ATLANTA -- The Justin Thomas era at quarterback began in earnest Saturday at Georgia Tech, and it looked as if he passed his first test.
Thomas overcame some first-half shakes in his first start and responded with a strong second half, which the Yellow Jackets needed to turn away the dogged Wofford Terriers 38-19 in the season opener at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Thomas, a sophomore who assumed the position when incumbent Vad Lee opted to transfer to James Madison, completed just three of his first seven passes. He finished 11-for-16 for 282 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran 13 times for a team-high 71 yards.
“We expect him to play better,” head coach Paul Johnson said. “I thought he played better in the second half. The way he played in the second half is more realistic.”
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Plus, Thomas proved himself adept at running the option. He was good with most of his reads, executed the fakes and made a lot of good decisions. The proof showed up on the scoreboard: Georgia Tech had nine possessions -- not including the final one to run out the clock -- and scored five touchdowns and a field goal, missed a field goal and needed only two punts.
“The first half was a little off on keys and reads,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to make some improvements from Game 1 to Game 2.”
Thomas found his most reliable receiver to be senior DeAndre Smelter, who had a career-high five catches for 132 yards and two touchdowns.
The running game was led by B-back Zach Laskey, who carried 15 times for 70 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Georgia Tech ran for 226 yards, one of the few times the offense passed for more yards than it rushed.
“They committed to stop the run,” Johnson said. “I was happy to see (Justin) settle down and make some big plays.”
Georgia Tech’s first possession offered a promise of good things. Thomas showed he could throw (a 21-yard completion to Smelter) and run (a 16-yard gain on third-and-5). It was all part of a nine-play, 78-yard drive that culminated in a 4-yard touchdown run by Laskey.
The quick score came with 8:16 and seemed to portend another rout against an FBC opponent.
Only Wofford had other ideas.
The Terriers, who added a 39-yard David Marvin field goal late in the first quarter, did a lot of bending and not much breaking on defense from that point. They allowed Georgia Tech to drive to the 14 early in the second quarter but forced a 31-yard field goal attempt, which Harrison Butker missed to the right.
Wofford then stopped Georgia Tech’s passing game late in the period. Thomas overthrew Smelter, missed Charles Perkins and Tony Zenon, which led the Yellow Jackets to punt Wofford down to the 6, where it was assumed the clock would expire and Georgia Tech would take a 7-3 lead into the dressing room.
“I was just overthrowing it, putting too much on it,” Thomas said. “When I calmed down, I started getting the throws down.”
That’s when the most unspeakable act occurred. On third-and-8 from the 8, halfback Ray Smith took a simple handoff up the middle, broke through the line and just kept going. Smith had 11 players wearing white Georgia Tech jerseys chasing him, but no one laid a hand on him and he wound up with a 92-yard touchdown run. It was the longest touchdown run ever allowed by Georgia Tech.
Georgia Tech fans were suddenly as silent as the patrons at Amen Corner. The thousand or so Wofford fans shoehorned into the corner of the south stands, however, were excited. The television showed Johnson on the sideline wearing a look that was somewhere between confused and ticked off.
“Everybody knew they were going to run the ball – except for us, right?” Johnson said. “I think the safety got in there tight and got lost.”
Georgia Tech’s Shawn Green was able to block the extra point, but Wofford had taken a 9-7 lead -- the extra point was blocked -- on the road against an ACC opponent with 51 seconds left in the half.
The Yellow Jackets suddenly reached down and found their pride. After a 40-yard kickoff return by Jamal Golden, Georgia Tech kicked it up a gear. Thomas scrambled to find Tony Zenon for a 33-yard completion to the 13 and was able to hustle up for Butker’s 30-yard field goal as time expired, which gave Georgia Tech a 10-9 lead.
The momentum carried over into the second half. Georgia Tech scored on its only two possessions of the third quarter, both on passes from Thomas to DeAndre Smelter, the first a 19-yarder, the second a 71-yarder that saw the Tattnall Square product catch the ball around the Wofford 30, escape the defender and race across the field to score in the left corner.
Wofford came back to score a touchdown to make it 24-19, but Georgia Tech tacked on two fourth-quarter scores to put the game away. Laskey scored on an 11-yard run, and Synjyn Days added a 4-yard touchdown run.
“You couldn’t pull away,” Johnson said. “They had some good players, and they executed very well.”