Four Downs: Georgia Tech makes statement with Orange Bowl win

Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas finished with four total touchdowns and earned Orange Bowl MVP honors. 

No. 10 Georgia Tech (11-3) capped off arguably its best season under head coach Paul Johnson (even though it didn’t win the ACC this time around) by thumping No. 8 Mississippi State (10-3) by a final score of 49-34. Mississippi State is still an emerging SEC program that spent time at No. 1 throughout the year, and the Bulldogs will be just fine. But this was a statement game for the Yellow Jackets, a program that is perennially doubted, and boy did they make it.

ANY NARRATIVE ABOUT GEORGIA TECH’S OFFENSE UNDER PAUL JOHNSON WENT OUT THE WINDOW

Extra time to prepare for Mississippi State’s defense? Check. Physical, athletic defense on the opposite side? Check. SEC opponent? Check. And yet Georgia Tech just ran roughshod all over the Bulldogs, finishing with 577 yards and a ridiculous 7.9 yards per play. The option offense totaled 452 yards on the ground alone (7.4 per rush).

It’s boring, supposedly. Well there was nothing boring about watching A-back Synjyn Days beat the defense downfield for a 69-yard touchdown, or about watching quarterback Justin Thomas orchestrate the offense masterfully while the Georgia Tech offensive line — the best Johnson has had in his tenure — flattened anything and anyone in their way.

Johnson has always said two things about his offense — one, that it works (and, I mean, yes), and two, that teams that stop it are generally physically better than his team, up front particularly.

This year, with that line, that hasn’t been the case. Any problems Georgia Tech has had in games have been largely defense-related. This offense has been dynamic, at times explosive and yes — even exciting.

It’s time to recognize and admit that this offense not only works on the biggest possible stages, but it works well and — like almost any other scheme — the better the players are running, the better it works. No scheme is magic, and this one isn’t either. But if you can’t find beauty in watching this offense at its most crisp, at its most efficient, then you’re missing out.

Mississippi State had allowed 529 yards rushing in its previous four games combined and entered the game as the No. 25 rush defense in the country. It was the third top-25 rushing defense the Yellow Jackets faced, and they averaged at least 4.3 per rush against all three, including 5.02 against Clemson’s dominant defense and then 7.7 against the Bulldogs.

Seems like that works pretty darned well.

Maybe this year, the Yellow Jackets will get more than one vote in the preseason to win the Coastal Division.

LIKE THE ALABAMA GAME, THE MISSISSIPPI STATE OFFENSE GOT GOING ONLY WHEN IT WAS TOO LATE

Against a team like Georgia Tech, there’s not much of a margin for error. You’re not going to get a ton of possessions, and the ones you do get, you have to make count.

At the end of the game, Mississippi State had 12 offensive possessions. On their first four, they punted once, turned it over once, turned it over on downs once and threw an interception.

That’s a third of their offensive possessions, wasted, and they were already down 14-0 before that field goal on their fourth possession of the game. They would score have just one touchdown drive in the first half in their first six drives, and their second touchdown of the first half was a Hail Mary.

Mississippi State averaged 3.96 per play on its first 27 plays of the game on those first four drives, and that shot up to 8.74 per play in its final 57 plays. But by then, the mountain was too tall to climb.

Mississippi State has had one of the best offenses in the country all year, but Georgia Tech just gives you no margin for error with their high-powered offense. Georgia Tech had 12 possessions and scored touchdowns on seven of them. One exception to that rule was the end-of-second-half possession where they ran the clock out.

WHEN YOU HAVE A GREAT QUARTERBACK, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE

And that’s why there’s plenty of reason for optimism for both programs moving forward. Prescott was a Heisman contender until the last few weeks of the season, and he was spectacular even in this game at times, finishing 33-of-51 passing for 453 yards (three touchdown and one interception), adding 47 yards and a touchdown on the ground.

Prescott was often called on to do it all, and often, he delivered.

His counterpart on the other sideline wasn’t much different in Justin Thomas. The latter went over 1,000 yards rushing on the season in the game (Thomas finished with 1,086; Prescott got to 986). Thomas is the epitome of a dual-threat quarterback as well, even though he’s not asked to throw as much as Prescott and had more help in the running game (Prescott threw it over 200 more times than Thomas this season but also ran it 20 more times).

The point is, of course, that with both quarterbacks returning for their senior seasons, it ensures that both teams have a chance to be right back where they were this year — contending for their respective Division crowns (or winning them, in the case of Georgia Tech).

Prescott finished this year responsible for 41 touchdowns (27 passing, 14 rushing), while Thomas finished with 26 touchdowns total (18 passing, eight rushing) and helped add a dimension to Georgia Tech’s offense that it arguably hasn’t had — an accurate, dangerous passer.

With a year to keep improving, both are going to be scary good next year and will be among the best offensive players in the nation.

GEORGIA TECH’S DEFENSE WAS ABLE TO DO JUST ENOUGH, AND IT’S ONLY GOING TO IMPROVE AFTER THIS YEAR

The Yellow Jackets’ defense has had talented pieces in the last few years, but it hasn’t been able to turn into a unit that’s anything beyond mediocre.

The offense was good enough this year, though, that it didn’t even have to be mediocre — it just had to be good enough. At times, the defense was even better, particularly when it comes to turnovers.

Georgia Tech was minus-4 on turnovers in its three losses this year and plus-15 in its 11 wins, and the Yellow Jackets showed a real propensity to turn those turnovers into points. They did that again in this game, turning Mississippi State’s two turnovers into 14.

And this is only going to continue to improve. It’s going to lose some key pieces, like Adam Gotsis and Quayshawn Nealy, but some talented pieces return and will be experienced. Defensive ends KeShun Freeman and Roderick Rook-Chungong are a freshman and sophomore, respectively (the latter had three tackles and a sack, while Freeman had three tackles and a quarterback hurry).

Freshman defensive back Step Durham did a serviceable job filling in for some injured Yellow Jackets against a very good offense, while sophomore linebacker Paul Davis led the team in tackles. Defensive backs Jamal Golden, Chris Milton and D.J. White will all be seniors next year.

The defense struggled plenty, but there’s reason to think it will turn around, too. And that makes Georgia Tech even more difficult to deal with.