ATLANTA — Josh Nesbitt had already fumbled on one fourth-down play, gotten tripped up on another. He'd also been stuffed trying to run for a first down, and had yet another all-or-nothing play ruined by a dropped pass.
Yet there he was in overtime, standing on the sideline with coach Paul Johnson, insisting he could get the 18 inches or so Georgia Tech needed to keep alive its Atlantic Coast Conference title hopes.
"Are you sure?" Johnson asked his quarterback.
"Yeah," Nesbitt replied. "No doubt."
He was true to his word. No. 10 Georgia Tech pulled off a gutsy play on fourth down after failing four times during regulation, and Nesbitt ended it with a 3-yard touchdown run that pushed the Yellow Jackets to the cusp of the ACC championship game with a 30-27 victory over Wake Forest on Saturday.
Georgia Tech (9-1, 6-1) can wrap up the Coastal Division title by winning at Duke next weekend.
"The biggest game ever," Nesbitt said.
Jonathan Dwyer rushed for a career-best 189 yards and went over 1,000 yards for the season, but it was Nesbitt and the guys on the defensive side who bailed out the Yellow Jackets at the end.
After stifling Wake Forest (4-6, 2-4) on the first possession of OT, forcing a field goal, Georgia Tech drove to the 5 where it faced fourth-and-less-than-a-yard. The Yellow Jackets initially tried to draw Wake offsides, but was forced to burn a timeout when that didn't work.
Instead of sending on Scott Blair for a chip-shot field goal to extend the game, Johnson decided to go for the win right there. Even though his team was 0-for-4 on fourth down, the Yellow Jackets offense trotted back on the field.
If Johnson has any thoughts of kicking a field goal, Nesbitt persuaded him for one more chance.
"I could see the defense they were in," the quarterback said. "I just knew in my heart I could get it."
Nesbitt lowered his head and powered up the middle for a 2-yard gain. He scored on the very next play, bouncing off right tackle to go in standing before he flipped the ball high in the air and raised both arms in triumph. The entire team poured onto the field to celebrate underneath the goal posts.
"I felt like there was a monkey off my back," Nesbitt said. "Nothing was going right for me the whole game. To get that run and score to end the game just felt great."
Georgia Tech hasn't won an outright conference championship since 1990, the year they shared the national championship with Colorado.
"I play to win," Johnson said. "The kids work hard and put in a lot of time and effort. If we can't make an inch there, we don't deserve to win the game."
It was another excruciating loss for the Demon Deacons, who must win their final two games to become eligible for its fourth straight bowl trip. Five of their defeats have come by a total of 13 points, two of them going to overtime.
"It's frustrating," said Riley Skinner, who passed for two touchdowns after sustaining a concussion in last week's one-point loss to Miami. "We are right there in every game. We're just not finishing it."
Georgia Tech jumped to a 10-0 lead less than 10 minutes into the game, but Wake Forest dominated the second quarter and led 17-10 at halftime. The Yellow Jackets kept making dumb penalties, contributing to all three Wake Forest touchdowns. The offense also had its share of mistakes, getting called three times for chop blocks as the officials seemed to pay close attention to the interior line after opponents complained of dirty blocking tactics.
Dwyer broke off a 59-yard TD run on Georgia Tech's first offensive snap of the second half, tying the game at 17, and the defense took over from there. Wake Forest managed only one first down on its four possessions after the break, and Georgia Tech went ahead 24-17 when Nesbitt scored on a 12-yard run with 8:19 left in regulation.
But Skinner, who had only been cleared to play on Friday after he showed no lingering effects from the concussion, finally cranked up the Demon Deacons' offense. Wake Forest drove 74 yards in seven plays, capped off by Skinner's 11-yard touchdown pass to Devon Brown with 4:27 remaining.
After Georgia Tech was stopped again on fourth down, Wake Forest appeared to be driving into range for a winning field-goal attempt. But Skinner was sacked by Derrick Morgan on third-and-7 from the Georgia Tech 35, and Wake Forest decided to punt it away and settle for OT.
"I swiped at him," Morgan said. "I was just about out of gas. ... I had to muster up my strength and go out there and give it one more play, reach down deep within and get some strength and power."
Skinner was 26 of 40 for 263 yards, carrying most of the load on offense as the Demon Deacons were held to 28 yards rushing. Georgia Tech had another huge running day out of its spread option, piling up 412 on 62 carries.
It almost wasn't enough.
"We found a way to win in the end," Johnson said, "and 30 is more than 27."