Jan. 1, 2017
Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Every play gets magnified in bowl games.
Plays that are magnified during the regular season — like fourth-down gambles — certainly receive extra time under the microscope.
Two such plays early in the second quarter of Saturday’s TaxSlayer Bowl factored into Georgia Tech’s 33-18 win over Kentucky. The victory gave GT a final record of 9-4, was their fourth-straight win and sixth in seven games to close out `16, pushed the Jackets to 3-0 against the SEC this season and was Tech’s second-straight bowl win — both over SEC teams.
The first of the crucial fourth-down plays came with Tech on defense, stopping UK’s offensive momentum cold, the other came on the ensuing possession, prolonging a drive that would provide an important buffer for the Jackets.
“We got some good stops defensively on fourth down that helped,” Johnson explained afterward. “I went brain-dead there from my own . I was going to call timeout, but when they didn’t cover the guard, I figured we’d let it roll. We did. Got the first down, so it was good. Went on down and scored.”
“I went brain-dead,” doesn’t quite rank up there in the pantheon of historical quotes like, say, Edison’s “Genius is one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration,” but who’s to question the results?
Saturday’s fourth-down hot streak began with Georgia Tech holding a 10-3 lead but Kentucky looking to equalize. The Wildcats stared at fourth-and-one on the Yellow Jackets’ five.
The odds seemed in the `Cats’ favor, as they had the momentum — having scored on their previous drive — and already had driven from their own 28, exclusively on the ground. They brought a 75-percent success rate on fourth down into the game, while the Jackets had stopped opponents 53 percent of the time (8-of-15).
But that’s why they call them odds.
Tech’s defensive line made their own odds. Tackle Antonio Simmons and end KeShun Freeman blew through their blocks and stuffed Kentucky running back JoJo Kemp. Simmons disrupted the play’s rhythm and Freeman cleaned it up, bringing Kemp down for a one-yard loss. The Jackets’ defense had done what became its signature for much of the season, particularly down the stretch — bending but not breaking and standing especially tall on fourth.
With the two stops on Kentucky’s four fourth-down plays, Tech’s defense stopped opponents on 5-of-9 fourth downs over the season’s final four games (55.6 percent of the time).
Pressure from the front seven was something the Yellow Jackets talked about a lot going into the TaxSlayer Bowl.
“It was very important for us in the gameplan,” said defensive tackle Patrick Gamble, who recorded seven tackles (five solo), with a game-high two tackles for loss, both sacks for minus-13 yards, in his final collegiate game. “We had to get pressure when they threw the ball. We knew they were going to run the football. When it was time for them to throw the ball, we had to push and get some pressure. Luckily, we did that.”
Three plays later, the Jackets, now on offense, would try their own luck on fourth. The Jackets converted 42 percent of the time during the regular season (9-for-20), but this roll of the dice was even riskier than usual, as they were at their own 16 yard line.
This is where Johnson’s joked about going “brain-dead” but, even if he was on auto-pilot, he realized the Jackets had a chance to make the play.
“I was going to call timeout, but when they didn’t cover the guard, I figured we’d let it roll,” he said. “We did. Got the first down, so it was good. [We] ran behind Parker [Braun], who is one of our better players [and] Dedrick [Mills] is one of our better players, even though they’re freshmen. It worked out.”
Mills, the eventual TaxSlayer Bowl MVP, made the play good, barreling over freshman left guard Braun for three yards, a first down and a shot of adrenaline for the offense. Although at first caught off-guard, the Jackets relished Johnson’s decision.
“I was surprised. Especially that early in the game, being that far on your own side of the field,” said quarterback Justin Thomas, who played in his final collegiate game and finished his career 22-16 as a starter, including 2-0 in bowl games. “That’s just the trust he had in us. We made him right.
“I knew we had to get it. If we didn’t get it, that’s points given to them, without them having to get a yard,” Thomas added. “I thought he was going to call a timeout after the motion, but he didn’t. We were getting five, six yards a carry with Mills anyway. It was a real good first down.”
“I feel like the fourth-and-one, if it’s there, we’ve got to get it. I know we’re going for it,” said Mills. “It’s coming to me, so we’ve got to get it.”
That sense of urgency would be tried again right away, as a sack and a personal foul left the Jackets with first-and-19 back at their nine.
The Jackets didn’t flinch.
Thomas ran for seven yards and Clinton Lynch raced for 20, with the Jackets getting a bonus 15 yards on a personal foul. Now over midfield, there would be no stopping Tech.
On third and seven, Thomas hit Ricky Jeune for 14 yards. J.J. Green then ran for 11 and another first down before Thomas completed the drive, taking it the final 21 yards on a perfectly run quarterback draw, going airborne from the three and hitting the pylon with the ball before crashing to the ground.
The touchdown, J.T.’s 22nd career score, moved him into the top 10 in school history for rushing touchdowns and pushed Tech’s lead to 17-3.
It would cap Thomas’ career scoring and all but capped the game, as the Jackets would lead 20-3 at halftime, and stay two scores ahead for most of the rest of the game. Even when Kentucky pulled to within eight late in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats never got the ball with a chance to tie the game.
With that, the 2016 TaxSlayer Bowl went down in the record books as a fairly comfortable win for Georgia Tech, thanks in large part to a one-yard loss and a three-yard gain early in the game — two big examples of how every play is just a little more meaningful during bowl season!