ATLANTA — The raucous cheering emanating from the BYU locker room at Bobby Dodd Stadium pretty much said it all.
The Cougars snapped a two-game losing streak and won their first road game of the season Saturday in convincing fashion, crushing Georgia Tech 41-17 before a crowd of 50,103.
After suffering a heartbreaking loss the previous week at Notre Dame, a victory over an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent was exactly what BYU (5-4) needed.
"Guys were going crazy, as they should," quarterback Riley Nelson said of the locker room celebration. "Right now, as we're battling and grinding after suffering some tough losses, to come away with a win in a setting like this is really satisfying and makes you feel really good."
The Cougars accomplished the feat with a suffocating defense and a true freshman running back, Jamaal Williams, who nearly outrushed the Yellow Jacket offense — which entered the game No. 3 in the nation in rushing offense — by himself.
Williams scored four touchdowns, three on the ground and one through the air, and finished with 107 yards on a career-high 28 carries. He also caught three passes for 54 yards. In total offense, Williams outgained Georgia Tech, 161-157.
"It's my first time getting four touchdowns. I'm really happy about it," Williams said. "I feel like I did a really good job today."
He didn't mind being called on early and often. "I love working hard. I love the challenge of being the workhorse," Williams said. "I'm just grateful to get the ball."
Georgia Tech (3-5), which had been averaging 339 rushing yards, mustered only 117 yards on the ground.
"We tried to just pound the ball and I think we did that," said slot receiver JD Falslev. "Our offensive line did a great job of sticking on our blocks long enough for us to get down field. Jamaal is a special dude. He's going to be special for a while. I love the kid. He's working hard and running hard and that's what we need."
"Ever since fall camp, I noticed how patient and natural of a runner he is," Nelson said of Williams. "It was just a matter of time before he picked up the offense and started to contribute the way he is. Now, as a 17-year-old true freshman, the guy's shouldering a good portion of our offense. I'm proud to call him my teammate and my brother. He's got a lot of exciting football left in him — not only this year but as he continues his career here."
BYU was blessed with favorable field position throughout the day thanks to three big kickoff returns by Falslev, a blocked punt by Kyle Van Noy and an interception return by Daniel Sorensen, putting the Cougars in position to score. BYU's longest scoring drive went only 58 yards. Their other drives traveled 55, 21, 42, 2, 43, and 40 yards, respectively.
"Daniel Sorensen's interception and Kyle's blocked punt were really big," Nelson said. "We weren't working with long fields. We were working with short fields."
Meanwhile, while BYU's defense allowed only 157 yards of total offense and three points, the Cougar offense and special teams gave up two Yellow Jacket touchdowns.
Georgia Tech's Isaiah Johnson intercepted a Nelson pass and returned it 22 yards for a TD in the first quarter, tying the score at 7-7. It marked Nelson's third pick-six of the season.
"I keep telling myself, game after game after game, 'Run, throw it away' and all that stuff," Nelson said. "But my natural instincts are to try to stay alive and make the miraculous play. This season, I've gotten burned time after time after time. I had no choice but to go on to the next play. You've got to forget about it. But man, I wish it didn't come to that. I hope not to do it again this season."
Nelson bounced back a couple of series later, connecting with wide receiver Ross Apo for a 43-yard pass, setting up Williams' second touchdown.
Later in the second quarter, after a 10-yard TD run by Nelson, Georgia Tech's Jamal Golden returned the ensuing kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown, making the score 21-14 for BYU. The Cougars led at halftime, 24-14.
In the second half, BYU continued to control the game. In the end, the Cougar offense had the ball for 38:59, compared to just 21:01 for Georgia Tech. BYU outscored the Yellow Jackets 17-3 over the final two quarters.
"We flat-out got our tails whipped. We got whipped on all three phases of the game," said Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson. "We didn't get a lot of possessions, and then when we did have the ball, we couldn't convert on third down. We also missed a lot of tackles again."
BYU basically sealed the game on the first play of the fourth quarter when, on third-and-6 from the Georgia Tech 39-yard line, Nelson tossed a shovel pass to Williams, who darted outside, picked up a nice block from wide receiver Cody Hoffman, and sprinted down the sideline for a touchdown to make it 38-17.
"We were just looking for a first down, so when it turns into a touchdown, I feel like that was great," Nelson said. "Jamaal showed all his physical tools and how special he is."
BYU is now entering its bye week. The Cougars' next game is at home against Idaho on Nov. 10.
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company