JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) – Dedrick Mills got a shoutout, some head nods and several high-fives as he walked toward the interview room at EverBank Field.
And those came from opposing players.
The freshman was an even bigger hit inside Georgia Tech’s locker room and in the stands.
Mills ran for a career-high 169 yards and a touchdown, leading the Yellow Jackets to a 33-18 victory against Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Saturday. It was the seventh-most rushing yards in bowl history, earning Mills the Most Valuable Player trophy and making some forget about his two suspensions this season.
”I think he can be a very special player,” coach Paul Johnson said. ”He’s a very talented young man. We’ve got to try to help him grow up. Sometimes, you know, at that age, when you’re 18, we all didn’t make great decisions. It’s our job to help him make the right decisions because he’s got a bright future if he’ll continue to work hard.”
Playing without running back Marcus Marshall, who decided to transfer after the regular-season finale, Georgia Tech (9-4) turned to Mills to handle the workload against Kentucky (7-6). The newcomer from nearby Waycross, Georgia, delivered. With dozens of friends and family members in attendance, he carried a career-high 31 times as the Yellow Jackets won back-to-back bowl games for the first time in more than a decade.
”It wasn’t that tough. It wasn’t that tough,” Mills said. ”Behind the offensive line, running off their blocks, made it easier for me to find holes and get through them.”
He got plenty of help, too, as Tech won its fourth consecutive game.
Senior P.J. Davis returned a fumble 38 yards for a touchdown. Fellow linebacker Terrell Lewis blocked a punt late in the first half that set up one of Harrison Butker’s four field goals. Quarterback Justin Thomas added a 21-yard TD run in his final collegiate game.
”It’s a great feeling,” Thomas said. ”Everything has to come to an end one day. Happy it ended like this. Looking forward to see what the future holds.”
Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets have to replace two significant cogs in their flexbone spread option, with Thomas graduating and Marshall transferring. But Mills looks like he could be a force for at least two more years.
Kentucky: The Wildcats return 36 of 44 players on their two-deep roster, and with quarterback Stephen Johnson and running back Benny Snell blossoming late in the season, coach Mark Stoops could have a solid nucleus in place to make another bowl in 2017.
Despite struggling most of the day, the Wildcats had a final shot in the closing minutes. Johnson scrambled for a 21-yard touchdown with 3:57 remaining and then connected with C.J. Conrad for the 2-point conversion to make it a one-score game. But Thomas found Ricky Jeune wide open on a third-and-4 play near midfield for 42 yards. Mills scored three plays later to seal Tech’s victory.
”Just made an aggressive mistake,” Stoops said.
Trailing 10-3, Kentucky was threatening to score when Jojo Kemp was stuffed on fourth-and-1 at the 5 late in the second quarter. Tech responded with a 94-yard drive that included a fourth-and-inches conversion from their 15. Thomas’ TD run capped the drive and made it 17-3.
Making matter worse for the Wildcats, they had a punt blocked on the ensuing possession and Georgia Tech turned it into a 52-yard field goal on the final play of the half.
Stoops was angered that officials didn’t restart the clock after Thomas’ first-down completion to Brad Stewart.
”I believe there was just some confusion,” Stoops said. ”Maybe some of them thought it was out of bounds when he was inbounds. They later told me he was inbounds. I just couldn’t understand why they would, with one second, give them as much time as they wanted to line up.”
Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets have to replace two significant cogs in its flexbone spread option, with Thomas graduating and Marshall transferring. But Mills looks like he could be a force for at least two more years.
Georgia Tech: Plays the final of three straight games against Southeastern Conference teams when it opens 2017 against Tennessee on Labor Day night in Atlanta.
- Georgia Tech finished the 2016 season with a 9-4 overall record, good for the program’s 11th nine-win season in the last 60 years. Four of Georgia Tech’s 11 nine-win campaigns since 1957 have come in nine seasons under head coach Paul Johnson (2008, 2009, 2014, 2016).
- Georgia Tech finished the season with a four-game winning streak and wins in six of its last seven games.
- The four-game winning streak is Georgia Tech’s longest to close a season since it won its final five games of the 1998 season.
- Georgia Tech finished 3-0 against opponents from the SEC — all from the East Division — in 2016 (def. Vanderbilt, 38-7, on Sept. 17 and Georgia, 28-27, on Nov. 26). Georgia Tech opens the 2017 season versus another SEC East opponent — Tennessee — on Sept. 4 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
- Georgia Tech is 5-1 in its last six games against SEC opponents.
- Georgia Tech moved to 12-7-1 all-time against former Southern Conference and SEC rival Kentucky.
- The win was Georgia Tech’s third-straight over Kentucky but its first since the last meeting between the teams since 1960.
- Georgia Tech moved to 25-19 all-time in bowl games, becoming the 10th program with 25 bowl victories (LSU became the 11th with a win over Louisville in Saturday’s Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl).
- Georgia Tech evened its record at 4-4 all-time in the TaxSlayer Bowl (formerly known as the Gator Bowl).
- The win was Georgia Tech’s third in its last four bowl games overall.
- Georgia Tech’s 41-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the first quarter (forced by senior DT Patrick Gamble, recovered and returned by senior LB P.J. Davis) was the Yellow Jackets’ first defensive touchdown in a bowl game since Quayshawn Nealy returned an interception 74 yards for a touchdown versus Utah in the 2011 Sun Bowl (Dec. 31, 2011).
- The defensive touchdown was Georgia Tech’s first overall since DT Adam Gotsis (now a member of the Denver Broncos) recovered a fumble in the end zone versus Clemson on Oct. 10, 2015.
- The defensive touchdown was Georgia Tech’s 30th non-offensive TD in Johnson’snine seasons at the helm.
- The punt block by junior LB Terrell Lewis that set up Georgia Tech’s field goal at the end of the first half was the Yellow Jackets’ first since DB Chris Milton (now a member of the Indianapolis Colts) blocked a punt vs. North Carolina on Oct. 3, 2015.
- Senior PK Harrison Butker became Georgia Tech’s all-time scoring leader when he scored the 323rd point of his career on the Yellow Jackets’ first extra point of the game, breaking a tie for the school record with PK Luke Manget (322 pts. — 1999-2002). Butker finished with 337 career points.
- Butker’s 52-yard field goal on the final play of the first half was his longest of the season (prev.: 42 at North Carolina, Nov. 5) and was tied for the third-longest of his career (career-long: 53 vs. Florida State, 2015 and at Georgia, 2014).
- Butker’s four field goals on Saturday were a career high (pre.: 3 – achieved three times) and were a Georgia Tech bowl record (prev.: 2 — Manget vs. Miami in 2000 Gator Bowl and Justin Moore vs. Utah in 2011 Sun Bowl).
- Butker’s four field goals were tied for the second-most in a game in Georgia Tech history and the most since Scott Blair kicked four versus Clemson in the 2009 ACC Championship Game.
- Georgia Tech freshman BB Dedrick Mills rushed for a career-high 169 yards on 31 carries (5.5 avg.) — prev. career high: 132 at North Carolina, Nov. 5.