ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Georgia Tech football team has spent as much time this season beating down the skeptics as it did beating up the opposition. The final barrier for respect might have fallen yesterday at the Florida Citrus Bowl.
The second-ranked Yellow Jackets jumped to a 21-0 lead on No. 19 Nebraska, survived a few shaky moments along the way, then finished strong in a 45-21 victory over the Cornhuskers before a record crowd of 72,328 at the Citrus Bowl.
The victory -- the sixth straight for the nation's only unbeaten major-college team -- put Georgia Tech (11-0-1) in position to win its first national championship when the final polls are announced today. But the Yellow Jackets' chances were hurt by top-ranked Colorado's 10-9 victory over No. 5 Notre Dame in the Federal Express Orange Bowl.
"I feel like we deserve it right now, to be very honest with you," said Georgia Tech coach Bobby Ross. "I'm not going to gloat over it or wave a flag, but I feel like we've done what we needed to do. We are the only undefeated team in the nation, and I think we won well today. We were not sloppy."
Led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Shawn Jones, the Yellow Jackets rolled over the Big Eight's leading defense for 467 yards. Jones accounted for 318 of them, including a career-high 277 yards on 16-for-23 passing.
Jones got Georgia Tech off to a good start, shaking free from Nebraska middle guard Pat Engelbert for a 46-yard run on the game's opening series. The play highlighted a 70-yard drive that was capped by fullback Stefen Scotton's 2-yard run.
"I think that drive set the tone for the game," said Jones.
Said Ross, "I think it unraveled them a little bit."
The Cornhuskers, who came into the game without injured quarterback Mickey Joseph, couldn't generate any offense until late in the second quarter. By then, junior Tom Haase had replaced Mike Grant at quarterback, and Georgia Tech had scored twice more.
The Yellow Jackets went ahead, 14-0, shortly after Nebraska I-back Scott Baldwin fumbled on Haase's first series, giving up the ball at the Georgia Tech 22. Three plays later, Jones found Emmett Merchant on a 22-yard touchdown. With 7 minutes, 50 seconds left in the first half, it was 21-0 after a 2-yard pass from Jones to tailback William Bell.
"It was very difficult to fall behind, 21-0, and come back," said Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, "but I thought our team showed a lot of heart coming back the way it did."
Nebraska (9-3) cut its deficit to 21-14 by scoring two touchdowns within 74 seconds late in the second quarter. First, tight end Johnny Mitchell beat All-America free safety Ken Swilling on a 30-yard touchdown. Then, reserve I-back Derek Brown blew by Swilling en route to a 50-yard touchdown run.
"It took a lot out of us to fall behind like that," said Mitchell, one of the few bright spots for the Cornhuskers yesterday. "We needed a little more time in that first half. I think we lost our momentum during the break."
Georgia Tech started to get it back a little when the Yellow Jackets recovered a fumbled punt at the Cornhuskers' 23 with 2:43 left in the first half. Though its drive stalled, Georgia Tech took a 24-14 lead into the locker room at halftime on Scott Sisson's 37-yard field goal.
The Yellow Jackets took control for good in the first 10 minutes of the third quarter. After Nebraska drove from its 29 to the Georgia Tech 18, Haase was stuffed on a third-and-five. Gregg ** Barrios then watched as his 34-yard field-goal attempt was blocked by cornerback Keith Holmes.
"I'm not saying that was the key play, but that blocked field goal was very important for both teams," said Osborne.
It seemed to rejuvenate Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets immediately carved out a 78-yard drive -- including a 23-yard pass by Jones to flanker Jerry Gilchrist on third-and-18 from the Nebraska 43 -- to set up a 1-yard bootleg for a touchdown by Jones.
When the Cornhuskers pulled to within 31-21 late in the third quarter, Ross pulled his defensive players over for an impromptu pep talk. Though it appeared he was screaming at them, Ross said later that he was trying to talk over the din of the mostly Georgia Tech crowd.
"I said, 'Look, guys, just don't panic,' " said Ross. "I told them, 'We're still ahead.' I was hollering, but it was very, very noisy. I wasn't upset. I thought we played a very good defensive game."
Said Swilling: "I think we panicked a little. We got away from playing the kind of defense we've played all season. We started blitzing more, and we got back to the kind of defense we knew we could play."
As bad a game as Swilling had, perhaps the worst in his celebrated career at Georgia Tech, Jones played about as well as he could. He caused massive confusion and major headaches for the Cornhuskers.
Said All-America defensive tackle Kenny Walker: "We thought he'd go one way, and he'd go another. He was the best player on the field today."