ATLANTA -- Georgia Tech almost stumbled against out-manned and unheralded Gardner-Webb in 2008, being forced to hang on for a 10-7 victory that left no one satisfied.
But that was Paul Johnson's first year as Yellow Jackets coach and his program is fully established now. Gone are near slipups against lesser opponents.
Georgia Tech's retooled defense is still a work in progress under new coordinator Al Groh, but Johnson's spread option offense is ready to click fully with Joshua Nesbitt in his third season at quarterback.
The Yellow Jackets are waging a Heisman Trophy campaign for Nesbitt and his senior season got off to a fast start Saturday in No. 16-ranked Georgia Tech's opener against South Carolina State at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Nesbitt had 100 yards rushing and a pair of touchdowns by halftime in a 41-10 victory over a team that won the MEAC title last season while going 10-2 and making the playoffs in the NCAA's Football Championship Subdivision.
The quarterback had 130 yards on the ground and another touchdown when he left the game late in the third quarter. His TDs of 35, 1 and 14 yards - the longer two on fourth down - gave him 28 career scores to tie Tashard Choice for fourth on the all-time list.
Nesbitt, who has gone over 2,100 yards to rank 10th all-time in rushing at Georgia Tech, completed only one pass and had another picked off. But the Yellow Jackets gained 372 yards on the ground and coasted to the opening victory.
"I thought Joshua played well," Johnson said. "He didn't throw the ball particularly well and we didn't throw it a lot. ... We got 41 points. I don't know that it would have been any better if we had got them all passing. Then we would have been saying we couldn't run."
Georgia Tech went with an onside kick to start the season and it paid off. Kevin Cone recovered Scott Blair's squib at the 42-yard line and Nesbitt was soon in the end zone. On fourth down, the quarterback ran left, cut in and quickly raced into the clear for the 35-yard score.
South Carolina State went on a 17-play drive when it finally got the ball. But stalled thanks to a penalty for an illegal block and the Bulldogs had to settle for a 28-yard field goal by Blake Erickson.
The Yellow Jackets drove 62 yards in 13 plays when they got the ball back, Nesbitt scoring from a yard out. Blair's kick was blocked, but Georgia Tech made it three touchdowns in as many possessions when Roddy Jones scored from a yard out to climax a nine-play 74-yard drive with five minutes left before intermission.
The only time that Georgia Tech was stopped in the first half came on Semaj Moody's interception of Nesbitt's attempted pass to Tyler Melton.
"When I threw the ball, I knew that would be my first completion,"
Nesbitt said. "But it was the wrong completion."
A muffed punt recovered by Quentin Sims early in the third quarter set up Nesbitt's third TD, again coming on a fourth-and-3 play. This time he went right, cut in and raced 14 yards for the score.
"They were just triple option plays," Johnson said of the fourth-down TDs. "The first one we caught them in a different defense and the second one we changed the blocking a little bit and cracked the safety."
Roddy Jones ran 15 yards to cap and quick-strike drive following a short punt that increased the lead to 34-3 on Georgia Tech's next possession and Nesbitt's work for the day was done.
South Carolina State's touchdown came late in the third quarter on a 1-yard run by Malcolm Long. The score was set up by Asheton Jordon's 55-yard scamper.
Tevin Washington, a redshirt sophomore, replaced Nesbitt at quarterback and scored on a 10-yard run in the fourth quarter to cap a 14-play, 80-yard drive.
Now the competition gets tougher. The Yellow Jackets play at Kansas next weekend before opening ACC play at North Carolina on Sept. 18.
"I think that we had a good start, but we have a lot of work to do still," Nesbitt said.