Oct. 17, 2016
Jon Cooper | The Good Word –
There was some pretty loud applause rocking Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Some of the loudest came at halftime with the introduction of the Georgia Tech Athletics Hall of Fame Class of 2016. The most thunderous was for Calvin Johnson, who starred on The Flats from 2004-06.
There was plenty of cheering during the game, as well, with much of that a result of the performance turned in by quarterback Justin Thomas.
They’re the heroics Thomas performs virtually every week and thus have almost become taken for granted. They’re heroics that one day should result in Thomas coming back and participating in a halftime ceremony in which he receives the kind of ovation Johnson and Co. received Saturday.
But that’s down the road — at least 10 years down the road, to be exact.
That’s much further than Thomas prefers to look. The senior QB doesn’t look any further than the game he’s playing or the end zone he’s approaching.
He was especially locked in during Saturday’s 35-24 win over Georgia Southern, which snapped a three-game losing streak and sent Georgia Tech into the bye week with some confidence heading into the second half.
“It was good just to get over that hump. Especially going into the bye week, you don’t want that feeling on your chest the whole week,” he said. “So just going into [the bye], giving them something to play and look at and giving them more confidence, too.”
While Thomas was referring specifically to left guard Parker Braun and left tackle Jahaziel Lee — the freshmen that were superb in protecting his blindside — he may as well have been referring to the entire team.
The entire team is always Thomas’ concern. Two games ago at Pitt, he became the first player in Georgia Tech history to pass for 3,500 yards and run for 2,000, but that point was irrelevant to him as the Jackets lost the game. On Saturday against Georgia Southern, Thomas did what great leaders do. He put the team on his back and got off to a fast start.
On a third-and-four, he went left, with Searcy as an option. He looked to Searcy, tucked the ball away, broke the tackle of GSU middle linebacker Ironhead Gallon, got a cut-block from Isiah Willis and raced to the corner. As he headed down the right side, he got a downfield block from Jeune, the last help he needed as he outraced defenders to the end zone. The 58-yard run moved him past the great William Bell and his former B-Back Zach Laskey and into 12th place on the school’s all-time rushing list.
Thomas’ big-play capacity is nothing new for redshirt-senior center Freddie Burden, a Statesboro, Ga. native whose mother and brother both work at Georgia Southern. He’s been watching Thomas’ exploits for four years.
“It’s just amazing. He’s one of a kind,” said Burden. “Our thing is the offensive line knows J.T. can make plays in any situation. We just have to get J.T. free and open so he can do those things.”
After the defense forced a three-and-out on GSU’s first series, Thomas went back to work, this time needing only two plays to find the end zone.
On second-and-four from the Tech 35, Thomas dropped back and, recognizing that the Eagles had loaded up with nine guys in the box, saw Clinton Lynch break out of the backfield and into the secondary uncovered. Thomas hit the wide-open A-back at the GSU 43. Lynch outraced a pair of defenders for a 65-yard catch-and-run that made it 14-0.
“We came out fast like we needed to, put the pressure on them,” said Thomas, who was 7-for-11 for a season-high 172 yards and a score and ran a team-high 16 times for 78 yards and two more scores. The two rushing touchdowns moved him past seven players, including GT legends Joe Hamilton and Synjyn Days, into a three-way tie for 14th place in school history with 19 rushing scores in his career.
“We kind of slowed down a little bit but we picked it back up in the second half,” Thomas continued. “We just have to keep doing what we’re doing but not stop. Continue to do it … we can’t get three-and-outs like we did, to keep our defense off the field and rest some more.”
While the Jackets did hit a bit of a lull, punting twice and missing a field goal after starting the game with three touchdowns on their first three possessions, it was not nearly the lull of the 2014 matchup versus Georgia Southern, when Tech surrendered 28 unanswered points after jumping out to a 35-10 halftime lead. This time, Thomas got things back on track much quicker.
Leading 21-10 and facing third-and-five at his own 15 late in the third quarter, Thomas hit the most electrifying play of the game, when he rolled left and aired out a throw for wideout Brad Stewart. Stewart, matched one-on-one with GSU senior corner Darius Jones, took advantage of his four-inch height advantage to go up and pull in a perfect back-shoulder throw for a 40-yard gain.
“They played press-man coverage so it was going to go to [Stewart),” head coach Paul Johnson said of Thomas’ third-down throw. “He converted when they pressed him, so it’s a back-shoulder fade if you don’t beat him deep. Justin threw a nice ball and Brad made a nice catch.”
“I knew that I had the strong [possibility] that the ball was going to be thrown to me,” said Stewart. “The corner pressed up, so I just had to get a good release on him and as soon as I saw the ball come up in the air, it just feels natural — just go up and get the ball. Just make a play and have fun out there with the guys. After the play, celebrate with your teammates. It feels good to get back in the swing of things and do what I can do.
“Coach ‘Buzz’ [Preston] is always talking about receivers making plays,” Stewart added. “We’re known to be a running offense but we have to have that passing element to our offense. Whenever our name is called, we have to make a play and that’s what I did.”
The Jackets made a plethora of plays, plenty of big ones. They had three plays over 50 yards in the first quarter alone — after Thomas’ 58-yard touchdown run and 65-yard touchdown pass to Lynch, B-back Marcus Marshall rambled for 50 yards to set up the third score of the period. The Jackets’ three 50-yard plays in the opening period were one more than they’d had the entire season and their first since making two in Week Three against Vanderbilt.
With Tech in need of another big play late in the third quarter, Thomas had complete confidence in Stewart’s ability to make it.
“[I was] just trying to not make the perfect throw but just give him the chance to go up and get it,” said Thomas. “He did that last week so I know I just need to put it in the area, not try to be perfect with it but just put enough on it so he can make a play. And he did, which was huge.”
Thomas also never wavered in his confidence of the freshman offensive linemen protecting his blind side, Braun and Lee.
“In the game, I didn’t really think too much about it,” he said. “Parker’s been playing a lot this year, so they’re good. They made the calls like they’re supposed to and they did their job, so I felt pretty good out there with them. I had plenty of time, even to direct some people to off of their route. We have to keep that up up front, keep getting better and we should be good.”
The Jackets should feel good heading into the bye week. Then comes the season’s final five regular-season games. They’re the final five regular-season games of Thomas’ career but there’s no bittersweet thoughts, at least not yet. There’s only the promise of what can be.
“I think our record doesn’t show how good we are,” said Thomas. “To be honest with you, I think we’re a lot better than what we’re showing record-wise. As long as we keep playing, stay close together, then it should all work itself out the second half of the season.”