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Georgia Tech true freshman Dedrick Mills (#26) rushed for career-high 169 yards and earned MVP honors in Tech's rout of Kentucky at the 2016 TaxSlayer Bowl.

JACKSONVILLE, FL – One season after snapping an 18-year bowl streak, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (9-4, 4-4) got back on track in a big way today in sunny Florida. Saturday’s 33-18 thrashing of the Kentucky Wildcats (7-6, 4-4) put Head Coach Paul Johnson on the postgame podium to accept the TaxSlayer Bowl victors trophy on behalf of the 2016 edition of the Jackets.

Perhaps there’s something to New Year’s Eve bowl games for Tech. Much like 2014’s Orange Bowl victory over Mississippi State, 2016’s game versus the Wildcats proved the Jackets are capable of winning big on the date. And like 2014, contributions came from multiple phases of the game.

As they say, there are many ways to skin a ‘Cat.

First, and with little time wasted, Georgia Tech’s defense took the field for the first series of the game. Four plays into Kentucky’s opening possession, senior captain Pat Gamble got to Wildcats quarterback Stephen Johnson in the backfield culminating in a strip sack. Without a second’s hesitation, linebacker P.J. Davis scooped the ball and scored on a 38 yard touchdown return.

“That was a great play,” said Paul Johnson. “Trying to run a sprint-out pass. P.J. came on a blitz, [Gamble] slapped the ball loose, picked it up, was able to get it in the end zone. Can't think of a better way to start the game. That was a great start.”

Throughout most of the game, the Georgia Tech defense stifled the Kentucky offense. The Wildcats managed just 3 points and 199 total yards through the game’s first 3 quarters, and the Jackets’ defense applied enough pressure in the backfield to keep their third SEC opponent of the year off balance.

“It was very important for us in the game plan,” said Gamble. “We had to get pressure when they threw the ball. We knew they was going to run the football. When it was time for them to throw the ball, we had to push and get some pressure, man. Lucky we did that.”

Second, the Jackets spread option offense churned enough to keep the Kentucky defense on the field for 32:22 of the game. True freshman Dedrick Mills carried the load with 31 carries, 169 yards and 1 touchdown on way to game MVP. He seemingly gained strength and confidence as the game wore on, with 82 of those yards coming in the 4th quarter alone.

“It wasn't that tough. It wasn't that tough,” said Mills. “Behind the offensive line, running off their blocks. Made it easier for me to find holes and get through them.”

Mills’ quip brought a chuckle to senior captain and quarterback Justin Thomas’ face. Thomas himself was largely forced to feed Mills and the A-Backs throughout the game due to Kentucky’s gameplan to take the ball out of his hands. But it wasn’t enough to keep him from finding paydirt on a backbreaking 21 yard draw with 49 seconds to go in the first half.

The play that put Tech up 17-3 highlighted many of Thomas’ trademarks in his swan song campaign: first showing patience to pull the Wildcats defensive line upfield, next accelerating on a dime downfield bowing out toward the sideline, and finally proving otherworldly athleticism by stretching out toward the pylon for 6. The Thomas run is a microcosm of the legacy he leaves at Georgia Tech as he moves on to the next phase of his journey.

“I mean, he's had a great career, no doubt. He's such a great kid. He's just been a joy to coach, a joy to work with,” said Johnson. “Sometimes you have to be gone for a year or two before people really realize what you did. There's no question that he'll go down as, you know, one of the greats at Georgia Tech. I mean, he's had a heck of a career.”

Finally, speaking of great, there have been few if any better kickers in Georgia Tech’s history than the third senior captain, Harrison Butker. Butker entered the bowl game needing a single point to break Georgia Tech’s career points record. He did so with flying colors, converting all 4 of his field goal attempts and 3 extra points en route to a 15 point day. He set a bowl record with 4 field goals, breaking a previous Tech record of 2.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Butker. “Especially at Tech where throughout my career I’ve only had maybe 1 or 2 a game. And whenever I did have 3 field goals I usually didn’t make all of them. To make all 4, I’m really happy.”

A blocked punt by junior linebacker Terrell Lewis in the 2nd quarter added one more play to the Jackets’ Special Teams highlight reel. It also led to a successful 51 yard field goal attempt by Butker as the first half clock expired.

With the win, Tech finished the 2016 season on a 4 game win streak. They are 3-0 against SEC opponents and 5-1 in their last 6 games versus the conference. And like 2014, Yellow Jackets nation rings in the New Year victorious and with some fancy hardware on its way home to Atlanta.

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Redshirt Sophomore Qua Searcy (#1) dives into the end zone for the winning touchdown to help Georgia Tech defeat Georgia in Athens

ATHENS, GA – It’s happened three times since Paul Johnson took over as head football coach at Georgia Tech in 2008. The Georgia Bulldogs hold a second half lead over the Yellow Jackets, one that appears insurmountable to the layman. A sense of confidence builds in the ‘Dawg fans – some begin trash talking Tech’s players, some begin texting their Tech friends after a week of unacknowledged quiet anxiety, and others are so at ease that they leave Sanford Stadium early to begin celebrating.

And then the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets rip their hearts out.

Three times may constitute a trend despite nonconsecutive results. 2008, 2014 and 2016 all included a similar recipe for success. First, there were heroics from Johnson’s spread option offense just as claims of the blueprint begin murmuring through the crowd. And second, there are timely turnovers forced by the Jackets’ defense or special teams. Mix it all together, and voilà! Tech serves the perfect meal to choke the ‘Dawgs.

This year’s version of Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate included big plays from a cast of characters. A-Back Clinton Lynch continued doing what he does – making plays with the ball in his hands. His final stat line: 5 touches for 75 total yards (15 yards per touch). He kickstarted the day’s drama by way of a 42 yard gash down the Tech sideline to give the Jackets an early 7-0 lead.

“Qua [Searcy] made a good block on the perimeter, Qua and the receiver,” said Lynch. “It was really just wide open. I just ran.”

Cornerback Lance Austin is another who continued his knack for making plays. On Saturday, with Tech trailing 27-21 with under 4 minutes to go, he found himself next to a deflected pass. The result: an interception to put the Jackets’ offense back on the field with a chance to win in plus territory.

“We were in a zone coverage. I think [Jacob] Eason thought we were in man,” said Austin. “It was disguised real good. It got tipped right to me and I caught it... my other teammates put me in great positions.”

Last but certainly not least on the list of top performers was A-Back Qua Searcy. In a single 8 second burst that will go down in Georgia Tech lore, Searcy’s decision to minimize damage on a busted play in turn proved heroic.

With Tech down 6 at the Georgia 6 yard line and 38 seconds to go, Johnson pulled an A-Back pass out of his bag of tricks. Soon after the ball was pitched into Searcy’s hands, the initial read on the play was blown up with quarterback Justin Thomas covered by Georgia defenders. Rather than force a pass into coverage, Searcy pulled the ball down to run and make something out of nothing. That something was one decisive cut and Superman dive through the heart of Bulldogs defense. The result: a game-winning touchdown for Tech and a stake through Georgia’s heart.

“I think it was just a split second decision,” said Searcy. “I was really about to throw the ball but I saw about 5 defenders go toward [Thomas] and nobody was really in the middle. So, I think I dove from the three [yard line] but I knew I had to go airborn.”

With 30 seconds to go, a final last gasp from Georgia’s offense proved futile against a toughening Georgia Tech defense. Linebacker Brant Mitchell intercepted Eason’s Hail Mary heave as time expired to put a bow on the afternoon.

The final score: Georgia Tech 28-27.

With the win Paul Johnson is now 3-2 versus Georgia in Athens, a strange dichotomy against Tech’s 0-4 record in Atlanta during the same time. While there seem to be few safer road venues than Sanford Stadium since Johnson took over at the helm, it’s unlikely that Athens will make his list of retirement options when he hangs up the whistle.

Two things are certain though.

One, Johnson will defer credit to his team for a hard fought win. “We just keep playing,” said Johnson. “This team don’t get a whole lot of respect, nor does the program. So you just keep playing. And I think they’ve done a really good job of doing that. We don’t listen to anybody. We just play.”

The second? With another win in Athens, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets once again run this state.

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Georgia Tech RS Senior Defensive Tackle Pat Gamble (#91) sacks UVA's Senior Quarterbach Matt Johns (#15)

ATLANTA, GA – 17 plays. No, that wasn’t the tally from of one of Tech’s proverbial “Death Marches.” It was Tech’s total number of offensive plays in the first half of Saturday’s home finale versus the Virginia Cavaliers.

For most of the game’s first half, the Cavaliers defense held the Jackets’ spread option offense in check. On offense, the Cavaliers played keep away with three drives of 9 plays or more. The result was a 10-7 halftime lead for the ‘Hoos.

One lone chunk play from B-Back Marcus Marshall, a 67-yard touchdown rip, kept Tech within striking distance.

“Clearly as coaches we need to do a better job getting ready to play,” said Tech head coach Paul Johnson. “We could not get off the field on defense, and on offense we were abysmal on third down. Too many negative plays. We missed too many opportunities from the first series on.”

The start to the third quarter was hardly different for the Jackets’ offense. Tech’s first two drives ended after just 4 plays, the latter a turnover on downs at the Jackets’ own 29 yard line.

“For a team to take that risk, there was a sense of desperation on their side, trying to separate,” said Cavaliers head coach Bronco Mendenhall. “I don’t want to speak for their coach, but they viewed that as a sign that that was a huge play, and they weren’t able to convert with a team that runs the ball very, very well.”

Rather than deflating after handing the ball to the ‘Hoos in plus territory, the failed conversion instead jolted the Jackets and provided a sense of urgency that had been missing all game. The Cavaliers were stuffed on three downs and shanked a 42 yard field goal attempt. The spark that the Jackets’ offense needed was provided by their defense.

And that spark turned into fire. Three offensive plays later, redshirt sophomore A-Back Clinton Lynch slipped out on a skinny post behind the Virginia defense and hauled in a 54 yard Justin Thomas pass en route to the end zone. Just like that, Tech grabbed the lead 14-10.

“That was definitely a huge play,” said Tech safety Corey Griffin. “I don’t know how Clinton gets that wide open every time. But it’s definitely a momentum swinger and game changer.”

From that point forward the Jackets defense rolled despite being on the field for 88 plays on the game. Tech forced three turnovers by way of interception, including a pick-6 by cornerback Lance Austin, and allowed the ‘Hoos just one scoring drive to close out the game. The Jackets offense added one more touchdown, another explosion play of 60 yards by A-Back Qua Searcy, along with a Harrison Butker field goal.

The final score – Georgia Tech 31, Virginia 17.

Saturday’s win at Bobby Dodd Stadium marks the last of its kind for 16 Georgia Tech seniors. Said defensive tackle Pat Gamble, “I took it all in. I tried to take it a step at a time. You definitely feel it when you know it’s your last time playing at Bobby Dodd, the last time going out in front of the fans, running out behind the Wreck. I don’t know, it’s a bittersweet feeling.”

With no games left to win in Atlanta, Tech’s senior class has no choice but to look elsewhere. Come Monday the Jackets turn their attention East toward Athens and the Georgia Bulldogs. And without question, seven days from now the outcome of Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate week will eliminate any semblance of mixed emotions.