Dedrick Mills and the defense were a lethal combination for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets as they beat their third SEC team of the season and won their 25th bowl game in history on Saturday at EverBank Field.
Mills, a running back from nearby Waycross, Ga., who has had an eventful freshman season — on and off the field — gained 169 yards on 31 carries and seniors Patrick Gamble and P.J. Davis combined on a defensive touchdown on the game’s fourth play to lead the Yellow Jackets to a 33-18 victory over Kentucky in the 72nd TaxSlayer Bowl.
Mills gained the seventh-most rushing yards in a TaxSlayer Bowl and had the third-highest attempts. Both were also career highs as he led a 266-yard effort on the ground for Tech (9-4) and earned game Most Valuable Player honors.
Gamble, a tackle, sacked UK quarterback Stephen Johnson for a 10-yard loss, forcing a fumble that Davis, a linebacker, picked up and ran into the end zone from 38 yards to give the Jackets a lead they never relinquished. The defense went on to limit the Wildcats, who were 16th in the nation with 241.3 yards rushing per game, to only 149, and only four first downs in the first half as Tech built a 20-3 lead at the break.
The Tech defense had another key moment in the second quarter, when the Wildcats went for a first down on fourth-and-goal at the Jackets’ 5. Jojo Kemp was bottled up by a charge led by end Keshaun Freeman.
“I really thought that set us back early, with the scoop for a touchdown, getting behind,” said Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, who fumed with the Big 12 officials for much of the game and at one point engaged in a shouting match with Tech coach Paul Johnson on which neither would elaborate. “That’s very hard to overcome against Georgia Tech.”
Stoops said he the Wildcats (7-6), who had a vocal majority of the 43,102 that saw the game, played “soft.”
“He [Johnson] was under a lot of pressure,” Stoops said. “We had some shots. We didn’t protect well enough to get the ball down the field. They did a nice job. They played well … but I’d like to play a little better, be a little more stout, in particular on the D-line. Some of those yards I just felt like we could be more stern.”
Georgia Tech held Stanley Williams and Benny Snell, Kentucky’s two 1,000-yard rushers, to a combined 69 yards. After the game, Williams announced he was leaving UK to enter the NFL Draft.
The Wildcats fell behind 23-3 entering the fourth quarter before Johnson made a game of it by throwing a 20-yard touchdown pass to Dorian Baker, scoring on a 21-yard run with 3:57 remaining, then tossing a 2-point pass to C.J. Conrad to cut the lead to 26-18.
It appeared UK was going to get the ball back with time to make up the eight-point deficit. However, facing a third-and-four at his own 48, Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas smelled a cornerback blitz by Derrick Baity and lobbed a pass into the open area to wide receiver Ricky Jeune, who gained 42 yards to the Wildcats’ 10.
Mills took it from there, carrying three times in a row, the last from 3 yards out with 2:18 left to ice the game.
“I noticed the drive before they were firing the corner on [tailback] motion,” said Paul Johnson. “What we called was a stop route. I thought they might fire the corner, and they did. So there was nobody covering.”
It was left to Mills, who scored his team-high 12th touchdown, to mop up. He said he had more than five dozen family and friends in the stands who came down from Waycross, and clearly saved his best for last.
Mills’ performance capped a mercurial season in which he earned the starting job in the preseason and gained 68 yards and scored the winning touchdown with 35 seconds left in a 17-14 opening game victory over Boston College.
But he was suspended for the next game for violating team rules, then followed a 132-yard performance against North Carolina with another suspension, drawing a two-game penalty.
Mills bounced back to score a key fourth-quarter touchdown in the Jackets’ 28-27 victory over Georgia. All concerned believe the proper lessons have been learned.
“I certainly hope so,” Johnson said. “I think he can be a very special player. We’ve got to try to help him grow up. At that age, 18, we all didn’t make great decisions. It’s our job to help him make the right decisions because he’s got a bright future if he’ll continue to work hard.”
Mills said he was motivated to help seniors such as Thomas (6 of 14 for 105 yards passing and a 21-yard TD on the ground in the second quarter), Gamble and Davis go out winners — since they had tried to help him through the season.
“I learned a lot playing with these guys, the big boys,” Mills said. “So it kind of like motivated me going down the line to push harder because I know they ain’t going to be here. I got to go twice as hard than I did this season.”
Georgia Tech also got a stellar game from senior kicker Harrison Butker, who matched the TaxSlayer Bowl record with a career-high four field goals in his final college game. Butker became the Jackets’ all-time leading scorer with 323 points when he made the first conversion of the game, and he nailed a 52-yard field goal on the final play of the first half — a kick set up by Terrell Lewis’ blocked punt that was recovered by Jacksonville’s Victor Alexander.