Georgia Tech’s opening win over Boston College on Saturday wasn’t a thing of beauty, but style points aren’t counted in the ACC standings. And when a team is coming off a 3-9 season, the only thing that matters is the bottom line.
“We’ve got a lot to work on, but we’re 1-0,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said. “That’s the best you can be right now.”
There are a lot of takeaways from the 17-14 win in rainy Dublin. Johnson said the Yellow Jackets have “got a lot to clean up.” But Georgia Tech no doubt learned more about itself in this opener than it did a year ago in the lopsided first game against Alcorn State.
Here are five things we learned from the Yellow Jackets’ opening win:
Never count out quarterback Justin Thomas: For the third time in his career, Thomas engineered a drive that resulted in a win or tie in the final minute of regulation. He completed 8-of-15 passes for 119 yards and moved into eighth place on the all-time list with 3,314 passing yards.
“He has a knack for making plays in that offense and that’s a credit to him,” Boston College head coach Steve Addazio said. “He basically took that game into his hand at the end. … He made unbelievable plays at the very end of the game that were critical and that’s what great players do.”
He started the winning drive with 3:33 left and used his elusiveness to dodge a rusher and avoid an 18-yard loss on the first play. After a 9-yard sack, Thomas completed a 22-yard pass to Qua Searcy on fourth down to keep the drive alive. On third-and-10, Thomas found Ricky Jeune for a 26-yard gain. Four plays later, Dedrick Mills scored the winning 4-yard run.
“It would have been easy to hang your head on fourth-and 20,” Johnson said. “We kept fighting.”
Thomas said, “It felt like a movie. We kept our heads up high and we found a way to do it.”
There is a big upside for Mills: The freshman B-back from Ware County showed why Johnson has expressed such confidence in him by bouncing back from a costly fumble to eventually score the winning touchdown. Mills became the first true freshman to start a season opener since Tyler Melton in 2008 and rushed for 18 times for 68 yards in his debut.
“I don’t think Dedrick has fumbled the ball the whole (preseason) camp,” Johnson said.
That fumble in the third quarter stopped Georgia Tech’s momentum. But when it came time to call Mills’ number on the final drive, Johnson did not hesitate.
“We called two plays in the huddle,” Johnson said. “I wanted to get him the ball. I really think he’s going to be a good player, and he didn’t disappoint me. For a freshman, in the huddle, to say, ‘I’ll get it in,’ and he did. And it wasn’t like there wasn’t anybody (on defense) there. He got his pads down and got it in.”
The defense is moving in the right direction: Georgia Tech’s lack of success on offense allowed Boston College to keep the ball for nearly half the game — 29:42, compared to 30:18 for the Yellow Jackets. That meant the defense was on the field more than normal.
The defense made plays when it had to and caused three turnovers — an interception by Corey Griffin and a pair of fumbles. At the end of the game, the defense forced Boston College to go three-and-out, thus giving the Georgia Tech offense an opportunity to win the game.
“We got some turnovers in key spots,” Johnson said.
Linebacker P.J. Davis left the game early with a minor injury but came back to lead the team with 10 tackles. Kyle Cerge-Henderson and Anree Saint-Amour each recovered fumbles.
Special teams are improved: Harrison Butker kicked a 39-yard field goal under poor conditions and did not have a kickoff returned all game. Brad Stewart looked comfortable and competent as the punt returner, and J.J. Green acquitted himself well on kickoff returns. The Yellow Jackets blocked a field goal, with Pat Gamble getting a hand on the ball to knock it down.
“What goes unnoticed is at the end of the game, we were trying to decide whether to sky kick it,” Johnson said. “I asked Harrison if he could kick it out of the end zone, and he said he could.”
Butker did. His kickoff was too deep to be returned, and Georgia Tech took an opportunity away from the Eagles.
There is much room for improvement: Johnson subscribes to the theory that the most improvement is made between the first and second games of the season. As the coach who calls the plays and understands the offensive philosophy the most, he sees what needs to be done. Granted, the Boston College defense was stout, and wet field conditions might have played a role, but the Yellow Jackets struggled to get things right on offense.
“We did some hare-brained things, like forgetting to go in motion or guys blocking the wrong guys or missing a ton of reads on the option stuff,” Johnson said. “When you do that against a good team you get behind down-and-distance and it’s hard to come back.”
The Yellow Jackets have two non-conference games before they jump in against Clemson.