Boasting an 8-4 record, including an exciting win over the hated rival Georgia, Georgia Tech looks forward to facing Kentucky (7-5) in the Taxslayer Bowl on New Year’s Eve. However, the season leading up to the bowl game included several highs and lows. Many fans were screaming for Paul Johnson’s head after three consecutive losses, hope was lost when senior quarterback Justin Thomas went down against North Carolina, but the season ended on a high note with the Yellow Jackets upsetting Virginia Tech in Lane Stadium and rallying to score fourteen points in an electrifying fourth quarter to upset Georgia in Sanford Stadium.
With that in mind, let’s take a look back at the 2016 season of Georgia Tech football.
The Hopeful Start
Toe did not meet leather in Bobby Dodd Stadium for Georgia Tech’s first game of the 2016 season. In fact, the Jackets didn’t even play their first game in America. Instead, they played in Dublin, Ireland, facing the Boston College Eagles. This defensive game seemed to drag on, with just a 7-0 Jackets lead at the half. However, Boston College refused to go quietly. The Eagles scored in the third and fourth quarters, thanks to a long run by Hillman and a short pass from Towles, to go up 14-7 on the Jackets. But Georgia Tech put its faith in Justin Thomas after a Harrison Butker Field Goal to narrow the deficit to 10-14 and a defensive stop to get the ball back on their own 41 yard line. Thomas proved true, completing a 22 yard pass to Ricky Jeune on 4th and 19 to get a first down and keep the drive alive. Later in the drive, Dedrick Mills would punch in the go ahead touchdown for the Jackets. Georgia Tech sat at a proud 1-0 with a 17-14 victory over the ACC opponent on the plane ride back to Atlanta that Saturday.
A week later, Georgia Tech hosted Mercer, an FCS team from Macon, Georgia. The Bears struck first and took an early 7-0 lead, but Georgia Tech quickly responded and refused to let Mercer get the upset that every FCS team dreams of when facing an FBS opponent (a la Georgia Southern over Florida in 2013). The Jackets scored on the following two drives and once more before the half, sporting a comfortable 21-7 lead at halftime. Quarterback Justin Thomas would sit out the second half with a minor injury, allowing Matthew Jordan to come in and pick up where Thomas left off. After allowing a field goal in third quarter, Georgia Tech shutout Mercer for the remainder of the game and finished with a score of 35-10. The only blemishes of this game were a pair of fumbles that stalled two Georgia Tech drives, but ultimately didn’t stop the Jackets from an easy win in the home opener.
Next week, in a game dubbed the “Nerd Bowl” by fans, Georgia Tech hosted Vanderbilt. The two prestigious academic institutions took to the gridiron in an ACC vs. SEC matchup. Unfortunately for the Commodores, the Jackets wasted no times with pleasantries. On the first snap of the game, Justin Thomas threw an 81 yard touchdown pass to Marcus Marshall. Vanderbilt would answer with a touchdown drive of their own to even the score in Bobby Dodd, but that was the only scoring they would do. The Jackets shut out Vanderbilt for the rest of the game, rolling to an easy 38-7 victory.
With a great 3-0 start of the 2016 season, Georgia Tech fans were feeling optimistic and starting to think of the possibilities of contending for the ACC Championship, the upcoming game against #5 Clemson on Thursday night would be the test for the Jackets.
Clemson was ranked #5 and looking to return to the ACC Championship and College Football Playoff (which they did), but it was a Thursday night in Atlanta where anything could happen. However, “anything” didn’t happen, Clemson rolled over Georgia Tech as expected. The Tigers embarrassed the Jackets with a 26-7 win and an extremely lopsided stat sheet. Just take Clemson’s 442 total yards compared to Georgia Tech’s 124 totals and Clemson’s 24 first downs to Georgia Tech’s 11 first downs as examples. While this loss hurt, it wasn’t crushing or unexpected. The Jackets were still 3-1 with still a foreseeable future of competing in the ACC.
The Jackets hosted the Miami Hurricanes next, facing Mark Richt, former head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs. During his tenure at Georgia, Richt held an impressive 13-2 record against Georgia Tech, and never lost to the Jackets in Atlanta. He would stay in line with the trend, handing the Jackets a 35-21 loss. Georgia Tech couldn’t seem to stop shooting itself in the foot, including an embarrassing sequence of events where the Jackets fumbled on back to back drives, allowing two scoop and score touchdowns for Miami. At 3-2 on the season and 1-2 in the ACC, Georgia Tech’s hopes for a successful season were deflating, and the next game wouldn’t offer any consolation.
After four home games in a row, it was time for a road trip. The Jackets traveled to Pittsburgh to face the Panthers. In this nail biter, both teams were fighting tooth and nail to get back on track. A close first half ended with the Panthers in front 21-20, but the Jackets showed signs of getting their rhythm together in the 2nd quarter. After a low-scoring third quarter, Pitt lead 24-20. In the fourth, the offenses erupted. Pitt added another field goal to increase their lead 27-20, but Georgia Tech answered with a pair of rushing touchdowns to go up 34-27 with just over five minutes remaining in the game. It was starting the look like Georgia Tech proved itself, accomplishing a comeback on the road. However, a deflected pass from Nathan Peterman found its way into the arms of Scott Orndoff for a 74 yard touchdown. The game was tied, but the Jackets had the ball and time to win it. The Panthers defense showed out for their home crowd, stopping the Jackets short on 4th and 1 to give the ball back to their offense. Through the running game, the Panthers burned clock and advanced the ball to give their kicker a comfortable shot at a game winner. Sure enough, Blewitt bounced one in off the upright on the last play of the game as the Jackets lost 37-34.
Now the Jackets were 3-3 and 1-3 in ACC play. Fans were crying for Paul Johnson to be fired and for the triple option to be abandoned in favor of a more traditional, pro-style offense. It was starting to look like 2015 again, with mediocre expectations and mediocre results.
Georgia Tech hosted Paul Johnson’s former school, Georgia Southern, in the Jackets seventh game of the season. It was just the tune up game they needed, scoring touchdowns on their first three drives to show what the triple option offense is capable of. Explosive plays were easy to be found, including a Justin Thomas 58 yard touchdown run and a Clinton Lynch 65 yard touchdown reception to score on the first two drives. The Jackets defeated the Eagles 35-24 in a game where the only blemishes were a few missed tackles by the defense and a missed 32 yard field goal. This win allowed the Jackets to improve to 4-3 and allow the fans some much needed relief.
Hosting ACC Coastal rival Duke, Georgia Tech had a heavy task on their hands. The Jackets would rely on their quarterback to lead them to their second straight victory. Justin Thomas threw for 264 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but wasn’t satisfied with just a stellar passing performance. The senior also ran for a career high 195 yards and two touchdowns, completing a performance with 459 total yards and 4 total touchdowns. In short, the kid was a monster. The Jackets went into the locker room at halftime up 28-7, but were unable to cash in on two Duke fumbles. In the second half, the Blue Devils woke up. Georgia Tech fumbled almost right after picking off Daniel Jones, and Duke was able to put together a scoring drive aided by Georgia Tech penalties. On the following kickoff, Georgia Tech fumbled again, giving the Blue Devils a short field and an easy touchdown. Suddenly, the score was 28-21 and the Jackets lead wasn’t so comfy. Georgia Tech managed a field goal on the next drive to extend the lead 31-21, but Duke answered with a touchdown and pulled within three. The Blue Devils defense stopped Marcus Allen on 4th and 1 to get the ball back, and thus executed a touchdown drive to go ahead 35-31. But the reeling offense didn’t quit, and answered with a touchdown on their own, a 21 yard Clinton Lynch reception, to take the lead back 38-35. The Jackets defense forced Duke to punt on the following drive, and the offense was able to run out the clock. This game certainly took years off the lives of anxious Georgia Tech fans, but it showed the resilience of the team.
With Georgia Tech now improving to 5-3, fans were getting optimistic again. The ACC Championship was probably out of the question, but a nice bowl game was seemingly on the horizon.
The Crushing Defeat
Lately, it seems like North Carolina always gives Georgia Tech trouble, and this Saturday was no exception. This game was an offensive shootout in every category but points. North Carolina tallied 636 total yards and Georgia Tech had 518, but the Jackets would lose to the Tar Heels in a 48-20 blowout. Georgia Tech was keeping it close initially, and a Harrison Butker Field Goal in the third quarter brought the Jackets within seven at a score of 20-27. However, Georgia Tech would fumble on their next two drives and Justin Thomas left the game with an upper-body injury a few plays before the second fumble. With the offense stagnant and the defense no longer able to keep up, the Tar Heels tacked on three more easy touchdowns before the game was over to defeat the Jackets in impressive fashion.
It looked like another mediocre season for Georgia Tech, the team was now 5-4 and Justin Thomas was hurt. A bowl game and a decent season finish was still likely, but most fans were expecting an unglamorous 6-6 end result after the horrid loss to North Carolina.
The Magnificent Finish
Georgia Tech traveled to Blacksburg, Virginia to face the then 14th ranked Hokies. With Justin Thomas out with an injury, it wasn’t looking optimistic for the Jackets. However, back up Matthew Jordan and the Jackets defense stepped up and led Georgia Tech to victory. In the first half, Virginia Tech laid a goose egg thanks to a missed field goal by the Hokies and an interception by Lawrence Austin in the endzone. The Georgia Tech offense put up 20 points in the first 30 minutes with two first quarter field goals off the leg of Harrison Butker and two second quarter rushing touchdowns from Matthew Jordan. Virginia Tech attempted to rally back in the second half with a touchdown in the third quarter, but the Jackets offense picked it up in the third quarter, adding ten more points through a field goal and a Marcus Marshall 56 yard touchdown run. Georgia Tech was now up 30-7 with about 9 minutes left in the game. The Hokies scored too late 4th quarter touchdowns, both Jerod Evans runs, to give the Jackets a scare, but the deficit was too great to overcome and Georgia Tech won 30-20, completing an upset on the road.
Returning to Bobby Dodd, the Jackets hosted the Virginia Cavaliers in their final home game before traveling to face hated rival Georgia. After a scoreless first quarter, the Hoos were the first to score with an 80 yard touchdown drive. But Georgia Tech was quick to answer, and Marcus Marshall burst off for a 67 yard touchdown run on the third play of the following drive. Virginia responded with a field goal, and the score at the half would be 10-7 in favor of Virginia. In the second half, Georgia Tech utilized a 56 yard touchdown pass to Clinton Lynch to take the lead. Following a Virginia punt forced by the Jackets defense, Qua Searcy was off to the races with a 60 yard rushing touchdown to extend the lead to score of 21-10. Corey Griffin picked off Cavalier Quarterback Matt Johns on the next drive, which produced a quick field goal to increase the lead. However, Virginia showed toughness and marched 75 yards to score on their next drive to narrow the score to 17-24. Unfortunately for Virginia, Matt Johns threw a pick six on the next drive, giving the Jackets a two touchdown lead with a score of 31-17. That would be the final score in Atlanta, and the Jackets sat at 7-4 before the trip to Athens.
The final game of the regular season for the engineers from Atlanta isn’t just a rivalry matchup, it’s getting to claim who runs the state of Georgia, it’s pride, it’s honor, and it’s Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate. First year head coach Kirby Smart and freshman quarterback Jacob Eason would face senior quarterback Justin Thomas and head coach Paul Johnson with almost 20 years of head coaching experience. The Bulldogs would not be a team to go down without a fight, and a fight it was. Georgia marched down the field on the shoulders of running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel on the first drive of the game, but missed their field goal try. The Jackets would not squander the chance to score first, and a Clinton Lynch 42 yard touchdown run on the following drive gave Georgia Tech an early 7-0 lead and brought silence to Sanford Stadium. The Bulldogs didn’t like that one bit, and they scored on their following drive with a Sony Michel 10 yard touchdown run to even the score Between the Hedges. After exchanging punts, Georgia Tech struck again. The Jackets used a 64 yard pass from Justin Thomas to Brad Stewart to get into scoring position before a 4 yard touchdown run from Marcus Marshall to take the lead 14-7. The Bulldogs once again answered Georgia Tech, with Michel contributing 66 combined yards on the drive to allow Jacob Eason the opportunity to find Isaiah McKenzie in the endzone. Justin Thomas was intercepted on the next drive, and the first half ended with an even score of 14-14. On Georgia Tech’s drive to open the second half, the Jackets fumbled and Georgia’s offense was able to capitalize on the turnover with a field goal. The stout Bulldog defense force a three and out on the following Jackets drive, and the Georgia offense once again relied on the running game to score a touchdown. After another three and out and Georgia Tech punt, Georgia was able to tack on another field goal. Suddenly the score was 27-14 and the Jackets were reeling. In fact, the Georgia Tech offense turned the ball over on downs on the next drive. It looked like another loss to Georgia was forming, but the Jackets defense stepped up and forced a punt to give the offense another chance. This time, the offense clicked. Justin Thomas threw two deep passes, a 23 yarder to Brad Stewart and a 39 yarder to Qua Searcy, to move the ball down the field. Dedrick Mills punched it in from 5 yards out to complete a 94 yard scoring drive. The score was now 21-27, still in favor Georgia with time running out. Georgia Tech would need help from it’s defense again to have a chance at victory. Lance Austin answered the call, intercepting Jacob Eason to give Georgia Tech the ball on the Georgia 46 yard line. Quickly, Georgia Tech ran the ball and found themselves on the Georgia 6 yard line. However, the Jackets faced a 3rd and Goal after being stuffed stuffed on first and second down. Of course, it was time for trick play. The ball was snapped, Justin Thomas tossed Qua Searcy the ball, Searcy looked to pass it back to Thomas, but he wasn’t open. Making the play of his career, Searcy ran the ball up the middle and dove for the goal line to score. After the extra point, the Jackets lead 28-27. Jacob Eason threw an interception on Georgia’s last drive of the game, and it was over. To Hell With Georgia.
GEORGIA TECH WON. Players attacked the “precious hedges” of Sanford Stadium, Yellow Jacket fans rejoiced at the opportunities for bragging for the next year, and Paul Johnson held his head high.
The season could’ve gone better, but the exciting finish to the season will be something to remember. I know I’ll never forget Searcy diving towards the endzone like a Hell of An Engineer.
Together We Swarm.