In one corner there was Jonathan Dwyer, Georgia Tech's reigning conference offensive player of the year, in the other was Clemson's C.J. Spiller, a multidimensional speed freak with his own Heisman Trophy campaign that features life-sized growth chart posters.
But a funny thing happened on the way to that clash of the ACC's running back titans: big plays and an unlikely hero turned seized the spotlight. The No. 15 Yellow Jackets' 30-27 win over Clemson became high drama that truly never got around to answering the Dwyer-Spiller debate.
In all, the Tigers and Jackets combined for nine plays of 25 or more yards. Four of the six total touchdowns were of 63 or more yards. Two of them came off trick plays; a pooch kick out of a field goal formation that GT's Jerrard Tarrant returned for an 85-yard score and a 34-yard TD pass on a fake field goal as kicker Scott Blair threw the first in-game pass of his entire football career, hitting Demryius Thomas.
"I'm sure it was a phenomenal game if you're sitting at home with some popcorn and a Coke watching it," Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said.
The Jackets' triple option kicked off the barrage of highlight moments, as Anthony Allen broke loose on GT's second play of the game for an 82-yard score. Coupled with Tarrant's return and Blair's pass -- of which he said "I honestly don't remember throwing it, too much." -- Georgia Tech was suddenly up 21-0 with 2:38 to play in the first quarter.
"They had a big play. Bam, bam, bam, 21 points," Swinney said.
But while the Jackets were piling up the yards, and points, Dwyer was largely a non-entity. He didn't touch the ball until the 4:40 mark and ended the quarter with two carries for 13 yards and ended the night with 66 yards on 18 carries. It was just the second time in the last 12 games he didn't hit the century mark.
It was Allen who stole the show. His 82-yard TD run paved the way to 127 yards on just five carries to go along with a 24-yard reception. Quarterback Josh Nesbitt added 91 yards on 18 rushes.
"[Dwyer and Spiller] are both the headline players for each school," Allen said. "[But] everybody knows the depth on our team and it showed tonight."
While Dwyer fizzled, Spiller simply needed a quarter to get going. He touched the ball seven times on offense in the opening 15 minutes, lining up in the backfield and at receiver, totaling 16 yards. But he opened the second quarter by keying the Tigers' own onslaught of big plays with a 63-yard touchdown reception on his way to 234 all-purpose yards.
Spiller set the tone as the Tigers answered the Jackets' big-play quarter with one of their own as Kyle Parker hit Jacoby Ford for a 77-yard TD. Clemson would score 27 unanswered points, culminating in a 53-yard Richard Jackson field goal to take a 27-24 lead.
It was feast or famine for Georgia Tech, which after 246 first-half yards, had just 53 yards in the third quarter. They pulled even with a 34-yard Blair field goal on their next possession, a drive that included plays of 24, 14 and 14 yards, then used a 39-yard pass from Nesbitt to Thomas to set up Blair, who followed his unexpected TD pass with a game-winning field goal. "It was a pretty good day," Blair said.
But not for everyone on the Georgia Tech roster.
As the Yellow Jackets stood in front of the band's section in the stands, their helmets aloft, as "I'm a Rambling Wreck From Georgia Tech," played in celebration, Dwyer stood away from the crowd, slowly making his way toward his teammates. As the song stopped he removed his helmet, a look of disappointment across his face.
"Hey, good job, Dwyer," a fan yelled to him. Dwyer slowly walked over and reached out, slapping the fellow student's hand.
The billed showdown never really materialized as Dwyer was overshadowed by his own teammates. Who's the ACC's best back: Dwyer or Spiller? Swinney made his pick. "C.J. Spiller was the best player on the field tonight, no doubt about it." Sorry, Dabo, but a game that had seemingly everything else couldn't decide a debate that will have to rage on.