Sept. 4, 2016
Jon Cooper | The Good Word –
In the weeks leading into the season-opening game against Boston College in Dublin, Ireland, Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson assured, reassured and re-reassured that there would be a role for Dedrick Mills — be it on kickoff return or at B-back.
The role Johnson didn’t foresee for the talented freshman was the guy to score the game-winning touchdown.
It’s a role both can get used to down the road.
Johnson reassured Mills of that.
“The last touchdown by Dedrick (Mills), I wanted to get him the ball because I really think he is going to be a good player,” said Johnson. “He didn’t disappoint me.”
Mills’ four-yard run on a second-and-goal play with 35 seconds remaining capped an 11-play, 59-yard drive that used 2:58 and provided the Yellow Jackets (1-0, 1-0) the winning points in their season-opening 17-14 win over Boston College (0-1, 0-1).
“It felt pretty good,” said Mills of the run, which came complete with his refusal to be denied at the two-yard line, resulting in his body-surfing his way into the end zone.
“I had my teammates to back me up and to push me in. It was just fun.”
The run put a nice finish on Mills’ first collegiate game, in which he ran for 68 yards on 18 carries, good for a 3.8 yards-per-carry average — all team-highs. More important, the hard-charging 5-10, 217-pound product from Waycross, Ga., learned a lesson in mental toughness and resilience, as his ability to move past a third-quarter fumble made the final series and future such heroics possible.
The bounce back was delicious irony for Mills, who knew all about the demoralizing power of the turnover, as he’d forced three fumbles and added a pick in his years as a linebacker for Ware County.
The first true freshman to start a season opener for Tech since wide receiver Tyler Melton in 2008 credited his teammates for getting him back in the game and couldn’t let them down.
“After I fumbled the ball the first time, I kind of got down,” he said. “They came back up to me and were telling me I have to forget that last play. It’s time to play another play, there is nothing you can do about it. I got my chance again and I just had to finish the play and drive the ball in.”
That was simply his final big play of the day. On the previous possession, he had a 21-yard run that helped set up Harrison Butker’s 40-yard field goal to cut B.C.’s lead to 14-10.
The Jackets scored the game’s final 10 points, in a span of less than six minutes after managing just seven points over the first 54 minutes of the ballgame. They got a boost from the defense, which built on the momentum of Butker’s field goal by forcing a three-and-out to set up the game-winning drive.
Of course, when it came to the late grit and tenacity, Mills, the defense and the entire team followed the lead of Justin Thomas.
Ironically, one of Thomas’ biggest plays of that drive came on the second play when Thomas turned a negative play into a not-as-negative one. On second-and-10 at his own 41, J.T. faced a ferocious Eagles pass rush. While he was thrown for a nine-yard loss, the play seemed doomed to lose at least seven more.
Thomas similarly delivered on the Jackets’ first scoring drive. He ran for five yards and a first down, then completed a 14-yard pass to Jeune on third-and-15 (the Jackets would convert on fourth-and-one), then connected with Searcy for 36 yards, standing in and taking a wicked shot in the process. Tech would score two plays later, as Matthew Jordan took it the final two yards to paydirt.
“We felt real confident,” said Searcy, who had three catches for 60 yards (he had three receptions for 45 last season, when he suffered a season-ending injury in Week 3 at Notre Dame). “Justin (Thomas) kept our heads high and went out and executed.”
Thomas not only showed resilience, he preached it, harping on Mills to stay positive — as did several teammates.
Staying positive allowed for the Jackets to complete the comeback.
“We stuck together and held our heads up high and we found a way to do it. We had a lot of guys make some big plays at the end,” Thomas said. “I think if this was last year, we wouldn’t have finished the game. But what we did in the offseason, the way we got closer and how hard we worked it gave us that will to stay in the game. Nobody got down and everybody kept fighting and that’s what we didn’t have last year that we have this year. It was a big reason why we were able to come out with the win.”
While Johnson admitted there is a lot to clean up before next week’s home opener with Mercer (0-1), they’ll take the ‘W’ and plenty of positives as souvenirs of the trip to Ireland.
“I think they wanted to win. They certainly fought hard,” he said. “It would’ve been easy on fourth and 19 to just hang their head. They kept playing and found a way to win. Then the defense found a way to stop them when they were struggling before and they were able to get them to go three-and-out to get us the ball back for that touchdown.
“We gave up the big long run, which was just inexcusable. We had some guys running under blocks,” he added. “Like I said, (we) weren’t perfect by a long stretch. We’ve got a lot to work on, but the bottom line is we’re 1-0 and that’s about as good as you can be.”