No. 12 Georgia Tech roughs up No. 7 Mississippi State in Orange Bowl
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Georgia Tech players hopped happily, hugged each other and danced in place. The clock had just struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, so they had two things to celebrate.
Minutes earlier, the Yellow Jackets had completed a 49-34 victory over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.
Quarterback Justin Thomas was chosen the game’s outstanding player Wednesday night after he directed an offense that totaled an Orange Bowl-record 452 yards rushing. He ran for 121 yards and three touchdowns, and threw for 125 yards and a score.
Synjyn Days ran for 171 yards and three scores, including a 69-yarder that defused Mississippi State’s comeback bid.
No. 12 Georgia Tech (11-3) earned its first Orange Bowl victory in 63 years. The Yellow Jackets improved to 2-8 in bowl games in the past 10 seasons.
"Our program took a step forward this year," Thomas said, "and we’re planning to keep striving to put Georgia Tech’s name on the top of the list."
The victory was especially sweet for an Atlantic Coast Conference team located in the heart of Southeastern Conference country.
"For a week or so we won’t have to hear about the SEC," Tech coach Paul Johnson said.
No. 7 Mississippi State (10-3) lost three of its final four games after being ranked No. 1 for five consecutive weeks.
Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott threw for 453 yards, an Orange Bowl record and a career high. Mississippi State outgained Georgia Tech 605-577, and the two-team total was an Orange Bowl record.
But the Bulldogs twice lost the ball on downs in the second half, and two onside kick attempts failed.
"We missed some big opportunities," coach Dan Mullen said. "We just didn’t score enough points."
Mississippi State scored on a 42-yard Hail Mary on the final play of the first half to trail 21-20, but the Yellow Jackets were unfazed, bouncing back with touchdowns on their first four possessions of the second half to lead 42-20.
"We talked about it at halftime — if we scored every time in the second half, we couldn’t lose, because we were ahead," Johnson said.
Georgia Tech’s triple option attack had uncharacteristic balance in the first half, when Thomas threw 10 times for 125 yards. Senior Darren Waller had a career-high 114 yards on five catches, including a 41-yard score.
The nation’s second-ranked rushing offense revved it up in the third quarter, when the Yellow Jackets pulled away by gaining 208 yards, all on the ground.
"That’s our game, no matter who we play," Thomas said. "That’s what we’re going to do."
The 75,000-seat stadium was a third empty at the start and two-thirds empty with 10 minutes left. But fans made plenty of noise, especially Tech rooters.
After Georgia Tech scored a touchdown to take a 21-20 lead with 29 seconds left in the first half, the Bulldogs started at their own 28. Four plays advanced the ball to the Yellow Jackets 42 with 5 seconds left, and after a timeout, Prescott heaved a pass into the end zone. Two defenders and Mississippi State’s Joe Morrow got their hands on the ball, and it deflected to Fred Ross, who made a diving scoop for the improbable score.
"I was just in the right spot," Ross said.
The Yellow Jackets responded by shifting their ground game into high gear. First, Days found a big hole on a dive play and broke two tackles en route to the end zone.
"It was a big spark," Thomas said. "We got that touchdown and never looked back."
Thomas then scored on a 32-yard keeper, juking past a defender in the backfield to break into the clear and make it 35-20. And after Jamal Golden forced a fumble at midfield, Thomas scored again on a 15-yard run.
"He made some great throws," Mullen said. "What made him dangerous is extending the plays. He made some great open field runs and made people miss."