No. 6 Clemson stumbles in 31-17 loss to Ga. Tech
By PAUL NEWBERRY
ATLANTA (AP) The Clemson players straggled off the field, trying to avoid thousands of Georgia Tech students who hopped out of the stands to celebrate.
The Tigers' unbeaten season was over.
In all likelihood, so were their national title hopes.
Tevin Washington rushed for 176 yards - the most ever by a Georgia Tech quarterback - and broke the two longest runs of his career, leading a 31-17 upset of No. 6 Clemson on Saturday night.
Clemson, which had scored 115 points in its two previous games, turned it over four times. Tajh Boyd threw for 295 yards, and freshman Sammy Watkins had 10 catches for 159 yards and a touchdown. But starting back Andre Ellington didn't play because of a sprained ankle, and his replacements - freshmen D.J. Howard and Mike Bellamy - each had a fumble.
"We kind of self-destructed," said Boyd, who had two interceptions. "We did have a shot to make a run to do something that hasn't been done here in a long time. We've got to keep building from it."
Indeed, the Tigers (8-1, 5-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) have to adjust their goals. They still lead their division. They still have the inside track to play in the ACC championship game. No wonder coach Dabo Swinney told his players afterward, "Get your heads up. We're an 8-1 football team."
The Yellow Jackets (7-2, 4-2) raced to a 24-3 halftime lead and made it hold up. So much for Clemson's best start since 2000 (which, in an interesting twist, also ended with a loss to Georgia Tech). So much for climbing to fifth in the BCS standings. The Tigers figure to take a tumble and are unlikely to have enough games left to re-enter the national race.
"It's a very disappointed locker room. I'm disappointed in the turnovers in particular," Swinney said.
The Yellow Jackets snapped a two-game losing streak behind their junior quarterback, who had runs of 46 and 56 yards and touchdown among his 27 carries. He broke the school quarterback mark of 151 yards rushing, set by Joshua Nesbitt in 2008. Overall, Georgia Tech finished with 383 yards on the ground, compared to 95 for Clemson.
"I had some real big holes," Washington said. "Anybody could've run through 'em. I'm just lucky to have my number called."
No one could've seen this coming. These were teams headed in opposite directions.
Georgia Tech got off to a dynamic start, winning the first six games for its best start since 1966. But Washington slumped and the triple-option bogged down badly, leading to losses at Virginia and Miami.
"We know what we can do as a team," Washington said. "It's not about falling down. It's about getting back up."
Clemson got off to a sluggish start with lackluster wins against Troy and Wofford. But a victory over defending national champion Auburn seemed to ignite the Tigers, who took command of the ACC race and arrived in Atlanta having put up more than 50 points the two previous weeks in wins over Maryland and North Carolina.
More of the same on the first possession, when Clemson drove right down the field before settling for Chandler Catanzaro's 34-yard field goal.
It was all Georgia Tech the rest of the first half.
The tide swung toward the Yellow Jackets when Howard caught a pass out of the backfield, but lost the ball just before he hit the ground. The officials initially ruled him down, but changed the call after a video review. Rod Sweeting was credited with a recovery at the Clemson 19, and Orwin Smith scored the first of his two TDs on a fourth-down run from the 1.
Washington broke off the 46-yard run down the sideline - the longest of his career, though that mark wouldn't last long - to set up Justin Moore's 23-yard field goal for a 10-3 lead. The Yellow Jackets followed by going 80 yards in 10 plays, making it 17-3 on Smith's 3-yard TD.
Stephen Hill, who had earlier dropped a long pass that might've gone for a touchdown, made up for it - and then some. The 6-foot-5 receiver stretched out with both arms to make a diving catch, pulling the ball into his body with the left hand before slamming into the turf. He rolled over and did a little dance with his arms, celebrating the 44-yard completion.
Two plays later, Washington ran it in from the 3 to push the lead to 24-3 with just 37 seconds left in the half.
The Tigers have been a great second-half team, and they came out of the locker room looking to pull off their biggest comeback yet. They took the kickoff and needed only four plays to reach the end zone for the first time. Boyd hooked up with Watkins on a 48-yard touchdown pass to make it 24-10.
But Georgia Tech quickly answered. Again, it was Washington with the big run. With Georgia Tech facing third-and-6 and the Clemson defense waving their arms to rev up a sizable contingent of orange-clad fans, the quarterback spotted a hole up the middle and took off for the 56-yard gain.
David Sims finished the drive with an 11-yard touchdown run, restoring Georgia Tech's 21-point lead.
After Clemson's second fumble of the game, this one by Bellamy, the Yellow Jackets were on the verge of putting the game away. They drove to a first down at the Tigers 1 and were back there on third down after a delay of game. Then, a break for the visiting team.
Defensive tackle Rennie Moore shot through a gap ahead of the snap, appearing on the replay to be clearly offsides. But the officials didn't catch it, and Moore snatched the ball away from Washington just as he was taking the snap. It was ruled a fumble, and Clemson took over at the 3.
The Tigers took advantage of their good fortune, driving 97 yards in 10 plays. Boyd tried to sneak it over, fumbled in the pile of bodies and 300-pound Brandon Thomas fell on it for the first touchdown by a Clemson offensive lineman since 1966, cutting the deficit to 31-17.
Clemson had one more chance to make a game of it. Washington made his only big mistake of the night, throwing a pass down the middle that was picked off by Rashard Hall and returned to the Georgia Tech 9 with about 10 1/2 minutes to go. But Clemson gave it right back when Boyd threw a fade route, only to have Watkins pull up short. Jemea Thomas made an uncontested pick in the corner of the end zone.
The Tigers were done.
Follow AP Sports Writer Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
Updated October 30, 2011