TAMPA, Fla. | Both coaches talked all week about how championships are won. The ingredients to an ACC championship were no secret. The team that executed and did not turn the ball over would win.
Georgia Tech executed. Georgia Tech did not turn the ball over. Georgia Tech is the ACC champion after a thrilling 39-34 victory against a Clemson team that never could solve the Yellow Jackets' triple-option offense.
The Yellow Jackets were nearly flawless in their execution, scoring on eight of nine possessions. They did not throw an interception and fumbled only once, but recovered it.
When Clemson quarterback Kyle Parker fell short of a first down in the game's final seconds, Georgia Tech fans serenaded their team with oranges. The Yellow Jackets are headed to the Orange Bowl.
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Befitting a championship game, Georgia Tech needed a near-perfect performance to hold off Clemson's C.J. Spiller. He earned game MVP honors with 233 yards rushing and four touchdowns.
"C.J. played a great game. He's a tremendous player," Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. "I wish him the best in the NFL."
Neither team punted, because it became a back-and-forth battle of Georgia Tech's long scoring drives against Clemson's quick strikes by Spiller.
In the end, the battalion of Georgia Tech was five points better than Clemson's army of one. That's the way the game began and the way it ended.
A 54-yard run by Spiller set up Andre Ellington's 1-yard dive into the end zone to give Clemson a 34-33 lead with 6:11 remaining. Georgia Tech countered with a 13-play, 86-yard drive for the winning touchdown. Jonathan Dwyer carried the final 15 yards, and he might as well have kept running to Miami.
The final Georgia Tech drive was a heartbreaker for Clemson.
"It makes you sick," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said of Georgia Tech's final drive. "It's just sickening."
The sick feeling in Clemson's stomach came from their inability to stop Georgia Tech. Prior to Saturday, Clemson had allowed drives of 10 plays or more 14 times in 12 regular-season games. Georgia Tech had five such drives Saturday.
"When you can't stop them, it's hard to win," Swinney said. "They made some critical plays. Fourth down. Third down. ... It's hard to win."
Georgia Tech converted 11 of 18 third downs into first downs, and two of three fourth-down situations. The result was the most first downs (28) a team has put up against Clemson this season and the most rushing yards (333) the Tigers have allowed.
"They didn't have a lot of chunk plays," said Kevin Steele, Clemson's defensive coordinator. "There weren't a lot of huge, long, long gainers. . . . It was three, four, five, it seemed like a lot. They kept the ball and grinded it out."
What a shame for Spiller, who had the most outstanding performance of any Heisman Trophy candidate on Saturday. His touchdowns came on runs of 3, 42, 36 and 9 yards. He also had runs of 40 and 54 yards, perhaps showing to a national television audience that he is deserving of an invite to next weekend's ceremonies in New York City.
"He left it all on the field. That's all you can ask," Swinney said of Spiller. "I'm really proud of him."
Time and again, Spiller seemed to hit into the line of scrimmage, then bounce outside for big gains. On Clemson's second touchdown drive to tie the game at 13, Spiller returned the kickoff 30 yards, then ran on consecutive plays for 3, 13, 6, 2 and 41 yards for the touchdown.
"You never want to come up short when you play in these championship games," Spiller said, "but . . . those guys just made the extra play they needed to win."
Actually, it was 32 extra plays that helped Georgia Tech win - the Yellow Jackets held an 83-51 advantage in offensive plays Georgia Tech played as good a game of keep away as anyone has against Clemson. Georgia Tech kept possession for 37 minutes, compared to 23 for Clemson.
Clemson executed well on offense because of Spiller. But the Tigers turned the ball over on a couple of interceptions by Parker. Georgia Tech executed a notch better and did not turn the ball over.
That's how champions are determined, and it is why Georgia Tech is headed to the Orange Bowl while Clemson awaits its bowl fate today.