“Five… four… three… two… one,” recited the 2014 Tech football team from the stage in the middle of Sun Life Stadium as the New Year was counted down.
Fireworks began to go off, and many Tech players proudly threw oranges into the crowd as the celebration in honor of winning the 2014 Capital One Orange Bowl commenced.
Tech beat the formerly ranked No. 1 Mississippi State Bulldogs 49-34 in front of thousands of ecstatic fans that made the trip to Miami to witness Tech’s biggest postseason bowl win in 24 years. The win was a validation of head coach Paul Johnson, his philosophy and the entire Tech football program.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our players, the program, the assistant coaches and everybody involved,” Johnson said. “It was quite a year, but the credit goes to these guys sitting up here. They’re the ones who did it.”
Sophomore quarterback Justin Thomas won Orange Bowl MVP with a dazzling performance. Thomas threw for 125 yards and a touchdown on 12 attempts, and he ran for 121 yards and three touchdowns on 14 carries. As a team, Tech’s offense ran for 452 yards and averaged 7.4 yards per rush.
After getting the ball on a very early interception by junior Chris Milton, Tech scored on their first possession in just four plays. The drive was topped off by senior B-back Synjyn Days’ three yard rushing TD, in which he plowed into the end zone to give Tech a 7-0 lead.
Upon scoring, Days celebrated by performing a majestic kick resembling King Leonidas’ kick in the beginning of the movie 300. Days had indeed kicked the door open for the Tech offense, and the cheers of Jacket fans drowned out the waning clangs of cowbells.
Two possessions later, Tech scored on a 41 yard pass from Thomas to senior wide receiver Darren Waller to give Tech a 14-0 lead late in the first quarter. Waller finished the game with 5 receptions for 114 yards and a touchdown, all occurring in the first half.
MSST proceeded to score 13 straight points while Tech’s offense temporarily hit a rough patch, but Tech answered back when Thomas ran in a 13 yard TD, diving for the pylon to make the score 21-13 with 30 seconds left in the half.
Miraculously, MSST scored on the last play of the first half. Prescott’s 42 yard Hail Mary pass was tipped into the hands of wide receiver Fred Ross to make the score 21-20 at halftime.
“After the Hail Mary happened, nobody was down,” junior safety Jamal Golden said. “If they don’t score again, they can’t beat us. So we just took that mentality into the second half, and tried to keep them out of the end zone and let our offense do their thing.”
Tech’s first drive of the second half set the tone for the rest of the game. Days trounced MSST defenders and scored on a 69 yard touchdown run, breaking four tackles.
The Jackets’ offense then took advantage of more stops by the Tech defense, and Thomas scored once again on a beautiful 32 yard dash, where he made the juke move of the century giving Tech a 35-20 lead.
Four plays later, MSST attempted to run the option themselves, but safety Jamal Golden blew up MSST running back Josh Robinson in the backfield to force a fumble. It was one of the hardest hits of the year for Tech and Golden did what he has done best this year: make plays.
Tech’s offense was now running like a well-oiled machine. Led by senior 1st team All-American offensive guard Shaq Mason, Tech’s offensive line was dominating MSST’s defensive line.
The rout was on as Thomas scored his third rushing TD to give Tech a 42-20 lead, and on the next Tech drive, Days scored his third TD of the game and the seventh and final TD for Tech that day. Days finished the game with 21 carries for 171 yards and 3 touchdowns.
“I have to give thanks to [the offensive line] and Coach Johnson, trusting me with the ball in my hands. Just blessed. Just really blessed for this opportunity,” Days said.
Senior B-back Zach Laskey had several big runs in the fourth quarter and passed 2000 yards for his career, becoming the 14th player in school history to do so.
“You couldn’t have written a better script,” Laskey said. “To beat all the teams I never beat my senior year, beat Georgia and come out and beat another Bulldog team from the SEC West is just awesome.”
With the ball and time running out, the players gave Coach Johnson a Gatorade bath to celebrate their 11th win of the year.
Tech president G.P. “Bud” Peterson was celebrating with the team outside the locker room as well and had high praise for Thomas, Coach Johnson and the entire program.
“It’s a great win for Georgia Tech. An 11 win season. I think the fifth one in school history,” Peterson said. “Justin is a great quarterback. He runs the option extremely well. He’s a sophomore, he’s got two more years. We’re excited. He’s a terrific young man. Glad he’s had such a successful year and looking forward to having him back next year.”
Thomas and his teammates proved that great players win games no matter what the offensive scheme is.
This season was arguably Johnson’s best during his tenure as head coach and possibly the best at Tech since 1990.
The offense led by Thomas is one of the best and most efficient in NCAA history, but will not get the recognition it deserves due to national perception and Tech’s lack of preseason hype.
“On our goal board now it says ‘Win the Orange Bowl,’ and to see all that unfold and come true, it’s amazing,” Mason said.
Mission accomplished. Eleven months after setting that goal, it’s January, 2015, and the Tech football team ended their season just as they hoped and knew they would.