TaxSlayer Bowl grades: Georgia Tech QB Justin Thomas shines as rusher

Highest-graded players and top takeaways from Georgia Tech's 33-18 TaxSlayer Bowl victory over Kentucky.

| 5 months ago
(Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

(Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

TaxSlayer Bowl grades: Georgia Tech QB Justin Thomas shines as rusher

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets 33, Kentucky Wildcats 18

Here are the highest-graded players and top takeaways from Georgia Tech’s TaxSlayer Bowl victory over Kentucky.

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Quarterback grade: Justin Thomas, 66.2

Thomas does his damage on the ground

This was a mixed display for Justin Thomas, which was reflected in his game grades—80.7 as a rusher, but 62.2 as a passer. Of course, in the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option offense, it’s his skill as a runner that generally matters most, and that was certainly true in this game, where he forced six missed tackles on only nine carries. It was a fine 21-yard rushing touchdown from Thomas late in the second quarter that gave Georgia Tech a 14-point cushion and forced the Wildcats to chase the game.


Top offensive grades:

C Freddie Burden, 81.4

RG Will Bryan, 81.0

LG Parker Braun, 77.5

LT Eason Fromayan, 74.8

HB Dedrick Mills, 73.5

Dominant offensive line key to success

As often happens with teams that aren’t used to facing a triple-option offense, the Wildcats struggled to deal with it. Georgia Tech’s aggressive cut-blocking and the success of their blocking at the second level ensured that the Yellow Jackets’ runners had solid running lanes to attack. It was no surprise to see that four of their top-five performers on offense were linemen; the other was RB Dedrick Mills, who had great success running behind them. Mills finished with 169 rushing yards on 31 carries, and averaged 3.1 yards after contact.

Top defensive grades:

S Corey Griffin, 85.6

S A.J. Gray, 82.6

DE Antonio Simmons, 80.8

DT Patrick Gamble, 79.8

DE KeShun Freeman, 77.6

All about pressure for Yellow Jackets

Against both the run and pass, the Yellow Jackets’ defense was consistently disruptive. 11 different Georgia Tech defenders posted run-defense grades in excess of 70.0—stopping the Wildcats’ ground attack was very much a team effort. Georgia Tech’s defense was even more effective against the pass, with three sacks, 25 total pressures, and putting Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson under pressure on 45.5 percent of his dropbacks. Those figures are somewhat inflated, because Kentucky was playing with a considerable deficit for much of the game, which allowed the Georgia Tech defensive line to sell out to get to the passer.

Kentucky Wildcats

Quarterback grade: Stephen Johnson, 61.5

Johnson’s early turnover set the tone for the game

Much like Justin Thomas, Stephen Johnson was at his most dangerous with his feet, earning a 75.5 grade as a rusher, compared to just 59.3 as a passer. However, where Thomas earned most of his rushing yards on designed runs, Johnson got his on passing plays, averaging 7.7 yards per scramble. Having a fumble returned for six points on the opening drive was an inauspicious start for Johnson, and the opening drive of the second quarter could also have ended in an interception, as cornerback Step Durham undercut the receiver’s route and got his hands on the ball, but couldn’t hold onto it.

Stephen Johnson vs pressure

Top offensive grades:

RG Jervontius Stallings, 78.5

LT Landon Young, 77.9

WR Dorian Baker, 69.0

WR Garrett Johnson, 68.0

HB Stanley Williams, 61.5

Playing from behind made Wildcats one-dimensional

Two late scores for Georgia Tech at the end of the first half forced the Wildcats to radically alter their approach to the game. In the first half, they ran the ball 24 times (21 of which were designed runs), to just eight pass attempts. Of the 36 plays they ran in the second, just four were intended as runs—the other 32 were drawn up as passes, and that predictability allowed the Georgia Tech pass-rushers to focus on getting after the quarterback.

Top defensive grades:

DT T.J. Carter, 80.0

CB Derrick Baity, 75.4

OLB Denzil Ware, 74.5

OLB Josh Allen, 67.4

CB J.D. Harmon, 66.4

Kentucky will rue missed opportunities on defense

The Wildcats’ inability to deal with the Georgia Tech ground attack allowed the Yellow Jackets to pull away, but the game could have followed a markedly different path if Kentucky had enjoyed a little more luck on defense. They missed two opportunities to pick off Justin Thomas in the first quarter. Firstly, when a holding penalty wiped out an interception (though without the hold, there wouldn’t have been a pick, so that’s a wash), and secondly, when T.J. Carter got his hands up and batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage, Carter had a shot at picking that one off. Georgia Tech also put the ball on the ground twice, and both times they were able to recover their own fumbles. On another day, the bounce of the ball may have been kinder for the Wildcats.

PFF’s player grading process includes multiple reviews, which may change the grade initially published in order to increase its accuracy. 

| Analyst

Kevin has been an analyst at Pro Football Focus since 2014, with a particular focus on college football.

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