Oct. 31, 2016
Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word –
It may have taken the dust settling on Georgia Tech’s 38-35 win over Duke on Saturday to best affix meaning to the work of Justin Thomas. That was odd after he passed for 264 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 195 and two more.
Head coach Paul Johnson doesn’t take for granted his graduate student quarterback but Thomas has authored enough special moments that the boss didn’t rave about the latest catalog so much as acknowledge it.
“I thought he played very well today. He made plays,” Johnson said with a straight face.
Really, though, Saturday in Bobby Dodd Stadium was absurd.
In simple summation, Thomas’ 459 yards of total offense were the most by a Tech player since former quarterback George Godsey went for a school record of 477 in a 39-38 loss to Virginia on Nov. 10, 1991. Thomas was in range of the mark before taking intentional losses of six and five yards to end the game.
The Pride of Prattville, Ala., became the fourth Division I FBS player since 2000 to rack up 250 passing yards, 190 rushing yards, two passing scores and two rushing scores in a game. The other three – Indiana’s Antwan Randel-El, Michigan’s Denard Robinson and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel – went to the NFL.
Thomas wasn’t one to gush, either.
“It’s something I should have been doing all along, honestly,” he said. “It’s something that I’ve got to continue doing.”
If the big pictures don’t paint clearly enough for those who missed the game to understand, the volume and keen timing of Thomas’ big plays did.
Before getting into them, consider the assessment of Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, whose team rallied from a 28-7 deficit to take a 35-31 lead in the fourth quarter only to be un-done by Thomas and the Yellow Jackets.
A laser-sharp 21-yard touchdown pass to Clinton Lynch with 5:38 left in the game was a specific dagger, but nowhere near the only blade Thomas broke out.
“You have to look at Justin Thomas and say he might have had his finest hour,” Cutcliffe said after Tech went for 605 yards of total offense. “He played like a senior; that’s what I told him after the ball game.”
The Jackets didn’t wait long to attack.
Thomas was sacked on the first play of the game but on the third, he threw long down the left sideline for 50 yards to wide receiver Brad Stewart. A few plays later, he floated a screen pass over a rushing Dukie and J.J. Green turned that into 18 yards. It was quite a third-and-15 conversion.
Three Tech receivers – Stewart, Lynch and Ricky Jeune – wound up with three receptions each for at least 70 yards apiece on a day where Thomas completed 10-of-14 passes without an interception.
The connection with Stewart made Thomas the 39th NCAA Division I player to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 2,000 in a career. The ACC club grew to four, including Clemson’s Woody Dantzler, Virginia Tech’s Tyrod Taylor and North Carolina’s Marquise Williams.
“As many people as have played the game, and for me to do that, especially in this era . . . I think that’s a great accomplishment but it’s not all me,” he said. “The guys have to protect and make the plays . . .
“Throughout the week, the coaches said we were going to have to throw the ball and that’s what we did. The guys protected well up front and everybody made plays outside when the ball came to them.”
Thomas would have more chances, and quickly.
Duke gained a couple of first downs before punting the Jackets into a hole.
On third-and-1 from the Tech 18, Thomas did what he does, swinging around the right side. He didn’t pitch the ball, instead faking and taking – for a career-long 82-yard touchdown run. Again, he had a simple explanation after splitting two defenders, faking another with a hard cut to the right and hauling tail.
“I didn’t see my pitch back so I didn’t want to force the issue,” he said. “I [saw] the seam and hit it as hard as I could.”
On one play, Thomas had out-paced his rushing totals from all but one of Tech’s first seven games.
After the teams slowed each other for a bit into the second quarter, the Blue Devils pulled within 14-7 when Daniel Jones passed 23 yards to Daniel Helm. Tight ends caused the Jackets fits all day but they have Thomas and he has friends.
On first down, he threw long left to Jeune, who made a backpedaling catch for 33 yards.
“Their corners like to look in the backfield so we knew we could beat them deep when the opportunity was up,” Jeune said.
Duke’s safeties were over-focused on Tech’s running game, too, and the Blue Devils paid for it on the next play.
Lynch lined up in a wide-right slot and, upon the snap, quite simply took off in a straight line. Nobody covered him and Thomas dropped the ball to him for a 46-yard touchdown pass.
“[Duke] was selling out to stop the run. The touchdown to Clinton was the same as Georgia Southern,” Johnson said. “We caught them with the safety right down in the box and they’re trying to stop the option and check the play.”
It didn’t exactly look like a setup when Tech linebacker Terrell Lewis dropped Duke running back Joseph Ajeigbe for a three-yard loss on fourth-and-2. There was just one minute left in the first half but Thomas cashed it in.
From the Jackets’ 38, he hit Jeune for 40 yards on a tightly-contested ball and, after an incompletion, he ran the final 22 yards on a draw play and Tech carried a 28-7 lead to halftime.
“I don’t feel pressure to play a certain way,” Thomas reported. “If the defense is going to let me run the ball, I’m going to make them pay for it.”
There was an interruption of fun in the third quarter and Duke charged ahead with touchdowns on four consecutive drives. Making matters appear worse, after Helm’s go-ahead score, Lance Austin’s 14-yard kickoff return left Tech at its own 14.
Thomas had a grip in the huddle.
“He’s just telling everybody the ball’s going to be in our hands to win and it was,” Jeune said. “He made some great plays for us.”
Boom! The Blue Devils sacked Thomas, pushing the Jackets back to the 5.
Next thing you know, No. 5 was flushed right from the pocket and running from linebacker Ben Humphreys and defensive end Dominic McDonald in the end zone.
He was faster than both and as Tech’s route combinations had cleared a pasture of green on the right side, Thomas went overland for 46 yards.
“They brought an extra guy, an extra guy that we could handle,” he explained. “They did the same thing the play before, so I had to make him miss and there wasn’t nobody else on the perimeter, so I took advantage of it.”
Four plays later, Thomas hit Lynch – who was tightly covered – with a 21-yard strike over the middle to give Tech the lead for good.
There was more sweat, though, as the quarterback led cheers for the defense.
“I saw him get everybody up on the sidelines, just pick their heads up,” Marshall said.
Even after the Jackets forced Duke into a three-and-out and Tech took over with 3:53 left, that was a lot of clock to try to run out with a 38-35 lead. Matters looked bleak on third-and-17 from the GT 21.
All JT did was scramble up the middle once more on an afternoon where Tech’s passing game became a running game on several occasions. Thomas carried 17 times but that one was a beauty, as he made several cuts and went for 50 yards.
Tech ran out the clock after all.
Thomas said he’s proud to be in a few exclusive clubs but added that he and the Jackets must avoid big pictures and focus on details.
“We can’t think of the future, if we win out or whatever. We’ve got to worry about North Carolina,” he said. “It’s a great honor to be in that situation and hopefully there’s more at the end of the season.”