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#TGW: Drama and Redemption

Sept. 21, 2014

By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word

When finally Georgia Tech subdued Virginia Tech Saturday, the Yellow Jackets’ 27-24 win in Blacksburg, Va., had the elements to mark the game as great.

# Drama? Check. There was no time left for the Hokies to pull one out, as they did in overtime two years ago after the Jackets forged ahead so late in regulation. Harrison Butker nailed a 24-yard field goal as the scoreboard clock read 0:00.

# A rally? Check, check. The Jackets trailed 13-3 in the second quarter, and then 24-17 before scoring twice in the final 2:03.

# Huge plays by the offense and defense? Check, check. Without interceptions by Paul Davis (returned 41 yards for a score), Corey Griffin and D.J. White, Georgia Tech likely does not win. These three takeaways led to 17 points.

Sophomore quarterback Justin Thomas ran 22 times for 165 yards and a score on what up to the waning minutes was a day of modest passing success. Yet his final four completions to wide receiver DeAndre Smelter for 14, 19, 31 and 19 yards – all on the Jackets’ final two possessions – were good for third- or fourth-down conversions and the game-tying touchdown.

# Redemption? Check. Butker missed a 30-yard field goal in the third quarter. Oh, and the Jackets (4-0, 1-0 ACC) had lost four consecutive games to the Hokies (2-2, 0-1) so, yeah, there was some of that.

No wonder Georgia Tech players were jumping around in Lane Stadium.

“It was a great football game,” said Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson. “It seems like every game we play them goes down to the last possession. I have a lot of respect for their program. They’re very good defensively, always are.

“But I was so proud of our guys because they kept fighting back. We had plenty of opportunities to lay down, but they kept fighting and fighting and finding a way.” At no point was either team dominant, although the Hokies had quite an efficient passing attack going in the first half.

Logan Thomas, the big quarterback who tortured the Jackets with his legs and right arm the previous three seasons, is gone, but transfer quarterback Michael Brewer had some serious mojo early. He completed 17-of-23 passes for 207 yards as the Hokies took a 16-10 halftime lead.

“We didn’t want to give up big plays,” Johnson said of Virginia Tech’s success in the short and intermediate passing games. “We backed up and played coverage.” The Hokies converted just 1-of-5 third downs after intermission, however, after succeeding on 7-of-9 in the first half.

“I thought the defense played really well in the second half, creating the turnovers,” Johnson summarized. “We tried to get a little more pressure [in the second half], but really just played better.”

Thomas ran the ball effectively nearly all afternoon. He rushed for 54 yards on three carries on the game’s first possession alone as the Jackets moved to a field goal. But until those final two possessions, he completed just 3-of-12 passes for 42 yards, and missed a share of throws to open receivers.

When it mattered most, he was on the money: 4-for-6 for 83 yards and a touchdown – all to Smelter (five catches, 101 yards, one score) – on the last two drives. And there is no way to discount Thomas and senior B-back Zack Laskey (17 rushes, 80 yards) in a running game that totaled 250 yards on 44 rushes.

The Hokies hemmed in the Jackets in recent years. In last season’s 17-10 loss to VPI&SU in Atlanta, Georgia Tech rushed for a regular-season low 129 yards on 42 tries, and Vad Lee completed just 7-of-24 passes with two interceptions. In that game, Georgia Tech converted 5-of-14 third downs, failed on all three fourths, and lost the turnover battle 3-0 vs. a 3-1 win Saturday.

Big difference in a year.

“He’s a gamer; I can’t say enough good things about him,” Johnson said of Thomas. “Did he play perfectly? No. But he makes plays. He’s not afraid of the moment. He likes the moment. We need to get some more guys who get into that.”

As the Jackets faced fourth-and-15 at midfield when trailing 24-17, Johnson called timeout with 2:37 left in the game. There was no question they were going for it.

The coached called the numbers of Smelter and Thomas.

“I said, ‘Just throw it and give him a chance,’ . . . because he’s a really good player,” Johnson recalled. “I just felt like eventually with our receivers, one-on-one, they were going to get open. If we’d had the ball down to where they could have kicked a field goal, I might have punted.

“[Thomas] doesn’t get that excited. ‘Just give [Smelter] a chance to catch the ball.’ We had the seven cut call, option out or vertical. The [defensive back] backed off, and it was a pitch and catch.”

That was good for 19 yards.

Two plays later, Smelter was split right. From that side, the Hokies fired a cornerback blitz. The safety came ever so slightly forward, and Smelter ran past him on the down the sideline. Thomas threw. Smelter caught.

A 31-yard touchdown and a Butker PAT tied the game at 24 with 2:03 to go.

“On the touchdown, we caught them in a blitz, which is pretty much every play if you can protect it. They do such a good job with their pressure package. The safety got his eyes in the backfield, and got beat.”

On the Hokies’ next play from scrimmage – their only snap over the final 5:21 – Brewer let fly left into a mixed coverage.

“They were going for the short flat route again, and D.J. White jumped in there and made a play,” Johnson said.

White leaped to pick. Georgia Tech took over at its 40, and Thomas soon ran 7 yards to trigger the winning march.

The key to that drive would be a 19-yarder from Thomas to Smelter on third-and-7 to the Virginia Tech 18.

From there, it was elementary.

“I had all the faith in the world once we got the ball down there that Harrison was going to make it,” Johnson said. “We’re excited to be 4-0. I don’t think anybody thought we would be here. Lots to work on, but proud of our team. “It’s our turn, maybe. It looked like they had us on the ropes a little bit, and it’s looked like we’ve had them on the ropes several times . . . I’m happy for these kids because they’ve worked so hard . . . It says that they don’t quit, that they believe. I’m proud of them.”

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