of the second half with a 32-yard touchdown run around the right side on 4th-and-1.
After the Eagle defense forced a 3-and-out, the sophomore quarterback broke free for a 38-yard run and then hit Showers on a 43-yard pass. That set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Breida that trimmed the margin to 35-24 midway through the quarter.
The Georgia Southern defense got another stop, and the Eagles lit up the scoreboard again just 1:49 later as Ellison hit B.J. Johnson with a 68-yard touchdown pass down the right sideline. The Eagles tried for the two-point conversion, but Ellison overthrew Nardo Govan, leaving the score at 35-30 with 1:41 left in the third.
The Yellow Jackets managed to pick up two first downs on their next drive, but Stanley set up a 3rd-and-11 with a tackle behind the line, and Thomas overthrew Smelter, giving the ball to the Eagles. Georgia Southern marched 94 yards in seven plays for Ramsby's touchdown, the first of his career, which gave the Eagles their first lead.
Georgia Tech, which came into the game ranked second in the nation in third-down conversions at 68 percent, made good on 5-of-6 in the first half and the one the Yellow Jackets did not get wound up being a touchdown on 4th-down. Two conversions came on 3rd-and-long situations that kept drives alive as The Yellow Jackets scored touchdowns on their first five possessions and held the ball for 21:29 of the first frame while outgaining the Eagles 385-130.
"We played really poorly in the first half," said Fritz. "They added some new wrinkles, and we knew they would. They ran a counter early in ball game and just kept us on our heels for most of the first half, and on those 3rd-and-long plays, those are balls we just had to make a play on."
Georgia Tech's Charles Perkins got the ball on a counter on the first play from scrimmage of the game and scampered 63 yards down the right sideline. Thomas scored an 8-yard touchdown run two players later.
The Yellow Jacket defense forced the Eagles to go 3-and-out, and Georgia Tech converted two third downs on its next drive. The last one was a 12-yard touchdown pass from Thomas to Laskey on 3rd-and-7, giving Georgia Tech a 14-0 cushion.
Georgia Southern got on the scoreboard on its second drive of the contest when Breida scooted around the left tackle and found daylight, racing 69 yards for a touchdown, the longest touchdown of his career.
The Yellow Jackets answered by dinking and dunking their way down the field, chewing up 84 yards in 14 plays that took 7:20 off the clock. The Eagles stopped Tim Byerly for no gain on 3rd-and-goal from the 1-yard line, but the junior quarterback tried it again on 4th-down and found the end zone for a 21-7 Ramblin' Wreck cushion early in the second quarter.
After Georgia Southern went 3-and-out on its next drive, Georgia Tech found the end zone again on a 4-yard pass from Thomas to Darren Waller for a 28-7 lead. A sack by Battle set up a 3rd-and-22 situation, but the Yellow Jackets converted it with a 22-yard pass from Thomas to Smelter, who stretched out to put the ball past the sticks.
Upshaw sparked the Eagles' next drive by completing 3-of-5 passes, including a 24-yard strike to Zach Walker, to move down to the Tech 12-yard line. Upshaw missed on two pass attempts from there, and Georgia Southern was forced to settle for a 27-yard field goal by Alex Hanks.
The Yellow Jackets answered again, this time with a couple of quick strikes through the air. Thomas hit Waller for a 26-yard completion and two plays later, pump faked and found Smelter wide open down the sideline after a double move for a 57-yard touchdown and a 35-10 Tech lead.
The Eagles will play their first Sun Belt Conference game next Saturday as they travel to South Alabama for a 7:30 p.m. (Eastern) contest.
GAME NOTES: The 68-yard pass was the longest for the Eagles since 2012, a 75-yarder from current Minnesota Viking Jerick McKinnon to Walker in 2012… The recipient of the pass, B.J. Johnson, was the Eagles' top receiver last year with 12 catches, but this was his first career TD… Walker tied a career-best with five catches… The attendance of 53,173 at Bobby Dodd Stadium is the largest in a non-conference, non-Georgia home game since 55,646 saw the Yellow Jackets play host to Notre Dame Sept. 2, 2006… The Eagles' largest come-from-behind victory was
28 points in 38-31 overtime win at Western Carolina Oct. 25, 2008; all 28 points came in the 4th quarter… The Eagles' 245 passing yards were the most since 2013 vs. St. Francis (Pa.)… Georgia Southern's 13 pass completions were the most since a game-high of 30 in 2009 vs. Albany and most attempts since 43 in that same game… It was the first meeting between the two schools on the gridiron… The teams had 139 student-athletes from the Peach State combined… It was one of seven games in the state of Georgia for the Eagles and one of two in Atlanta this season; the Eagles take on Georgia State in the Georgia Dome Oct. 25… Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson went 62-10 in five years as the head coach at Georgia Southern, winning five straight conference titles and two national championships before moving on to Navy… Today is GSU's Silver Anniversary -- Sept. 13, 1989, USG Board of Regents voted to make Georgia Southern a university.