ATLANTA - It looked like Georgia Tech was headed to its most painful loss yet against Florida State. Then freshman safety Cooper Taylor's helmet got in the way of what would have been the Seminoles' 13th consecutive ACC victory over the Yellow Jackets.
The ball popped out of Marcus Sims' grasp as he was hit at the 1-yard line and it was recovered by Georgia Tech freshman cornerback Rashaad Reid in the end zone with 45 seconds left to preserve a 31-28 victory that put the Yellow Jackets back atop the ACC's Coastal Division.
"I'm in shock right now," Taylor said. "I got it with my helmet. (Defensive coordinator Dave) Womack is always telling us that if we get a shot to get our helmet on the ball, good things will happen."
They certainly did for the Yellow Jackets this time.
"I was just in the right spot at the right time when the ball came out," Reid said.
With the final whistle, Georgia Tech students flooded Grant Field at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Nearly a half hour later, they were still celebrating Saturday as the Yellow Jackets' marching band played away.
In command until quarterback Josh Nesbitt sprained his right ankle midway through the third quarter, Georgia Tech had survived against their biggest ACC nemesis and secured coach Paul Johnson's most significant victory at his new school.
"Wow, what a game, huh?" Johnson said. "I'm proud of our (freshmen) for finding a way to make a play."
The Yellow Jackets are 7-2 overall and 4-2 in the ACC - a half-game better than Virginia. No. 16-ranked FSU (6-2 and 3-2) had its four-game winning streak snapped and fell behind Maryland in the Atlantic Division.
X-rays on Nesbitt's ankle were negative and he may be able to play next Saturday at North Carolina. That's good news for the Yellow Jackets, who nearly blew the game against FSU after he departed.
With Nesbitt at quarterback, the Seminoles couldn't even slow down Johnson's spread option. One of the top teams in the nation against the run coming in, FSU had given up 279 rushing yards before the third quarter was half over.
But Nesbitt was hurt on a 3-yard option keep and the momentum swung abruptly. Freshman backup Jaybo Shaw fumbled trying to make a pitch on his first play and threw an interception with 5:49 left that appeared to set FSU up for a comeback victory.
Aided by an offside penalty against Georgia Tech that led to a fourth-down conversion, the Seminoles marched down the field from their own 41. Christian Ponder completed three passes, including the one on fourth down, and Jermaine Thomas gained 29 yards on three consecutive rushes to put the ball on the 6-yard line.
Antone Smith carried to the 3-yard line on first down and Ponder then handed the ball to Sims, a junior fullback. The hole appeared to be there. But Taylor - making his first start - came from the outside to save the game for the Yellow Jackets.
The ball popped wildly ahead and Reid, also starting because of an injury, was quickly on it for the saving touchback.
FSU had marched down the field to score after the opening kickoff and led 10-3 after the first quarter - the first time Georgia Tech had trailed at that stage this season. But then the Yellow Jackets' spread option took over.
The Seminoles were allowing just 80 yards rushing per game and hadn't allowed a run of longer than 25 yards. But that quickly changed as Georgia Tech went up by 14 points.
Jonathan Dwyer, who had 145 yards on 13 carries, took off on a 36-yard score as part of a three-touchdown spree over a 4:13 span in the second quarter and then broke a 66-yard TD run early in the third quarter to make it 31-20.
But the Yellow Jackets got just one first down after Nesbitt left the game and had to hang on for dear life. FSU backup quarterback D'Vontrey Richardson hit Preston Parker for a 39-yard touchdown with 6:04 left and then Ponder connected with Greg Carr for the two-point conversion to make it a three-point game.
On the first play after the kickoff, Georgia Tech tried to surprise FSU with a long pass, but Shaw's throw was intercepted by Patrick Robinson.
Florida State had made a fourth-quarter comeback to win at Bobby Dodd Stadium in 1992 for their first ACC win against Georgia Tech. It looked like the Seminoles were going to do it again until Sims coughed up the ball.
"That's the last thing I warned him about," said FSU coach Bobby Bowden, who had never lost to Georgia Tech. "I said, 'Marcus, you get down on the goal line, don't you fumble that ball.' He was fighting to get in there, and they knocked it out."
Taylor had made an interception to set up Georgia Tech's second touchdown. This time, though, his timing was even better. Thanks to his helmet, the Yellow Jackets' are still alive in their quest to make the ACC Championship Game.