Using a dominant defensive performance in the first half, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets controlled the game from the opening possession in a 33-18 win over Kentucky on Saturday.
With the TaxSlayer Bowl win, the Jackets finished the season with a 9-4 record — just one year after missing a bowl game in an abysmal 3-9 season.
Midway into the fourth quarter, Kentucky put together an impressive drive offensively to put the first scare into the Jackets in the second half. Stephen Johnson completed four passes for 37 yards on the drive before running in a 21-yard touchdown to make it 26-16 with the extra point pending. With only 3:57 remaining, UK elected to go for two, and Johnson found C.J. Conrad to make it a one-possession game.
Choosing to select an oddly picked onside kick, Brad Stewart harmlessly fair caught the ball at the Tech 42-yard line, giving the Jackets great field possession to deliver the dagger. After two runs for four yards by Dedrick Mills and two UK timeouts, the Wildcats were one stop away from getting the ball back with plenty of time to tie the game. Paul Johnson’s play calling for most of the second half had been very conservative, but he finally opened it up on the critical third down.
UK’s corners had been biting hard toward the side of Tech’s A-Back in motion. This time, Thomas stepped back and found a wide open Ricky Jeune for a 42-yard gain. Three runs later from Mills, he rumbled three yards for his first touchdown of the game, giving the Jackets the final score of 33-18.
Mills was the workhorse for Tech all game, finishing with 31 carries for 169 yards. Thomas added 42 yards and a touchdown on the ground, while throwing for 105 yards on six completions. Harrison Butker became the leading scorer in Tech history with his first extra point, and he knocked down all four of his field goals — including a 52-yarder at the end of the first half.
With 371 total yards, the Jackets out-gained Kentucky by 47 yards. Tech’s defense limited the Wildcats to just 6-16 on third downs, and won the time of possession by nearly five minutes. Another huge factor in the game, the Jackets didn’t turn the ball over.
The Tech defense set the tone early with a big play to get points on the board. On the Wildcats’ fourth play from scrimmage, Pat Gamble came with pressure and hit UK quarterback Stephen Johnson, forcing the ball to come out. P.J. Davis scooped it up and sprinted 38 yards into the end zone to put the Jackets ahead, 7-0.
Failure to move the ball in the red zone proved to be a problem for the Jackets in the win — and was the main reason they couldn’t put the game away comfortably. On its second possession of the game, Tech used nine runs and a 36-yard pass to Qua Searcy to move inside the Kentucky 10, but Thomas’ near interception on third down gave the Jackets their first field goal.
In the second half, Tech started its third possession with great field position at the 45, but the drive stalled again at the UK 20 before Butker hit a 44-yard field goal to take a 23-3 lead. The Jackets next possession moved inside the UK 10-yard line again, but Searcy was stopped short on third down, and Butker made his fourth field goal.
Tech’s most impressive drive came late in the second half after a huge play from the defense. Facing 4th-and-1 from the Jackets’ 5-yard line, the Wildcats chose to go for it instead of kicking the field goal to make it 10-6. The defensive line got huge penetration up front and stopped Jojo Kemp short. With five minutes left, Tech faced 94 yards ahead of them to get in the end zone. Johnson made the incredibly gutsy choice to go for 4th-and-1 from his own 16-yard line. Mills came through and picked it up on the ground. Five runs and a completion later, Thomas used a clever QB draw play to glide down the sideline and dive into the end zone to give Tech a 17-3 lead.
In a season with low expectations, Paul Johnson and the Yellow Jackets managed a very productive 9-4 season with three wins over SEC teams and an unlikely upset victory over Virginia Tech. Though the loss of Justin Thomas will hurt, a ton of talent is coming back in 2017, and the bowl win should give fans plenty of things to be excited about looking forward.