Led by a spectacular performance from quarterback Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech overcame an underwhelming performance from its defense on Saturday to beat Duke, 38-35.
Thomas finished with 264 yards passing, 195 yards rushing and four total touchdowns. Since 2000, only Johnny Manziel, Denard Robinson and Antwaan Randle El have totaled the numbers that Thomas attained at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Homecoming.
He also became just the 39th player in FBS history with at least 4,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards in his career.
"That's huge ... as many people that have played the game," Thomas said. "For me to be the 39th player to do that, that is special. It's a great accomplishment. That's not all me, though. The guys that have protected me and just like today, guys have had to make plays to put me in that situation."
Facing a second-and-long from near his own end zone, Thomas made the play of the game -- at the time -- with time ticking down and a four-point deficit in the fourth quarter. Thomas ran for 46 yards on the play to get into Duke territory. Four plays later, he found Clinton Lynch on a skinny post route up the middle of the field for their second touchdown connection of the day -- this one 21 yards to put the Jackets ahead with 5:38 remaining.
The Blue Devils punted the ball away from their own territory on a fourth-and-three, using their backup quarterback to quick-kick it back to the Jackets. They wouldn't see the ball again.
With a third-and-17 from their own 21-yard line, Thomas once again put the team on his back with the true play of the game as Duke tried to get one more chance at the ball. Just more than two minutes remained on the clock, and Tech faced a daunting task to put the dagger in. Thomas rolled right on a play action pass and quickly tucked it and took off as a seam opened up in the protection. The Blue Devils lost contain, and he sprinted up the right sideline for a 50-yard gain -- all but ending Duke's hopes at another shot on offense.
"I was disappointed with the way we played in the second half," head coach Paul Johnson said. "I think that we found a way to make enough plays to win ... the quarterback made some big plays in the second half. A lot of the same problems we have had all year -- can't get off the field defensively and we had back-to-back turnovers. Hopefully we have learned a very valuable lesson."
Leading 28-7 going into halftime, the Jackets had a chance to nearly put the game away after Lawrence Austin picked off a pass on Duke's first possession in the third quarter. Instead, Thomas and Marcus Marshall meshed poorly on the handoff to open up the drive, and the ball fell to the turf with the Blue Devils recovering it. Duke quickly went down and scored to cut the lead to 14. On the kickoff, J.J. Green was hit hardly and fumbled it away to the Blue Devils again. On the first play after the recovery, Duke scored on a 10-yard run by Jela Duncan to make the deficit just one touchdown.
The Jackets bounced back to put together a long drive on the next possession, but it stalled out in the red zone and they settled with a 22-yard field goal from Harrison Butker to put Tech ahead, 31-21.
Two consecutive Duke touchdown drives later, and the Blue Devils took their first lead of the game at 35-31 with 8:55 remaining in the game.
Duke totaled more than 550 yards of offense in the game with 23 first downs. Sticking with the trend, Tech allowed the Blue Devils to go 8-13 on third downs.
"It all comes back to execution," Tech safety Corey Griffin said. "Lining up right, putting your eyes where they need to be and executing ... we couldn't get lined up or execute the defense. We repped the defense all week and I guess we saw it live and it was a different speed and different tempo than when we saw it in practice."
Matthew Jordan opened scoring with a 2-yard touchdown run on Tech's first possession of the game. After stopping Duke, Justin Thomas exploded with a phenomenal 82-yard touchdown run in which he used a fake pitch to open up a cutback lane. His track-caliber speed was all he needed after that to outrun the defense for his longest career run.
Clinton Lynch caught a wide open 46-yard touchdown pass from Thomas midway into the second quarter to put Tech ahead, 21-7. Thomas' 22-yard touchdown run with just 33 seconds left gave him his third touchdown of the half give the Jackets their 21-point lead at the break.
While the offense was explosive for the most part and averaged nearly 10 yards per play, there is plenty to be concerned with from the defense. A fairly vanilla Duke offense had its way all day. The lack of communication and issues with lining up plagued the defense all day and had Johnson very frustrated in the postgame conference. Still, the Jackets escaped with a win against an opponent they hadn't beaten since 2013 thanks to a memorable performance from their senior quarterback.
"I thought Thomas played very well today, he made plays," Johnson said. "It's hard to win ... it's really hard to win. There's a lot of parity in this league."