Comebacks, late scores nothing new in Tech-UGA football series

Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas (5) looks for an open receiver during Saturday’s game between Georgia and Georgia Tech at Sanford Stadium in Athens. (Photo: Karl L. Moore)

ATHENS — Like many college football rivalries, it’s not uncommon for there to be a colorful nickname to describe certain chapters of the “Clean Old Fashioned Hate” rivalry between Georgia and Georgia Tech, which has spanned for more than a century.

There’s Threon Sapp’s “Drought Breaker” in 1957, “The Fumble” in 1999 and “The Kick and the Pick” in 2014, just to name a few.

Tech’s Qua Searcy admitted that he couldn’t immediately think of one to describe the 111th meeting between his team and the Bulldogs following the Yellow Jackets’ dramatic 28-27 victory Saturday before an announced sellout crowd of 92,746 at Sanford Stadium.

But given his 6-yard touchdown run with 30 seconds left — the final two on a leap into the end zone — which capped a 13-point rally in the final 6:28, it won’t be long before someone tabs this one with a label.

“I’ll let him come up with one,” Searcy joked while looking at quarterback Justin Thomas, whom he was supposed to throw the ball to on an A-back option pass on the original play call, only to improvise and pull the ball down and run after Thomas was covered. “I’m not really sure. When I find out, I’ll let you know.”

On the surface, “The Comeback” might seem simple and appropriate, especially after the Jackets (8-4) stormed back from a 27-14 deficit with less than 10 minutes to play to score their second win in three years in the series, and just their third in the last 16 in the series with the hated rival Bulldogs (7-5).

But given the number of comeback wins by both teams in the series, especially in the past 21 years, that name might not be quite enough.

Since 1995, one team or the other has rallied either to win in the final minutes or to erase a large deficit nine times, including Saturday’s game.

It also marks the third time in the last four seasons the game has been decided either in the final seconds of regulation or in overtime, and the 14th time in the last 21 years the outcome has been decided by one score.

In Tech’s case, it’s the second time in Paul Johnson’s tenure as head coach that the Jackets have come from behind to upend Georgia at Sanford Stadium.

“We like coming from behind here,” said Johnson, who is now 3-2 against Georgia in Athens, while remaining winless in four tries against the Bulldogs at Bobby Dodd Stadium. “That’s kind of how it works.”

While comebacks and close games have become the norm in the series despite Georgia’s domination in the win column, large comebacks have also become someone of a trademark in recent years.

Going back to Johnson’s initiation to the rivalry, when Tech rallied from a 28-12 halftime deficit to win 45-42, the series has seen each team fight back after falling behind big to win.

Georgia fell behind Tech 20-0 before roaring back to win in double overtime in 2013 before Tech’s big rally Saturday.

Those games may be just the latest example of how much the game means for players, coaches, and especially the fans, of both schools that seems to bring out the best in each team.

“It’s very important,” said Tech senior defensive lineman Patrick Gamble, who posted 11 tackles Saturday, including one for loss. “It’s very important for our team. It means a lot. … We go out and work so hard all year long. At the end of the season like this, in their stadium, it says a lot to beat them. It’s a real big deal.”

Indeed, it’s a big deal for all of the Tech seniors who went out winners in the series, but especially those like Thomas, who became the first quarterback to beat the Jackets’ hated in-state rivals twice in his career since Joe Hamilton did it in back-to-back seasons in 1998-99.

“I feel great just to win the game, period, especially in that (manner) that we did,” said Thomas, who was 6 of 10 passing with an interception for 164 yards, and added 10 yards on seven carries, but ran the Tech offense that amassed 390 yards of total offense. “I guess being able to go down (in history) as one of those (Tech) quarterbacks (to beat Georgia twice) is a great feeling, especially going out as a senior.”

The other side of the coin is the pain felt by Georgia’s team, and the Bulldog fan base, after seeing a chance to continue domination of the series slip away.

“It’s frustrating,” admitted Bulldogs outside linebacker Davin Bellamy, who had eight tackles, including half a sack, in the game. “Like I said earlier in the week, this game is a hatred game and both teams are going to bring, and (Tech) brought it (Saturday). They weren’t going to just lay down. They fought and they were the better team (Saturday). … This game is going to be like that almost every year.”