When the 2014 season began, nobody had heard of Justin Thomas and nobody was picking Georgia Tech to win the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division.
The Yellow Jackets rode that chip on their shoulder — and their 5-11, 189-pound sophomore quarterback — to a lot more.
Led by Thomas’ four-touchdown, MVP performance, the 10th-ranked Ramblin’ Wreck completed an 11-win season for just the fifth time in the school’s 113-year history with a dominating 49-34 victory over eighth-ranked Mississippi State in the 81st Capital One Orange Bowl.
“We talked about it at halftime, that if we scored every time we couldn’t lose because we were ahead,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “Like we say, team wins. These guys care about each other; they love each other.”
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A crowd of 58,211 saw the teams combine for an Orange Bowl-record 1,182 yards — shattering the previous mark set by Clemson and West Virginia in 2012 (1,032 yards).
Georgia Tech (11-3) rolled up 577 yards, including 452 on the ground, to win their first Orange Bowl game since 1952. Mississippi State (10-3) had more yards — 605 — including 453 yards through the air behind star quarterback Dak Prescott, who threw for three scores and ran for another.
After the game was over and the New Year approached, a 10-second countdown was performed for the fans that remained in attendance. Fireworks shot off when the clock struck midnight.
The truth was the fireworks were firing all night long. Thomas and senior running back Synjyn Days (171 yards rushing, 3 TDs) stole the show after halftime.
After Prescott ended the first half with a Hail Mary touchdown pass to Fred Ross to trim the Yellow Jackets’ lead to 21-20, Days got the momentum right back. He opened the second half with a 69-yard touchdown run on the second play from scrimmage.
The Wreck took over from there.
Thomas, who finished with 121 yards rushing, left Bulldogs defenders in the dust on a 32-yard touchdown run with 7:58 left in the quarter. He faked out cornerback Will Redmond so badly on the option fake it drew oohs from the crowd.
The oohs kept coming.
On Mississippi State’s ensuing possession safety Jamal Golden crushed MSU running back Josh Robinson on the option pitch, and teammate Rod Rook-Chungong recovered at the Tech 48. Six plays after that, Thomas was in the end zone again on a 15-yard dash.
MSU never got closer than 15 points.
A shotgun-spread-offense passer in high school who threw it 70 percent of the time, Thomas was a backup to Vad Lee last season and didn’t take over the starting job until Lee transferred to James Madison following the 2013 season. His teammates nicknamed Thomas “Smooth” for the way he carried the offense.
He was all that and more Wednesday while running Johnson’s triple-option offense.
“The guys around me did their part today and made my job a lot easier,” a humble Thomas said as he was presented the MVP trophy. “We came out and set the goals high this year. And we met them.”
Georgia Tech jumped on MSU early and owned the first quarter.
On the third play from scrimmage, cornerback Chris Milton came up with the Ramblin’ Wreck’s 28th turnover of the season when he made a diving interception on a deflected pass at the Mississippi State 36-yard line. Four plays later, Days plunged into the end zone from 3 yards out.
Georgia Tech’s lead doubled to 14-0 later in the quarter when Thomas capped a nine-play, 88-yard drive with a 41-yard touchdown strike to Darren Waller.
Things might have gotten worse for the Bulldogs, but they caught a huge break. On the first play from scrimmage after Thomas’ touchdown pass to Waller, Robinson was stripped of the ball at the line of scrimmage and Tech recovered. But officials ruled the play was over because Robinson’s progress had been stopped. Replays appeared to show otherwise.
Prescott had a rough first quarter. After the pick, he threw behind an open receiver on fourth down at the Georgia Tech 32 to kill a drive and then overthrew an uncovered receiver streaking down the middle of the field on the next drive, which ended with a punt.
But the Maxwell Award finalist picked it up in the second quarter. Prescott engineered a pair of 60-yard drives that ended in 32- and 30-yard field goals and scored on a 5-yard touchdown run.
Then, Prescott ended the half with his Hail Mary touchdown pass to Ross, finishing 17 of 27 for 215 yards passing and a pair of touchdowns at the half.
Still, it was Georgia Tech’s night.
“You could tell we’re great,” Georgia Tech linebacker Quayshawn Nealy said. “You could see that score up there. This game put a stamp on it. We belong. We’re relevant.”