Fans who gave up on Tech football after an embarrassing loss to UNC would be pleasantly surprised by recent events.
The team finished up their season in spectacular fashion. A win between the hedges and a convincing victory in a bowl game helped cap a bounce-back season for the Jackets. Improving their win total by six this season, 2016 will be considered a success.
This season was marked by explosive plays in key situations by special players on the offense, defense and special teams. This theme was very evident in Jackets’ final two games.
Tech sought revenge for last year’s home loss to UGA, and at Sanford, they got just that.
Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate began with scoring back and forth on both sides. After the first half, the two teams stood even at 14 points apiece. Tech stuck to its blueprint early on, delivering big plays on offense from Clinton Lynch and Brad Stewart.
On their two touchdown drives, Tech averaged 21.14 yards per play. However, this game will be remembered for how the Jackets responded to tremendous adversity late in the contest.
Facing a deficit of 13 points with just under 12 minutes remaining, Tech stepped up and delivered in the clutch. The defense forced a punt and a Lance Austin interception on Georgia’s next two offensive possessions. On offense, timely plays by Justin Thomas, Clinton Lynch, Marcus Marshall and Dedrick Mills helped to set up a third-down-and-goal situation at the UGA six-yard line with just 30 seconds remaining.
In the defining moment of this game, Qua Searcy took the pitch from Justin Thomas and was faced with a decision. The play called for a throwback to Thomas in the flat, but the Bulldogs had it covered all the way. Searcy made a gutsy call and chose to take his chances with a small seam in the middle of the field. Airborne at the three-yard line, Searcy ping-ponged his way into the end zone, helping Tech tie up the game. The go-ahead extra point by Harrison Butker and subsequent interception by Lance Austin secured the Jackets second straight win in Athens. Tech fans will not soon forget the 109th edition of this rivalry.
Tech’s win only served to help the team come bowl selection time. The Jackets were matched up with an overachieving Kentucky team fresh off beating Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and the Louisville Cardinals.
The TaxSlayer Bowl was a significant win for all the players involved, particularly the young and the old. Freshman running back Dedrick Mills proved he is ready to take on a bigger workload going forward. He shined with 169 rushing yards on 31 carries to go with one touchdown.
The veteran players made their impact on the game as well. Senior linebacker P.J. Davis set the tone early on with a scoop-and-score fumble recovery touchdown, putting the Jackets up 7-0. Senior Patrick Gamble also spent a significant portion of his day in the Wildcat’s backfield, recording 7 total tackles, 5 solo tackles, 2 tackles for loss and 2 sacks.
Senior kicker Harrison Butker had a banner day as well, successfully converting four field goals, a single-game personal best for him and a fitting end to his career in white and gold.
Tech moved to 3-0 against SEC opponents on the year, a testament to their ability to compete at a high level against teams from another of the Power Five conferences. As Tech reflects on and celebrates the immense contributions from their senior class this year, it is heartening to know that talented players are well on their way to filling their roles to the best of their abilities.
Not enough can be said about the Tech graduating class, which played a part in such highs as the 2014 Orange Bowl and dealt with the adversity that came with the 2015 3-9 season.
This year, it is particularly difficult given the number of departing players who each played integral roles on the team.
Running backs Marcus Allen, Lynn Griffin, Austin McClellan and Isiah Willis all did their part in keeping the chains moving when called upon. Offensive linemen Freddie Burden and Michael Muns helped clear the way for these playmakers. Linebackers Chase Alford and P.J. Davis and defensive lineman Rod Rook-Chungong, Patrick Gamble and Francis Kallon played important roles on a physical defense. Placekicker Harrison Butker and punter Ryan Rodwell teamed together to deliver clutch field goals and precision punts to optimally flip field position.
The TaxSlayer Bowl also marked the last time Justin Thomas would play for the Jackets. His electric running style and capable arm often combined to mask deficiencies and stun opponents. An undersized passer, his NFL future is uncertain. His Tech legacy is set in stone.
Thus is life in college football. Every four years, a program experiences nearly complete turnover, and Tech is no exception. With stalwarts such as Lynch and Mills proving their worth going forward, not to mention a coaching staff that has provided a steady hand for seasons, there is much to anticipate in the coming era of Tech football.