Georgia Tech frittered away a dominating statistical performance Thursday night, falling 17-14 to North Carolina State despite numerous chances for a comeback win.
On offense, the Yellow Jackets (3-2, 2-2 ACC) hardly showed up in the first half. And the defense got fooled on a flea-flicker pass from Jay Davis to Brian Clark for a 40-yard touchdown. But N.C. State's inconsistent and penalty-prone play gave them only a 10-point halftime lead.
Seeming ready to put the Wolfpack away late in the game, the Jackets were unable to score easy points or stop N.C. State from making huge, unlikely plays.
"It hurts a lot worse (to lose a game so seemingly won)," said cornerback Kenny Scott, who intercepted a Davis pass to set up Tech's second touchdown drive. "In a game like last week (a 51-7 road loss to Virginia Tech), there really wasn't anything we could do about it."
After intermission, Tech methodically drove for two scores, taking a 14-10 lead early in the fourth quarter. The Jackets again moved the ball easily, and seemed poised to make it 21-10, but stalled deep in Wolfpack territory. Travis Bell, suffering from a serious case of the yips, missed a 24-yard field goal attempt, his fifth straight.
On the next snap, Clark caught a 10-yard slant, split the safeties and didn't stop before the obligatory unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for diving into the end zone. N.C. State improbably had the lead again, 17-14.
The stunned Jackets got the ball back with a little more than two minutes left, and made what looked like an epic drive. Reggie Ball completed a fourth-down pass to Calvin Johnson, and four plays later scrambled 15 yards for a first-and-goal at the N.C. State 2-yard line. Tech called time out with 32 seconds left.
Ball faked a handoff up the middle, waited for a week without pressure for Johnson to break open in the back of the end zone, and lobbed a soft, high pass into the sophomore All American's hands for the winning touch...wait a minute. Johnson was hit low by Marcus Hudson as the ball reached him, muffed the catch and volleyed the ball back into the end zone, right into rover Garland Heath's hands for an interception, a touchback, and the win.
The Wolfpack (2-2, 1-2) got their first victory in Atlanta since 1988, and head coach Chuck Amato should have gone straight to Vegas to put his paycheck on 17 Red.
"It's about time we got one," Amato said. "And we almost didn't for the same reasons, with penalties. Penalties, penalties, penalties. But you know what, nobody on that team ever gave up. Nobody thought we wouldn't hold them and go into overtime or do something big in the end zone. And we did."
N.C. State achieved its average 10 penalties again, for 98 yards. Tech was penalized only three times for 30.
Despite the drop, Johnson was again Tech's star, with 10 catches, 130 yards and a touchdown. But he was overshadowed by Clark (four catches, 148 yards, two TDs), who had only three catches in the Wolfpack's first three games because of an injury.
Tech was ineffective running the ball except for Ball, who rushed 12 times for 88 yards. Ball threw 53 passes, completing 21 for 279 yards, but had two interceptions.
Tech's break-but-don't-bend defense held the Wolfpack to 56 yards on the ground, and 230 yards passing (110 yards other than the two Clark touchdowns). Tech held the ball for eight minutes longer than N.C. State, and ran 92 plays to the Wolfpack's 56. Tech had 29 first downs to N.C. State's 14.
"A loss is a loss," Gailey said. "We've got a game next Saturday (at Duke) and have got to get ready to go play. It's part of it and that's the season and they all count the same."