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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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Georgia Tech Quarterback Justin Thomas (#5)

ATLANTA, GA – Brush off your shoulder pads, Justin Thomas. Be careful though – you might find a team of Yellow Jackets still hanging on after 60 minutes of brilliance.

Let’s be real though. The senior captain and team leader can’t do anything with his shoulder pads until he first takes off his cape. That’s because Thomas’ performance Saturday afternoon at Bobby Dodd Stadium draws few comparisons, and Superman feels more similar than the names of mere mortals.

Admittedly that’s still hyperbole. There have been three other quarterbacks since 2000 to run for 190+ rushing yards, pass for 250+ yards more, and put up a pair of touchdowns on the ground and through the air in a single game.

The other three – Johnny Manziel, Denard Robinson and Antwaan Randle El.

Thomas finished the game 10 of 14 passing for 264 yards and 2 touchdowns. He added another 2 touchdowns via 17 carries and 195 yards rushing. And in what became a Homecoming barnburner versus Duke, Georgia Tech needed every one of those.

Despite sprinting out to a 28-7 halftime lead, the Yellow Jackets saw their lead evaporate and trailed midway thru the 4th quarter. Two Georgia Tech turnovers – one on offense and another on special teams – as well as a porous defense enabled the Blue Devils to score touchdowns on 4 consecutive drives in the second half and ultimately take the lead with 8:55 remaining in the game.

That’s when Justin Thomas transformed back into “Smoov”, a nickname bestowed on him by former teammates and a variant of his “smooth” style of play. While needing a touchdown drive to take back the lead, the adjective also described his leadership style when rallying his teammates.

“I told them we have to go score,” Thomas said simply when asked about his message to the team prior to that critical drive. “No matter what the situation was, we have to control the ball and get some numbers on the board. And that’s what we did.”

Wide receiver Ricky Jeune said of Thomas, ”He was just telling everybody the ball is going to be in our hands to win the game, and it was. And he made some great plays for us, some big run plays.”

It wasn’t easy, as even Superman has a kryptonite. The Jackets’ first offensive snap while trailing ended with a 9-yard jailbreak sack, one of only a few lapses in pass protection on the day.

But a 2nd and 19 from the Georgia Tech 5 yard line did not phase Smoov. Thomas dropped back, shook two Duke defenders and put on his afterburners on the way to a 46 yard scramble. Four plays later Thomas found A-Back Clinton Lynch on a seam route, fitting the ball into a narrow window with a Duke safety draped on, resulting in a 22 yard touchdown catch and 38-35 Georgia Tech lead.

From there, the Yellow Jackets defense stood tall on its own game-defining drive, forcing the Blue Devils into their first 3 and out and a punt. Needing just a couple first downs to ice the game, the Jackets offense did just that. And in doing so, faced with a 3rd and 17, Thomas sealed the victory with another 50 yard burst.

It is human nature to get caught in hype. Even with Justin Thomas’ superhuman performance, it is not his modus operandi. “It will be fun to go back and watch. I’m just out there trying to have fun, embracing every moment I can and just enjoying it overall.”

By the 2nd quarter of today’s performance Thomas joined another elite club, achieving 4,000 yards passing and 2,000 yards rushing for his career. He is the 39th FBS player reach that milestone. Asked for his thoughts, Thomas deflected credit toward his teammates for putting him in a position to succeed.

Maybe, just maybe, the masses can hang with him after all.

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Georgia Tech Sophomore B-Back Marcus Marshall (#34).

ATLANTA, GA – Winning isn’t easy. Just ask double-digit favorites Clemson, Georgia and Virginia Tech this evening, two of which lost and the other saved by a chip shot missed field goal. Or listen to Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson following the Yellow Jackets’ 35-24 victory over Georgia Southern, Tech’s first win in four weeks.

“Every win is important. It’s hard to win,” said Johnson. “You can look at the scores today and see it’s hard to win. So any time you can get a win you got to be happy, and you try to build on it.”

With some of the Tech’s biggest goals seemingly off the table after three successive ACC losses, it would have been easy for the Yellow Jackets to cruise or fold. Instead they chose to fight, and in doing so Tech turned in a commanding performance Saturday afternoon at Bobby Dodd stadium.

Prior to Saturday, the Jackets offense had two plays of 50+ yards on the season. In that regard, Saturday was a coming out party. The Jackets sprinted out to an early 21-7 lead in the first quarter, sparked by three explosion plays of 50+ yards on their first three drives.

The first came on a 58 yard option keeper for a touchdown by quarterback Justin Thomas. The second came via air as Clinton Lynch snuck behind the entire Georgia Southern secondary on play action en route to a 65 yard touchdown catch and run. The third was a sprint down the left sideline by Marcus Marshall off a delayed option pitch from Thomas.

The Eagles never crept within two scores the remainder of the game.

Thomas finished with 78 yards on the ground on 16 attempts, the majority coming on his first touchdown run. He finished an efficient 7 of 11 passing for 172 yards, doing so with two true freshman protecting his backside on the offensive line.

“The guys protected great today,” said Thomas. “Guys made plays on the perimeter too, making catches and getting open.”

Defensively, safeties Corey Griffin and A.J. Gray played arguably their best games of the season. Griffin finished with a game and career high 10 tackles, all solo. Of the 10, three were tackles for a loss including a drive-ending 3rd down sack. Gray was close behind as Tech’s second leading tackler with seven, including three tackles for a loss of his own.

Both players credited the defensive game plan as a reason for their individual success. “I think Coach Roof allowed us to play more free,” said Griffin. “Playing an option team like Georgia Southern you can’t sit back and wait on them.”

Said Gray, “In man coverage, [the coaches] let us play inside, outside, jam and off. It allowed us to play more loose.”

Though the Jackets had control of much of the game, Johnson recognizes there is still room for improvement on both sides of the ball. “We sure haven’t played our best football yet on both offense and defense,” said Johnson. “Hopefully that’s in front of us.”

For now, Tech will take time off as they enter their one and only bye week of the season. With significant contributors dinged up, it comes at an opportune time.

Up next is a home date with the Duke Blue Devils, who for the second consecutive time has a bye week ahead of their visit to Bobby Dodd Stadium. Coincidence or not, the Blue Devils will bring a two game win streak over the Jackets to Atlanta, the last coming in a rain-soaked Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, NC.

Picking up ACC wins is proving especially difficult for all teams this year. If Tech can do so on its next try, they’ll establish a mini-win streak of their own and restore order against an ACC Coastal foe.