ATLANTA — Some of the Florida State Seminoles stared blankly as the final seconds ticked off the game clock. Some couldn't hide their anger and kicked their helmets. And at least one sat inconsolable.
The Seminoles, poised to cap an improbable rally with a last-minute touchdown, had just seen fullback Marcus Sims lose a fumble at the 1-yard line that preserved Georgia Tech's 31-28 win on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
"Back in 1992, when we first joined the ACC, we had one of the best comebacks we've ever had right here," coach Bobby Bowden said. "We were down 14 (in the fourth quarter) … and that's when Charlie Ward went back in the shotgun and we came back and won. Today, I think, would have been better. Today, I think, would've been much bigger."
Instead, his No. 16-ranked Seminoles (6-2, 3-2) bid goodbye to a four-game winning streak and, more important, control of their fate in the ACC's Atlantic Division. Idle Maryland (6-2, 3-1) now is alone at the top in the race for a spot in the league championship game Dec. 6 in Tampa.
"Give credit to Georgia Tech," Bowden said.
The Yellow Jackets (7-2, 4-2 for first in the Coastal), who had lost 12 straight to FSU, presented a host of problems, especially for the heretofore staunch FSU defense.
New coach Paul Johnson is one of the few major college coaches who relies on the triple-option.
Jonathan Dwyer gained 145 yards on 13 carries and scored two touchdowns (36 and 66 yards). A Seminole barely touched him on either. When quarterback Josh Nesbitt wasn't giving it to Dwyer, he was keeping it himself or deftly pitching the ball at the last possible second to a speedy back for nice gains.
Nesbitt, however, injured his right ankle on a keeper midway through the third, and backup Jaybo Shaw wasn't the same threat. He had his team's two turnovers, the second an interception by cornerback Patrick Robinson that followed FSU backup quarterback D'Vontrey Richardson hitting Preston Parker on a 39-yard touchdown with 6:04 left.
Christian Ponder, who orchestrated fourth-quarter drives in wins against Miami, N.C. State and Virginia Tech, hit Bert Reed for 9 yards on a fourth and 6 from the FSU 45. (FSU was set to punt, but Tech jumped offsides.)
Then came a pass to Parker for 11. Then freshman tailback Jermaine Thomas went for 7, 10 and 12 yards to finish with a career-high 130. Antone Smith gained 3, setting up second and goal at the 3. In came Sims, who had scored in a similar spot last week (although he did drop the ball after crossing the goal line).
"Everything was going our way. We had our fans behind us. If you looked at the Georgia Tech sideline, those guys had their heads dropped and no emotion about them," FSU defensive end Everette Brown said. "Then all of a sudden, the ball comes out."
Freshman safety Cooper Taylor, who had an interception that set up one of his team's three second-quarter touchdown runs, put his helmet squarely on the ball, and it floated in the air as if in slow motion.
"Marcus has been playing terrific," offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher said, adding he stressed ball security in the days leading up to this game. "You're not always the hero."
Freshman cornerback Rashaad Reid tried to scoop up the loose ball in the end zone, but it squirted away from him. That seemingly gave Ponder a chance to recover it, and he dived for it.
"I was pretty close," Ponder said. "I touched it."
But Reid fell on top of it for a touchback with 45 seconds left.
"This is definitely a loss that we will build off of and not stumble over for the rest of the season," Brown said. "For one, we fought. … And the feeling we feel tonight I'm sure nobody wants to feel (again) any time soon."