CHARLOTTE, N.C.- It wasn't pretty, and it certainly was in doubt, but in the end it was exactly what Florida State hoped for.
Despite being shut out in the second half, FSU held on for its 13th ACC title in school history and its first since 2005 as it defeated Georgia Tech 21-15 at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday night.
With the win FSU (11-2, 7-1 ACC) clinches an automatic berth to the Discover Orange Bowl on Jan. 1 in Miami, Fla.
"It was the second time we've been here in three years, we now got over the hump and won the first championship," Jimbo Fisher said. "I think you've got to understand, you've got to win one before you can ever say I'm back and everybody wants you to-- you've got to win a Conference Championship before you win a National Championship, and now our kids understand what it takes and how hard it is, but they're champions."
Playing in front of a crowd much less than the announced figure of 64,778, FSU looked to be in control of the game with a 21-6 lead at the half courtesy of a suffocating defensive performance and a powerful rushing attack. But in the second half the offense sputtered and the Yellow Jackets were able to get back into the game. GT connected on a 36-yard field goal late in the third quarter and Tevin Washington punched in a touchdown on Tech's ensuing possession.
Georgia Tech forced an EJ Manuel fumble with a little more than 12 minutes left in the game and recovered it at its own 30. Thirteen plays and six minutes later, the Yellow Jackets cut the lead to just six points with 6:20 left in the game after Washington's score.
FSU's next possession didn't result in points, but it took 4:03 off the clock before Manuel was intercepted by Jemea Thomas at the GT 15 with 2:17 left in the game.
As GT drove with a chance to win it trailing 21-15, the Seminoles iced the game with a Karlos Williams interception at the GT 45 with one minute left. It was the perfect caper to easily the most impressive performance of the sophomore's career, as he had a team-high 11 tackles filling in for weakside linebacker Nick Moody, who was injured on the game's opening kickoff.
"The quarterback threw a pretty bad ball," Williams said. "I just broke on it and tried to tip it up and bat it down, but luckily it tipped up in the air and I just tried to make a sure catch and that's what happened. I'm just happy I got the call and we're ACC champs."
FSU held GT to just 183 yards rushing, well below its season average of 323.3 yards per game. The Yellow Jackets were just four of 15 in the game on third down conversions, and averaged just 3.5 yards per carry in the game.
Karlos Williams' older brother Vince Williams had a terrific night as well with six tackles, including a career-high two for loss.
"They kept great leverage on the football and they had great eye discipline," Fisher said of the defense. "You noticed for most of the time when they had a guy on the quarterback, a guy on the pitch, they gave up a few plays inside, but you're going to get a dive play or two, but the big plays usually come on the option from the outside, and we kept great discipline on having a guy on the quarterback, a guy on the pitch."
Offensively it was the running game that generated points for FSU. James Wilder Jr. was named the game's MVP as he rushed for 69 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while Devonta Freeman finished with 59 yards a touchdown.
Manuel was 16 of 21 for just 134 yards passing, but added 49 yards on the ground and pitched the ball to Freeman on a perfectly-executed option run on the game's first touchdown.
In the second half FSU had just 102 yards of total offense, turned the ball over three times and gave up three sacks.
"I thought we played a great first half offensively and a great defensive first half, then the defense continued to play well in the second half and on offense we just shot ourselves in the foot," Fisher said. "Just a lot of self-inflicted wounds and silly things, but very proud of the first half and how physical we were and able to establish the run."
As FSU's offense struggled to move the ball and allowed Georgia Tech to get back into the game, it resembled the Seminoles' second half collapse earlier in the season against North Carolina State on the road. But this time FSU was able to come up with a late stop and earn the victory.
"Good teams win games in different ways," Fisher said. "The Clemson game we outscored them. This game we played great defense. The NC State game we couldn't make enough plays either way. But again, that goes part of being a champion. There's a point in time you point back and you look at it and you say, 'That was it'. That's the time that you got over that hump and you got there and you didn't let the circumstances blur your vision, and they did that."