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Jackets tell the story of eight game-winning plays

Georgia Tech defensive back Lance Austin (center) intercepts Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason during the fourth quarter setting up the game-winning drive for a 28-27 victory against Georgia on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, in Athens. Tech defenders Lawrence Austin (left) and Brandon Adams celebrate on the play. Curtis Compton/
Georgia Tech defensive back Lance Austin (center) intercepts Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason during the fourth quarter setting up the game-winning drive for a 28-27 victory against Georgia on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, in Athens. Tech defenders Lawrence Austin (left) and Brandon Adams celebrate on the play. Curtis Compton/

A year after a season in which so many things went wrong, Georgia Tech is at the end of a season in which the Yellow Jackets repeatedly showed a playmaking knack. Tech is in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Saturday with an 8-4 record, each win the result of players incrementally pushing the team to victory. Over the course of a season, there are hundreds of plays that make a difference, but here are eight of the most critical, one from each Tech win.

Sept. 3: Georgia Tech 17, Boston College 14

Trailing 14-10, Tech was down to its last breath, a fourth-and-19 play on its 32-yard line with 2:45 to play. Coach Paul Johnson called a “four verticals” pass play, with both receivers and A-backs sprinting downfield. Before the play, quarterback Justin Thomas told A-back Qua Searcy to stay alive and get to the first-down marker, recalling that he came open when the Jackets ran the same play earlier in the game. Thomas dropped into his pocket and fired a 22-yard strike to Searcy for the first down. Tech went on to score the game-winner with 35 seconds remaining, B-back Dedrick Mills’ 4-yard burst into the end zone.

“Once that happened, they were kind of deflated,” Thomas said of the Eagles. “You could tell.”

Sept. 10: Georgia Tech 35, Mercer 10

After a Mercer third-quarter field goal closed Tech’s lead to 21-10, the Jackets faced a fourth-and-1 at their 31-yard line and were in danger of surrendering momentum to Mercer. However, Tech caught the Bears with a successful fake punt. Chase Alford took Casey Wilson’s snap and, hurdling over teammate Mikell Lands-Davis, ran 21 yards for a first down. The Jackets went on to score a touchdown and were never threatened again.

“We had practiced it over and over during the week and all season and it was there,” linebacker Chase Alford said, “so we called it and ran it, and had some great blocks from Mikell and Brant (Mitchell) and the whole punt team, so we were able to get the first down, so we did the job.”

Sept. 17: Georgia Tech 38, Vanderbilt 7

On Tech’s first play from scrimmage, B-back Marcus Marshall ran a wheel route out of the backfield and, after a fake toss from Thomas, was wide open for an 81-yard touchdown reception. It was the third time in Johnson’s 10 seasons that Tech ran that play on the first play of the game for a touchdown, the other two instances against Middle Tennessee State in 2011 and Virginia in 2012.

The play call was based on Johnson’s educated guess as to how Vanderbilt would line up and how the Commodores would respond to the fake.

Asked how sure he was that it would produce a score, Johnson replied, “As sure as you can ever be. I mean, you’re never sure, you just kind of watch the tape and try to figure out what you want to do and go with it.”

Oct. 15: Georgia Tech 35, Georgia Southern 24

Ahead 7-0 in the first quarter, Thomas went with a pass play that anticipated a particular defensive look from the Eagles. With 10 players lined up within three yards of the line of scrimmage, A-back Clinton Lynch was untouched coming off the line and had no defender within five yards of him when he caught Thomas’ pass. He easily scored a 65-yard touchdown pass to send the Jackets to victory, one of his six touchdowns this season that covered 40 yards or more.

“There’s so many times where, because of the nature of what we do on offense, people are running wide open for passes,” A-backs coach Lamar Owens said. “We practice a good bit of just throwing the ball and catching it when you’re by yourself because there’s times in a game where it’s going to look like that, and you can’t choke. You just have to do it like it’s a normal deal.”

Oct. 29: Georgia Tech 38, Duke 35

Down 21-7 in the second quarter, Duke sprang running back Shaun Wilson from the Blue Devils’ 40-yard line down the east sideline. Wilson appeared headed for a touchdown, but was chased down by safety A.J. Gray, who stripped Wilson at the Tech 3-yard line, with cornerback Step Durham recovering. Gray had essentially a flat start to chase down Wilson as he ran top speed through the Tech secondary. The play proved crucial when Tech needed a fourth-quarter touchdown drive to win it.

“We had a few missed fits, and he broke, and (I) just kept running,” Gray said. “I thought I had a chance at it and didn’t give up.”

Nov. 12: Georgia Tech 30, No. 14 Virginia Tech 20

With Thomas out with an injury, quarterback Matthew Jordan made his first career start one to remember. Ahead 6-0 after two Harrison Butker field goals, Jordan dashed 53 yards for a touchdown and a 13-0 lead to put the Hokies in a hole. With effective play-side blocks from tackle Eason Fromayan, guard Shamire Devine, center Kenny Cooper and A-back Isiah Willis, Jordan followed Marshall through the hole and scored untouched.

Said Jordan, “I was like, All right, we can definitely win this game.”

Nov. 19: Georgia Tech 31, Virginia 17

With the score 24-17 in Tech’s favor in the fourth quarter, cornerback Lance Austin nailed down the Jackets’ seventh win by intercepting a tipped pass and returning it 24 yards for the touchdown. Austin evaded no fewer than five would-be Cavaliers tacklers on his way to the end zone, the final yards cleared by his twin brother Lawrence’s cut block.

“He was in a good position, (had) good zone eyes and picked the ball off, and I thought he was close to being down when he changed direction,” cornerbacks coach Joe Speed said. “But our guys have been doing an excellent job of transition defense, and once the ball’s picked off, you can look at the film and see how many guys who want to help get him to the end zone, same with Corey (Griffin) when he got his interception. There’s guys trying to direct traffic to try to get him in the end zone. It’s a very selfless defense.”

Nov. 26: Georgia Tech 28, Georgia 27

Austin struck again with a late-game interception off a tipped pass. This time, the stakes were even higher, as the Bulldogs were trying to run out the clock with a 27-21 lead. Quarterback Jacob Eason’s pass to wide receiver Terry Godwin was tipped up in the air, where Austin latched on at the Georgia 46 with 3:39. Tech fans (and Georgia fans, too) know the rest. Austin was named ACC defensive back of the week for the second week in a row for his efforts.

“It happened real quick,” Austin said. “I remember I was in zone coverage and I saw Godwin come out and the ball was tipped and I just dove and caught the ball. It just went blank after that.”