TAMPA, Fla. | Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele signaled in plays with a cast on his right hand, having broken two bones by punching a hotel-room wall during his pregame speech.
Steele and No. 25 Clemson figure to spend their offseason banging head into palm, wondering what it could have done to thwart No. 12 Georgia Tech's flexbone option offense.
The Tigers' stretch of ACC championship futility is 18 years and counting after they were unable to keep up with the Yellow Jackets scoring pace, succumbing in a 39-34 defeat Saturday in front of 42,815 at Raymond James Stadium.
Georgia Tech (11-2) scored on its first seven drives, but it was the drive the followed Clemson's first and only stop that knocked the Tigers (8-5) out of the Jan. 5 Orange Bowl in Miami.
Never miss a local story.
"It makes you sick," coach Dabo Swinney said.
"They didn't really stop us, either. But we ran out of time. When you can't stop them, it's hard to win. They made some critical plays. ... It was a shootout, but, unfortunately, we couldn't get the ball enough."
The loss negated an MVP performance by senior running back C.J. Spiller that otherwise might have pushed him back into the Heisman conversation.
Spiller dazzled with a career-high 233 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns on 20 carries, matching Georgia Tech's rushing roulette.
But after Clemson rallied from a 13-point deficit early in the fourth quarter to reclaim the lead at 39-33 with 6:11 remaining on Andre Ellington's 1-yard touchdown dive, the Yellow Jackets churned out an 11-play, 86-yard response, culminating in running back Jonathan Dwyer's 15-yard, game-winning touchdown with 1:20 to go.
Replay ruled quarterback Josh Nesbitt fell short of the goal line on a 2-point conversion run from the 8, setting the stage for the Tigers to snag the title if they could score a touchdown.
"A lot of people had us written off to not even be in this position," Spiller said. "But we stayed together and fought."
A first-down holding call on right tackle Landon Walker set Clemson back, and after a long pass to Spiller fell incomplete at the 25, the Tigers faced third-and-20 from their 25 with 45 seconds remaining.
Clemson's past two defeats to Georgia Tech both included holding calls on guard Thomas Austin that negated long catches on potential game-winning drives.
"Have to see if we can figure out what to do," Swinney said, tongue-in-cheek.
Quarterback Kyle Parker found receiver Xavier Dye for 18 yards, but on fourth-and-2, Parker was dragged down by end Derrick Morgan for no gain on a scramble to trigger Georgia Tech's celebration with 29 seconds remainingleft.
At the other extreme, the pair of late losses threaten to cast a shadow over what has been viewed as Clemson's breakthrough season. The Tigers are expected to fall as far as the ACC permits its championship loser to drop - the Dec. 27 Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., where a 2006 bowl rematch with Kentucky is anticipated.
"I don't see how you couldn't look at this season in a favorable light," senior tight end Michael Palmer said. "We were 2-3 and won six straight. A lot of teams would have folded and maybe not even made a bowl game. Our team's continued to fight all year. I think it's crazy for someone to say this year's gone south or hasn't been a good year."
Dwyer and Nesbitt both surpassed the 100-yard rushing clip, with Dwyer tallying 110 yards and two touchdowns and Nesbitt 103 yards and a score.
The Yellow Jackets levied much of their damage on third down, repeatedly extending drives by converting short-yardage situations. They made 11 of 18 third downs, but their biggest conversion came when Nesbitt kept on fourth-and-inches from Georgia Tech's 23 with 4:50 remaining, prolonging its decisive drive.
The Yellow Jackets have won four straight against the Tigers and six of the past seven meetings. Twelve of the past 15 have been decided by five points or fewer.
But close wasn't enough to yield victory cigars in perhaps the defining moments to Clemson's season.
"We couldn't get them stopped all night," Steele said. "They did a great job of execution. There weren't a lot of huge, long gainers ... but it was 3, 4, 5 (yards), seemed like a lot, and they kept the ball a lot.
"The offense scored enough points to win the game. We just didn't hold up our end of the bargain."