Nov. 29, 2014
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Justin Thomas may have thought he’d learned about the extreme highs and lows of Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate in his first two years around the Georgia Tech program.
But the redshirt sophomore quarterback learned that some things you can only truly learn and appreciate by experiencing first-hand, something he got a chance to do Saturday afternoon.
In his first start in hostile Sanford Stadium, Thomas learned how low the low can get, twice, but he also showed that he was resilient enough to bounce back, something he also did, twice, helping Georgia Tech end a five-game losing streak to Georgia, 34-28 in overtime.
In a game where every play, positive and negative, is significantly magnified, Thomas who hadn’t lost a fumble in five games, lost a pair of them in the second half. Both led to points and both could have broken his spirit and the Yellow Jackets’ backs. The first, while fighting to get into the end zone, led directly to Georgia points and changed a potential Tech 14-7 game into a Georgia 14-7 lead early in the third, while the second, a careless miscue, with the Jackets trying to put the game away, nearly proved to be a decisive miscue late in the fourth.
Each time, Thomas showed the grit that illustrated why he’s a winner and why the Yellow Jackets are 10-game winners.
The first play came on the first drive of the second half. With the score tied 7-7, the Jackets drove 91 yards on 12 plays, eating up 6:12 of the quarter. On third-and-goal at the two, Thomas faked a handoff to B-Back Synjyn Days and got up behind right guard Shaq Mason, trying to follow him into the end zone. He was momentarily lost among a stack of bodies, some pushing him forward, others pulling at him and the ball. For several seconds, the tug-of-war went on, but instead of the referee’s whistle blowing to stop play, Georgia’s DB Damian Swann came out of the pile, with the ball and raced 99 yards with the theft, to put Georgia ahead, 14-7.
“The craziest part of the game to me was the third quarter,” said Head Coach Paul Johnson. “We take 8-9 minutes off the clock and drive it all the way down to the other end and have it on the one. The next thing you know is that we’re down seven instead of being up seven. Then they kick off to us and we return it back to the 12, and then have to punt. Fortunately we were able to block a field goal and turn the momentum one more time.”
Thomas probably had words stronger than crazy in mind, but chose not to share them.
“It’s something that we can’t get back so I’m not going to discuss it,” said Thomas afterward. “I felt like I was in but they said I wasn’t so we had to move on. We did that and came out on top.”
Thomas wasn’t the offensive force he’d been earlier in the season when he rushed for over 100 yards three times in a four-game stretch (he ran for 34 yards Saturday while completing 6 of 16 passes for 64 yards with a touchdown on a crafty TD to 6-5 Darren Waller). On Saturday, he didn’t have to be. He had a rushing attack that netted 399 rushing yards (158 in the third quarter alone), led by the 1-2 B-Backs punch of Zach Laskey (26 carries for 140 yards) and Synjyn Days (16 carries for 94 yards). By the end of the quarter, Tech had ground out the tying score, having held the ball over 11 minutes.
In the fourth, with 11:13 remaining, the Jackets got the ball down three and 80 yards away from pay dirt. Thomas cooly orchestrated a 13-play drive to give Tech a 21-17 lead with 4:22 remaining.
Then, following a Georgia turnover on the ensuing kickoff, the Jackets appeared poised to put the game on ice or at least add on, getting the ball at the Georgia 27. But on third and 12 at the 17, as Thomas was being chased, he tried to pump-fake a Georgia rusher off his feet. But instead of losing his pursuer, he lost the ball.
Over the next 148 excruciating seconds, Thomas sat alone on the bench, a towel over his head, then his head in his hands, unable to watch, but able to figure out that the game might be slipping away by listening to the Sanford Stadium crowd as Georgia marched 69 yards on 12 plays.
A scant 18 seconds remained.
Even after the squibbed kickoff was returned 16 yards by Anthony Harrell to the Tech 43, the Jackets still needed at least 25 yards to get kicker Harrison Butker to within range of his career-long field goal. He had 13 seconds to do something.
Thomas dropped back, then, seeing no one open, took off, heading toward the left sideline.
He looked as poised and aware of his situation as he’d looked careless and immature on his fumbled scramble on the previous series.
“I saw that the middle was wide open. What we wanted to do was kind of cover it up, so I just took off and ran,” said Thomas, who gained 21 yards on the play — he had 34 net yards for the game. “I knew we didn’t have any timeouts left so I just tried to get as far as I could to get out of bounds to at least give us one more shot for the end zone or a field goal.”
Johnson chose the latter, even though it was four yards longer than kicker Harrison Butker’s career-long of 49 yards. But Butker’s boot was true, tying the game.
Given new life, in overtime, Thomas orchestrated a five-play touchdown drive, then, heartily celebrated D.J. White’s game-ending interception.
Johnson denied saying anything to Thomas on the sideline, but said plenty about him after the game.
“He’s won us a lot of games this year,” he said. “I love Justin Thomas.”
The love affair and Tech’s magical 2014 season will continue next Saturday in the ACC Championship Game against defending national champion Florida State. With Thomas having persevered through the pressure-cooker that is Georgia Tech-Georgia, it wouldn’t be surprising if the wins do as well.
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