The Monday Morning Quarterback is coming at you this Tuesday Morning after the New Year’s holiday. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Georgia Tech capped off the 2016 season in style, defeating Kentucky 33-18 on Saturday in the TaxSlayer Bowl. In the final game for seniors Justin Thomas, Freddie Burden, Pat Gamble, Harrison Butker, P.J. Davis, and more, the Yellow Jackets rolled to victory behind a monster day from a freshman B-Back and a lock-down defensive performance. With this win, the Yellow Jackets finish the season on a four game winning streak and having won 6 of their last 7. The long offseason may already be here, but there is still one more report card to hand out before closing the book on the 2016 season.
His stat line won’t pop off the page, but in his final game in Yellow Jacket uniform Justin Thomas showed flashes of everything that made him a special player. Thomas was Tech’s second leading rusher, carrying the ball 9 times for 42 yards. Half of his rushing output came on a second quarter touchdown run; a QB draw where Thomas eluded several would-be tacklers before diving at the pylon as he was forced out-of-bounds. It was a vintage run by the senior signal-caller. Outside of that touchdown, Thomas was held in check on the ground but other elements of the option were more than enough to power the Jackets’ offense.
In the passing game, Thomas’s completion percentage was a bit low, going only 6-14 for 105 yards, but only a few of the incompletions were on the quarterback. He generally put the ball where he needed to in order to give his receivers an opportunity to catch the ball. His only bad pass on the day was picked off by Kentucky, but was negated by a defensive holding call. Thomas also showed great awareness in the pocket, knowing exactly when to roll out in the face of the Kentucky pass rush. The Wildcats were able to get pressure on Thomas pretty consistently, but were never able to register a sack. Thomas remained calm under pressure and kept the ball out of the defense’s hands.
Backup QB Matthew Jordan only saw the field as a member of the hands team during Kentucky’s onside kick attempt, but played a key role down the stretch as the player who delivered the celebratory Gatorade bath. His form was pretty good, but Paul Johnson was able to see him coming and escaped the full brunt of the bath.
In a game where most of the attention was supposed to be on Justin Thomas and the rest of the senior class, it was a true freshman that stole the show. Dedrick Mills had the starting B-Back role to himself with the transfer of Marcus Marshall and the rookie came through with arguably the best game of his young career. Mills carried the ball 31 times, 12 more than his previous career high, for 169 yards, also a new career high. He set the tone for the game on Tech’s second offensive play, diving up the middle for a 13-yards. Mills ran hard all day long, getting behind his blockers and then carrying tacklers for a few extra yards. As the day went on, he seemed to grow stronger. On Tech’s final two drives, he had 13 carries for 82 yards and a touchdown, allowing the Yellow Jackets to march down the field and bleed out the clock before icing the game.
Mills still has some work to do as a blocker, though he did have good moments in this game. One standout play came on Justin Thomas’s touchdown run, where Mills made a key block downfield. Pass blocking remains a weakness for Mills, and he got beat a few times on Saturday. This is something that he should have no problem improving in the offseason as he gains familiarity with the offense.
Senior Marcus Allen was the only other player to get work at the B-Back position. In his final game, Allen briefly spelled Mills in the third quarter and received one carry. Allen hit the hole hard, running over a defender on his way to an 11-yard gain.
The A-Back corps had something of a quiet day, though this was as much due to playcalling as it was anything Kentucky did to stop them. In the first half, Clinton Lynch, Qua Searcy, and J.J. Green all produced plays of at least 10 yards. Searcy’s big catch and run was the key play on Tech’s first field goal drive, while Lynch’s 20-yard run up the sideline brought the Yellow Jackets out from deep in their own territory on what would be a 94-yard touchdown drive. As the game progressed, Kentucky seemed to clamp down on the A-backs, holding Searcy to -5 yards on 4 carries after the first quarter. At the same time, it was becoming clear that Mills was able to pick up yards at will up the middle, so fewer plays were called for the A-Backs.
The A-Backs could have had a bigger day if it weren’t for a handful of miscues. Lynch and Searcy both had extremely uncharacteristic drops on what could have been big pass plays. In both instances, Justin Thomas threw a near perfect pass, putting the ball right where it was supposed to be, the backs just couldn’t come up with the catch. Additionally, Searcy looked to be in the wrong place on an option play in the third quarter, which resulted in the pitch coming in higher and harder than he expected. He wasn’t able to corral the ball and the Jackets were lucky that Thomas was able to jump on the ball before Kentucky could get to it.
Similarly to the A-Backs, a combination of the game plan and Kentucky’s defense limited the impact the receivers had on the game. Ricky Jeune and Brad Stewart combined for 5 catches and 69 yards. Jeune’s biggest play came on Tech’s final drive, when Kentucky blitzed the corner back but didn’t rotate anyone over to Jeune, leaving him wide open. Thomas hit Jeune in-stride for a 42-yard gain that put the Jackets into position to put the game out of reach.
Outside of the one big play, Tech’s receivers struggled to get open against a talented Kentucky secondary. There were several times when Justin Thomas had time in the pocket, but couldn’t find an open receiver, forcing him to take off. Like his teammates in the A-Back corps, Brad Stewart battled an uncharacteristic bout of drops. Twice Thomas hit Stewart in the hands, only to come away without a reception. Neither catch would have been easy, but they were plays the Yellow Jackets have become accustomed to Stewart being able to make.
Whenever a running back has a monster game, a lot of credit has to go to his offensive line, and Dedrick Mills’s performance on Saturday was no different. The offensive line paved the way for the freshman’s big day, pummeling the Kentucky defense and opening up plenty of holes. The interior of the offensive line was dominant in the run game, particularly center Freddie Burden and LG Parker Braun. Burden, another senior playing in his last game as a Yellow Jacket, left the game in the second half with looked to be an ankle injury. His replacement, freshman Kenny Cooper, picked up right where he left off. The two key fourth quarter drives were both with Cooper paving the way for Mills and Thomas. The future definitely looks bright with Mills running behind an interior of Cooper and Braun.
The line’s performance was more inconsistent when they were asked to pass protect. As mentioned above, the Wildcats did not record a sack, but Thomas regularly had blue jerseys in his face when he dropped back to pass. To try and combat this, Coach Johnson used plays that called for Thomas to roll out of the pocket, which proved effective.
With Dedrick Mills as the focal point, the offense was effective in moving the ball all day against the Kentucky defense. The Yellow Jackets racked up 371 yards of offense on a 5.7 yard per play average without turning the ball over once. The only real issue the offense had was with drives stalling out short of the end zone. Twice penalties put Tech behind the chains after they got deep into Kentucky territory. It ended up not impacting the final results, as Harrison Butker was able to drive home four field goals, but the inability to finish drives could easily have come back to bite the Jackets.
In a lot of ways Saturday’s bowl game was a throwback to earlier days of Paul Johnson’s tenure at Georgia Tech. With Justin Thomas under center, the offense has grown to make use of his unique talents, evolving to be more wide open and explosive. While those elements were still in place, the Jackets never broke off a huge scoring play. Instead, the Jackets bludgeoned the Kentucky front all game long. In the fourth quarter the Jackets went on a 12-play, 7:18 drive in which 7 of the first 8 plays were handoffs to Dedrick Mills; it was one of the few true Paul Johnson death marches the offense has been able to put together this season. While Justin Thomas and Freddie Burden will certainly be missed, it was reassuring to see an offensive performance that featured a freshman so heavily. The future is in good hands.
Despite going up against a Kentucky offensive line that featured 300-pounders across the board, the comparatively undersized Tech front four played one of its best games of the season. The ends set the edge effectively and the tackles were able to keep running lanes closed, and the result was that Kentucky’s very productive ground game was kept in check all afternoon.
Leading the charge was senior defensive tackle Pat Gamble, who sparked an early play that set the tone for Tech’s defense. On Kentucky’s fourth play of the game, as pressure bore down on Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson, Gamble stripped the ball from Johnson’s hand, leading to a scoop-and-score that gave Tech an early lead. Beyond that, Gamble had a second sack in the fourth quarter and had seven tackles in total. Even when he was tied up with a blocker on run plays, he was able to disengage at the right moment to bring down the ballcarrier for a short gain.
Two other seniors figured into the line’s strong play. Rod Rook-Chungong set the edge effectively at strongside end when he was on the field, just as he has done for much of his career. Francis Kallon split time with sophomore Kyle Cerge-Henderson at the second defensive tackle spot, but neither of them recorded a tackle.
Ends KeShun Freeman and Antonio Simmons combined on one of the most pivotal plays of the game, hitting Kentucky running back Jojo Kemp in the backfield when the Wildcats tried to convert on fourth-and-1 inside the Tech 10-yard line. In the pass rush, Simmons in particular was instrumental in getting pressure on Johnson and making him hurry his throws, though he was not given a QB hurry on the official score sheet. He flashed an excellent swim move early in the first quarter to get around the right tackle and clear a path to the quarterback; unfortunately for him, that particular move was on a play where Johnson escaped the collapsing pocket and scrambled for a first down.
When Pat Gamble forced the fumble on Kentucky’s fourth play from scrimmage, it was senior linebacker P.J. Davis who recovered it and ran it back 38 yards, scoring the second defensive touchdown of his career (and first since early 2014) and giving Tech an early 7-0 lead. Davis’s touchdown was the centerpiece of a strong all-around game: the senior finished the day with six tackles, and while he did not record a sack, he contributed to the effectiveness of the pass rush.
The linebackers—typically Davis and either Brant Mitchell or Chase Alford—were deployed aggressively and were frequently sent on blitzes. The most common was the double A-gap blitz (both linebackers blitzing between the center and guards), a tactic Roof has used often this season, and it occasionally proved useful as a run blitz against Kentucky. On the other hand, Kentucky’s longest play of the day came against a double A-gap blitz: in the second quarter, running back Jojo Kemp stretched a run to the outside, and with the linebackers having committed up the middle, Kemp found a hole and encountered plenty of daylight at the second level en route to a 25-yard gain.
Mitchell and Alford were sent after the quarterback often, but they were consistently picked up by pass blockers, and neither was able to make much of an impact in general run support either. Davis carried this unit on Saturday, providing a reminder that he’ll be one of the hardest players for Tech to replace in 2017.
The defensive backs’ job was primarily to keep things in front of them in the passing game and prevent big plays through the air. In those regards, they were successful. Kentucky’s longest completion of the day went for just 20 yards, and their quarterback Johnson averaged less than 10 yards per completion.
Boundary corner Step Durham generally held his own. He was beaten on Kentucky’s lone touchdown pass, but he played the ball effectively and was only about half a step behind the receiver; he was simply the victim of a well-placed over-the-shoulder throw that only the receiver could reach. Field corner Lance Austin had an even quieter game, recording three tackles; this was in part because he missed a chunk of the fourth quarter (when Kentucky was in catch-up mode) after an injury, but it was also because the front seven—with occasional safety help—mostly prevented Kentucky’s running backs from running free at the second level.
The safeties, meanwhile, kept busy all afternoon. Free safety A.J. Gray had a team-high eight tackles as Roof frequently brought him up into the box to provide run support. Strong safety Corey Griffin only had three tackles despite constantly being around the ball, but he was also credited with two pass breakups, both of which were in the second quarter. The first probably should have been an interception, as Griffin undercut a route and tried to make the pick, but the ball bounced off of his hands and fell incomplete. The second was less of a direct breakup, as Griffin inadvertently knocked the ball away after it had bounced off a receiver’s hands.
There were few reasons to complain when the defense was on the field. Ted Roof’s unit set the tone early with Gamble and Davis combining on the scoop-and-score to give Tech an early lead, and the defense nearly silenced Kentucky until the fourth quarter, limiting the Wildcats to three points and 199 total yards in the first three quarters.
Overall, Tech held Kentucky to 149 yards on the ground, well below the Wildcats’ average of 241.2 rushing yards per game during the regular season. Granted, that was partly because Kentucky trailed for most of the game and had to throw a lot as a result, but when they did run the ball, Tech still held them to 4.1 yards per carry—a major drop from their regular-season average of 5.5 yards per carry. When Kentucky looked to throw, Tech was frequently able to get pressure and prevent big plays through the air, limiting quarterback Stephen Johnson to just 5.1 yards per attempt and ensuring that he rarely had time to make accurate downfield passes.
The best performers on defense on Saturday were the seniors who have led the unit all season. Replacing Gamble, Davis, and the other senior linemen will be a challenge in the offseason, but after the unit’s ups and downs all season long, it is perhaps fitting that they delivered one of their most effective performances in their season and career finale.
Dedrick Mills took home the game MVP award, but kicker Harrison Butker at the very least deserved consideration. The senior sent all seven of his kickoffs for touchbacks and was responsible for 15 of Tech’s 33 points, connecting on all four of his field goal attempts and adding three extra points. Two plays were particularly noteworthy. His 52-yard field goal right before halftime was one yard shy of his career long (set against Georgia in 2014 and matched against Florida State last season). Also, with his first extra point of the afternoon, Butker broke former Tech kicker Luke Manget’s team record for career points scored, ultimately setting a new mark with 337 career points at game’s end. All in all, it was a fitting finish to the senior captain’s career, as Butker finishes his final season 15-for-17 on field goal attempts and 46-for-46 on extra points.
His fellow senior specialist, punter Ryan Rodwell, had a more up-and-down day. Rodwell had two punts for 39 and 41 yards; the distances were nothing special, but Kentucky was unable to do any damage on returns. In between those, Rodwell had a punt blocked in the third quarter. After recovering a low snap, Rodwell took a little too much time before getting the punt off, and it bounced directly off of the outstretched hand of a Kentucky defender. Fortunately for Tech, it caused no immediate damage, as a personal foul on the play pushed Kentucky out of field goal range and they went three-and-out.
On the flip side, the punt coverage unit made up for the blocked punt with one of their own. In the final minute of the second quarter, Tech went for the block on a Kentucky punt, and Terrell Lewis got a hand on it. The result was great field position with 0:24 left in the quarter, and a long Butker field goal a few plays later gave Tech a 20-3 lead going into halftime.
By almost any account, the TaxSlayer Bowl was supposed to be a battle between two teams with effective ground games and questionable defenses. The Jackets’ ground game put together several strong drives, and a surprisingly stout defensive performance against Kentucky’s run game enabled Tech to deliver a convincing victory, capping the team’s resurgence in the second half of the season with one last win as Tech improved to 9-4.
It was, in some ways, a flash of hope for the team’s future. After all, the offense leaned heavily on the back of a true freshman B-back, and Dedrick Mills responded by playing the best game of his young career. On the other side of the ball, several of the players most responsible for disrupting the Kentucky backfield and keeping their passing game quiet will be back next year.
But beyond that, several seniors helped to carry the day in their final game. Justin Thomas played nearly mistake-free ball in the option game and threw in a highlight-reel 21-yard touchdown run in the final game of his career. Pat Gamble and P.J. Davis, the anchors of the defensive front this season, sparked a defensive touchdown that gave Tech an early lead and early momentum. Even Harrison Butker capped his record-setting career by kicking four field goals in a game for the first (and only) time in a Tech uniform.
It was a fine way for them to wrap up their Tech careers.