Setting aside the rivalry element, Saturday’s game felt like a familiar tale for a while. The Jackets were reeling off one big play after another on offense, but they couldn't get the opposing offense off the field. When Tech's offense went cold in the third quarter and georgia built up a 13-point lead against a tired defense, any hopes of winning had all but faded.
But when the situation was dire, both players and units stepped up. The defense forced a critical stop, and the senior quarterback promptly led a quick-strike touchdown drive in response. Minutes later, a veteran cornerback forced the turnover that the team so desperately needed, giving the offense a shot to win the ballgame. As the game clock ticked down into the final minute and Tech faced third and goal, a dynamic A-back took matters into his own hands... and delivered the game-winning touchdown.
Going into Athens and pulling out a win is never easy, regardless of the circumstances. Tech has now done it twice in a row. The Jackets finish the year as winners of five of their final six regular-season games, and they'll head into bowl season with a shot to reach nine wins for the fourth time in Paul Johnson's tenure.
On several occasions while he's been a starter, Justin Thomas has fallen victim to trying to do too much on his own, and it happened a couple times on Saturday. In the first quarter, he tried to pitch while being hit and had the ball roll out of bounds; in the third quarter, he kept on an option play and tried spinning away to try to run across the field, only to be swarmed by four players in red jerseys. The first miraculously ended with a first down and the second simply led to a punt, but both could have been worse. All that said, those were the exceptions for Thomas, who made plays early to give Tech two early scores and delivered a strong performance late to power the fourth-quarter comeback.
Thomas conducted the option game effectively. His own rushing numbers were muted--he had seven carries for 10 yards--but he conducted the option game well, making accurate reads and distributing the ball accordingly. His pitches weren't always perfectly on target, but the off-target pitch to Green was the only fumble of the day on an option exchange.
Meanwhile, Thomas finished the day 6-for-10 for 164 yards through the air. He had an interception, but it came on third-and-long at the end of the first half and essentially functioned as a punt. His longest completion of the day was a 64-yard strike to Brad Stewart in the second quarter, but arguably his most important completions came on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter: with Tech trailing 27-14 with under 10 minutes remaining, Thomas hit Stewart in double coverage for 23 yards on second and 12, and he followed that up by finding A-back Qua Searcy on a vertical route for a 39-yard gain. The two-play sequence forced UGA to burn a timeout and eventually led to a touchdown that cut georgia's lead in half.
Thomas was an effective triggerman in his final game against the Bulldogs. The result is that he joined some elite company in Tech QB history, because for the second time in three years as a starter, he found a way to beat georgia.
UGA essentially sold out to stop the dive in the first half (and really for most of the game), stacking the box and almost always taking the B-back to force Thomas to work to the perimeter. The result was that Marcus Marshall and Dedrick Mills combined for just five touches in the first half. They got the ball a bit more over the final 30 minutes, and while neither of them lit up the stat sheet, they got the job done. Marshall--who made his third consecutive start--finished with nine carries for 55 yards and Mills had seven carries for 24 yards, with each of them punching in a touchdown. They were decent in pass protection, with Marshall making a couple nice blocks to take out rushers but also taking himself out of position to block anyone on at least one occasion.
Both made important plays in the fourth-quarter comeback. On Mills' touchdown run, which cut the lead to 27-21, he met two UGA defenders a yard and a half shy of the end zone and proceeded to drive them both backward, scoring without even falling down. Later, a few plays before the game-winning touchdown, Marshall had one of the best individual efforts of the day. He took a handoff and bounced off of three would-be tacklers, then dragged UGA safety Davin Bellamy with him for several yards en route to a 13-yard gain and a first down. The sophomore has shown newfound power over the past three weeks since retaking the starting job. He and Mills didn't have the most noteworthy performances of the day, but they still played their part in delivering a win over georgia.
With UGA's defensive gameplan forcing Tech to work the perimeter, the offense needed a big game from the A-backs, and they were up to the task. The A-backs combined for 18 carries for 131 yards, averaging over seven yards per carry, and added three receptions for 66 yards. The group delivered a number of effective and vital blocks on the perimeter to spring big plays. All in all, it may well have been the best game of the season for this unit.
It was hardly a surprise that Clinton Lynch started off the scoring for Tech, taking an option pitch 42 yards to the house on the fourth play from scrimmage. He got several good downfield blocks, including one from fellow A-back Qua Searcy, and simply outran the remaining unblocked defenders. He made another important play at the very beginning of the fourth quarter: Thomas's pitch to him was off target, but Lynch made a one-handed snag and went on to gain 10 yards. That drive ended in a turnover on downs, but Lynch's nice snag saved Tech from another potentially costly turnover.
Searcy, of course, singlehandedly delivered the climactic go-ahead score. It was a trick play where he took a pitch, rolled right, and had the option to throw to Justin Thomas in the left corner of the end zone or run it himself. In that moment, Searcy had the presence of mind to see the defense flooding left and realize that he had room to run. He had almost no blockers as he cut upfield toward the end zone, as the offensive line had shifted rightward with him, but center Freddie Burden came over to make a block, taking out one Georgia defender. That was enough for Searcy, who leapt from beyond the four-yard line and extended the ball across to etch his name in the Tech history books. It was hardly his only contribution, though: he had 79 total yards and made some powerful blocks, including a terrific downfield block that helped to spring Marcus Marshall's longest run of the day.
Lynch and Searcy were the stars among the A-backs, but they were not alone. J.J. Green had five carries for 31 yards and a reception for 11 yards, and Isiah Willis had just one carry (which resulted in a fumble), but both were effective perimeter blockers all afternoon. The A-backs as a whole didn't have a perfect afternoon, but they did more than enough to enable the team to beat georgia.
A week after he made an unfortunate and uncharacteristic drop on a deep throw, Brad Stewart made up for it in a big way. When the cornerback and safety on his side of the field bit on a play-action fake in the second quarter, Stewart tore past them and was wide open, and Thomas immediately fired a deep strike to him. This time, the sophomore receiver hauled it in. He wasn't quite able to outrun UGA safety Dominick Sanders, but the result was still a huge 64-yard gain that put Tech inside the UGA 10-yard line and led to a touchdown two plays later.
Stewart added another reception later in the game, a 23-yard pickup that kick-started the first of Tech's fourth-quarter scoring drives... and that was it for wide receiver production on the day. Fellow starter Ricky Jeune did not have a catch; the couple of times he was targeted, Thomas was under heavy pressure and the throws fell short. Jeune, however, was once again extremely effective in run blocking and helped to spring several of Tech's long runs, including both of the long runs on Tech's opening drive.
Mikell Lands-Davis rotated in for a handful of snaps as well. The trio were unable to engage defensive backs on a few occasions and let them get by, but on the whole, they did their jobs in both the passing and running games... and they helped to deliver a win over georgia.
First off, the interior linemen deserve credit for their work. Center Freddie Burden and guards Parker Braun and Will Bryan played essentially the entire game, and they were effective at paving the way up the middle, particularly in the second half after georgia focused slightly less on stopping the dive. It was a heartening performance--partiuclarly for Braun, a true freshman, and Bryan, a sophomore who has struggled to adapt to the line. They did get pushed back off the ball or miss their cut block assignments at times, but overall they had a very productive afternoon working against the UGA defensive line.
The tackles--primarily starters Eason Fromayan and Trey Klock, but also Jahaziel Lee and Andrew Marshall--had a very up-and-down day. They seemed to jump back and forth between putting defenders on the ground and failing to block them effectively. Tech's longest runs of the day coincided with great blocking efforts by the tackles; the best example was Lynch's first-quarter touchdown run, on which Klock delivered a good low block downfield to spring Lynch. The pass blocking gave Thomas plenty of time to throw, with the notable exception of the third quarter.
Klock, a former tight end prospect, also got the first intentional touch by a Tech offensive lineman in four years. In the third quarter, he took a backward pass from Thomas on third down and had plenty of room to run in front... but he had drifted backward with Thomas and caught the ball 16 yards behind the line to gain. He ended up getting back to the line of scrimmage but no further, and Tech had to punt.
All in all, the offensive line paved the way for 226 rushing yards on 42 carries. It wasn't a groundbreaking day for the offense by any measure, but it was enough to beat georgia.
It was a strange day overall for the offense, and similar in some ways to how they fared against Virginia a week ago. The individual position groups played well and the offense was hitting on big plays thanks to good blocking all over the field. That changed, though, when the offense suddenly went cold in the third quarter. Head coach Paul Johnson tried a few desperate playcalling measures to spark the offense, but nothing seemed to work, and georgia was on the verge of putting the game out of reach.
In the end, everyone stepped up, led by the senior quarterback. Thomas got the offense back on track with a pair of long completions. On a day when UGA's defensive gameplan mostly neutralized the B-backs, Lynch and Searcy got back to delivering the big plays that have been their hallmark all season. The offensive line settled down and did its job--particularly the interior linemen, but the tackles contributed some timely blocks as well to create space on the edge.
It wasn't the best performance the offense has had. But they made the plays they needed to make, and on this day, it was enough to beat georgia.
It was a long day in the trenches for the Georgia Tech defensive line. After some success stopping the run early in the season, the Jackets had regressed in recent weeks and that trend continued on Saturday. Tech gave up 263 yards on the ground and an average of 6.3 yards per rush. That average is not buoyed up by a lot of long runs, either. The georgia offensive line bullied Tech’s defensive line for most of the game, pushing 4-5 yards forward on seemingly every running play. Desperate to find someway to hold ground, true freshman Brandon Adams saw more playing time than he had in any game to this point. Adams had some strong moments but was also blocked out of a few plays, notably on Sony Michel’s 29-yard third quarter run.
The line did not fare much better in the pass rush. After totaling 8 sacks in the preceding two weeks, the Jackets failed to put Jacob Eason on the ground. Though they did not get a sack, there were a few times when they put pressure on the true freshman QB and made him throw the ball away.
Though the line had a hard time holding their ground on Saturday, Pat Gamble and KeShun Freeman were all over the field, and made their impact felt. The two combined for 20 tackles, which is kind of insane for a pair of linemen. Freeman in particular did a good job of setting the edge most of the day and made several tackles that stopped plays for no or little gain. This was not the defensive line’s best day and they were probably Tech’s weakest unit...but they did enough to beat georgia.
Playing in his last edition of Clean, Old Fashioned Hate, senior linebacker P.J. Davis went out in a big way, leading the Yellow Jackets with 12 tackles. As a whole, the linebacking corps had a solid day and seemed to improve as the game went on. Early, the georgia offensive line was able to open up big holes in Tech’s defensive line and the linebackers did not do a good job of filling them, allowing Chubb and Michel to break off some long runs. Later, the linebackers did a better job of limiting georgia’s ball carriers though, as mentioned above, their offensive line was getting a big enough push to pick up 4-5 yards at a time.
Despite racking up good tackle numbers, the linebackers otherwise did not have a huge impact on the game, as has been the case most of the season. No tackles for loss, no sacks, no turnovers (other than Mitchell’s interception of Eason’s game-ending Hail Mary). When Coach Roof decided to bring the house on the blitz, the linebackers were able to make Eason feel some heat, but he was always able to get the ball out before the defense could get to him. The linebackers were solid Saturday, and while it would be nice to see some big plays from the unit, they did enough to bring home a win and beat georgia.
The secondary saved one of their best performances of the season for last. While georgia did choose to keep the ball on the ground and attack Tech’s run defense, the secondary held Eason to only 139 yards through the air on 14-27 passing. While georgia’s conservative game plan helped, the Jackets did a good job of limiting big plays in the passing game. Eason only completed one deep pass, a 37-yarder to Terry Godwin. On that play, Godwin got behind Lawrence Austin, who had no safety help but was able to make a tackle and save a likely touchdown. The only other big play through the air came on third and long when Coach Roof only rushed three men. The secondary did a great job in coverage before losing Isaac Nauta, who came back to help a scrambling Eason, making a catch and breaking several tackles en route to a 35-yard gain. Other than those two plays, the georgia passing game produced nothing of note of note on Saturday. Tech’s secondary did a good job of tackling receivers and preventing short passes or dump offs from turning into big gains.
When the game was on the line, the secondary stepped up and made plays critical to Tech’s victory. The first came late in the third quarter with georgia up 10 and driving. On 3rd and 6 in the Tech red zone, Eason threw towards true freshman TE Charlie Woerner. Tech CB Lamont Simmons was waiting on Woerner’s back and made a great reaching play to deflect the pass, forcing georgia to settle for a field goal. The play of the game came in the fourth courtesy of Lance Austin. With Tech needing a stop or a turnover, the Jackets faced 2nd and 8. Jacob Eason threw behind WR Terry Godwin, who tipped the ball into the air. Once again, Lance Austin found himself in the right place at the right time to make a diving interception, giving the the Yellow Jackets the ball back with enough time to beat georgia.
For much of the day, the defense was in its typical bend-but-don’t-break mode. This week, it was georgia’s ground game slicing through Tech’s defense. Despite struggling for much of the season, georgia’s offensive line was able to push around Tech’s defensive front, making it possible for the running back duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to pick up easy yards. The pass defense was fairly effective, despite not putting much pressure on Eason, limiting georgia to under 10 yards per completion.
Though they struggled to shut down georgia, the defense did manage to get several stops that ended up being key to the game’s result. Aside from Lance Austin’s interception, Tech’s defense tightened up to force georgia to attempt three field goals from within Tech’s 30 yard line. If any of those drives had resulted in seven points instead of three, this would have been a very different ball game. It was far from pretty, but when it mattered the most, the defense did what it had to do to put the offense in a position to win the game and beat georgia.
Georgia Tech’s return game struggled a little bit in limited opportunities. Nate Cottrell continued to handle kick return duties, despite J.J. Green’s return to a full offensive workload. Cottrell has a lot of straight ahead speed but has some work to do before he can match Green’s ability to find and hit the gaps in the opposing kick coverage team. Brad Stewart did not have a punt return but did have a questionable fair catch on a punt where he had plenty of green space and a couple of blockers in front of him.
While the return game was nothing special, the kicking game was nothing short of excellent on Saturday. Senior kicker Harrison Butker tied the school record for career points with his game-winning extra point, one of four he knocked through the uprights. On kickoffs, Butker recorded four touchbacks on five attempts. The only return was on the game’s opening kickoff and was very well covered as Reggie Davis was brought down short of the 20 yard line. Senior punter Ryan Rodwell continued his strong second half showing, punting three times and averaging 51.7 yards per punt. Rodwell nearly pinned georgia at their own 1 yard line, but the coverage team couldn’t quite down the ball before it reached the end zone. The senior duo played a big part in Saturday’s victory over georgia.
It may not have been a resounding victory and it did require another last minute comeback, but the Yellow Jackets took care of business on Saturday. With a new coach in Athens, Georgia Tech had a big opportunity to set the tone for what they hope this rivalry will be going forward. The defense again struggled to get off the field and contain a very good georgia run game, but when the time came, they held strong and came away with much needed stops and a huge turnover. The offense was not a finely tuned machine but the big plays came through once again and Justin Thomas added another fourth quarter comeback to his growing legend.
With the regular season concluded, Georgia Tech sits at 8-4, with wins on the road against rivals Virginia Tech and georgia. The middle of the season got more than a bit rocky, but the team banded together and seemed to improve as the season went on, finishing on an impressive 5-1 back half. The Jackets will now have to wait about a week to find out where they are going bowling and who they will face off against. In the meantime, two straight wins between the hedges tastes pretty sweet.