Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson remembers going for it on fourth down a lot.
It was the 2009 ACC Championship game – Tech vs. Clemson, a chilly December night at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
“It seemed like both teams were scoring every time they had the ball, and we just happened to get last turn,” Johnson said this week.
Tech indeed struck last on a Jonathan Dwyer touchdown with 1:20 left, a 15-yard run that Johnson said he drew up on the sideline during a timeout that gave the Yellow Jackets a 39-34 lead that held up as the final score to deliver the ACC title to the Jackets for the first time since 1998, its first undisputed title since 1990. On Saturday, when the Jackets play South Florida, they’ll return to Raymond James Stadium for the first time since that memorable night.
Tech’s appearance in the stadium – which was the site for ACC title games in 2008 and 2009 before the conference moved the game to Charlotte, N.C. – likely will conjure good feelings and memories for members of that team and the thousands of Jackets fans who attended the game.
Tyler Melton, who started at wide receiver opposite Demaryius Thomas, will be there. He remembered the energy crackling in the stadium that night, the back-and-forth swings of the game and the urgency that the Tech offense felt to score on every possession. (The Jackets scored on eight of nine possessions.)
He particularly recalls the team climbing up on a stage set up on field after the game to award the championship trophy. Melton called it the most transcendent moment of his career, a feeling that he said he has not had since that night.
“I remember that moment like it was yesterday,” said Melton, who now lives in Orlando, Fla. “It was like light was beamed down on us. We were just excited. We were just jumping up and down. It was cloud nine and reality.”
Linebacker Sedric Griffin was thrilled that he was finally able to call himself a member of a championship team after falling short in high school and as a freshman in 2006, when the Jackets lost in the ACC title game to Wake Forest. It also meant he and his team became entrenched in the team’s history.
“You can’t mention championships, other than national championships, without mentioning the ’09 squad,” he said.
The game itself was a shootout. The Jackets and Tigers combined for 656 rushing yards, including 233 by Clemson running back and game MVP C.J. Spiller.
“I remember the first play was a speed sweep to (Clemson running back) Jacoby Ford, and I played it perfectly and he was super fast and he just literally outran my contain,” Griffin said. “I was like, Wow. From that moment on, I knew it was going to be a track meet.”
Griffin said he didn’t make many plays against Clemson, and spent the evening “just running up and down the field trying to catch C.J. Spiller.”
Former A-back Roddy Jones’ memories of his own play aren’t the most treasured, either – he was open in the end zone and dropped a touchdown pass.
“I just remember C.J. Spiller was so good in that game, and we made plays when we had to late in the game,” he said.
When defensive end Derrick Morgan brought down quarterback Chad Parker short of the first-down marker to clinch the victory, Griffin said he felt relief.
“Like, we finally got the stop that we needed,” he said. “We’re finally champs, contrary to whatever the NCAA wants to say.”
For some Tech supporters, the title is tainted by the NCAA’s decision to vacate the championship as a result of Tech’s rules violations involving impermissible benefits provided to Thomas.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Griffin said.
“We went out and won that game,” Melton said. “Nobody will ever able to take that away from us.”
Jones said that when he thinks about the championship game and the season, the NCAA’s actions do not come to mind.
“It’s the dumbest rule the NCAA has,” said Jones of its ability to strip teams of wins. “The list of dumb rules is long, but vacating championships and vacating awards, it’s so stupid.”
Jones can understand taking away wins from coaches who are caught cheating. He doesn’t see the point in taking wins away from teams, and he said his frustration with the rule doesn’t stem from his team having been penalized.
“If you have a player on a team that does something, you’re having the team vacate the wins?” Jones asked. “It’s a team game.”
Officially, Tech can’t acknowledge the game. It’s why the school had to send the championship back to the ACC and why, for instance, the 10th anniversary of the title likely will go unrecognized. But not forgotten, perhaps again Saturday.
“I was there,” Johnson said. “We won the game. It is what it is, I guess, but the best I remember, we won. I was at the game.”